Bonnie Raitt: Thank God for Occupy

Salon exclusive: The music legend praises Occupy, and discusses her activist history and that amazing Adele cover

By Stephen Deusner

Published March 31, 2012 7:00PM (EDT)

Bonnie Raitt      (Matt Mindlin)
Bonnie Raitt (Matt Mindlin)

Without even releasing any new music, Bonnie Raitt has a surprisingly big year in 2011. Her 1991 hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me” enjoyed a spike in popularity, as two of the biggest names in music recorded much-discussed covers. Adele included a powerful version on her concert album “Live at Royal Albert Hall,” drawing a straight line between the 20-year-old song and her own stoically dignified breakup songs on “21.”

Justin Vernon included a nearly a cappella cover as a B-side to “Calgary,” gently mashing it up with Raitt’s “Nick of Time.” The choice proved provocative and divisive among fans, almost as though he had consciously picked the most unlikely source material imaginable. But his enthusiasm seemed genuine: “She’s one of our greatest ones, for sure,” he told Jimmy Fallon just before he performed “I Can’t Make You Love Me” on “Late Night.”

Rightly or wrongly, Raitt has become mired in AOR, representing exactly the type of music that punk, indie rock and other left-of-the-dial genres were meant to displace. It’s been too easy for a new generation to overlook or simply dismiss Raitt as music for their parents. Adele, for instance, was a tween the last time Raitt released a new album. But those two covers, along with a recent duet with Alicia Keys at the Grammys, has prompted a reconsideration of Raitt as a vocal interpreter and guitar player.

Her early albums, recorded in the early 1970s, reveal an omnivorous musician who makes no distinctions between styles and genres, whether it’s reggae, country, blues, West Coast rock or East Coast folk. She has covered songs by, among many others, Fred McDowell, John Prine, Chris Smither and Randy Newman (check out her incredible version of his song “Guilty”), and her version of the reggae hit “Wah She Go Do” was anthologized on Van Dyke Parks’ excellent “Arrangements Vol. 1” last year. During her comeback in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she focused almost entirely on her vocals, occasionally to the neglect of her impressive slide guitar work. But she has always had a good ear for a good tune, and her voice communicates tenderheartedness with effortless grace. Her version of “I Can’t Make You Love” still sounds wounded in its understatement, and if Raitt is truly informing a new generation of singers, her influence can only be beneficial, especially after so many years of tacky vocal pyrotechnics.

Following that surge of renewed interest, Raitt is releasing “Slipstream,” the 16th album of her 40-plus-year career, on April 10 through her own label, Redwing Records. Most of the album was recorded with her long-time band, but four of the new songs were produced by Joe Henry and feature his crack backing band. Those sessions, which produced two excellent Dylan covers, suggest all new directions for Raitt, who says she hopes to work with Henry again on a future album. Especially considering the tragedies she’s faced in the last decade, “Slipstream” is the liveliest she’s sounded in years, her voice seemingly ageless and her guitarwork as inventive as ever.

This is your first album in seven years. Was there a moment or an event that prompted you to get back to recording?

I made “Souls Alike” in 2005, and we did our customary two-year tour promoting that. Then my brother developed another brain tumor, and I took some time off to be with him and to nurse him. Unfortunately he lost his battle, as did one of my best friends. So I was pretty devastated. And my good friend Stephen Bruton passed away as well, also after long and very stressful illnesses. I knew I wanted to take a break, and I finally got the chance to spend a whole year at home and take care of a bunch of things that had been neglected. I learned to grieve and process a bunch of emotions that had been pushed away when I was so busy. By the time 2011 came along, I was going to see Jackson Browne and David Lindley and a bunch of different shows by friends of mine. And I got that itch again — which is exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to wait until I really felt like I missed it. At that point I called some friends of mine to see if they wanted to collaborate. One of them was thinking of calling me, and that was Joe Henry. We worked together for a couple of days, with Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz and the people that Joe works with a lot. We went into his home studio to see how we would do on two or three songs, and we ended up doing eight. After that, I decided to book my guys and keep looking in earnest to find more songs and we finally got into the studio last summer.

How did those tragedies — the deaths of Bruton and your brother — color “Slipstream”?

I’m 62, and this is the time of life when your parents are quite elderly and a lot of them are passing. I’m not alone in having suffered a great deal of loss. By having the luxury of taking time away from work to really process all of that and take care of my home life, which a lot of us on the road don’t really get to do, I didn’t really have an agenda for making an album. By the time I got into the studio, that loss wasn’t something I was using as an inspiration for the record. It was more about the benefit of taking time off, which helps you re-energize when you go back in. When you have the luxury of waiting until you really want to go in, then you really are more refreshed and inspired.

These songs were mostly written by songwriters of your own generation. What do you look for in a song? How do you know when you can make it your own?

Sometimes I don’t go into the studio for quite a while because I haven’t found enough good songs. They have to have a certain caliber and connect with me because I’m going to be playing them for the rest of my life. I start off with a circle of friends whose songs I love anyway. Mostly they’re a group who were influenced by the same people who influenced me. I guess I don’t really think of their age. I just look for something that knocks me out. The impetus for finding these songs is to have a different feel or a groove that I’ve been missing in my live shows. If I don’t find enough of what I want to play, I don’t feel like I have to write something. I’m not that motivated ego-wise to have my own expressions of what’s going on in my life — unlike some other people who do use their lives as inspiration. I didn’t really want to dwell on the sadness or the loss. Maybe in the future I’ll write something that’s a tribute to the people I lost, but basically I was reaffirming the joy of singing great songs. I can’t wait to get on the road and play them.

Were you surprised when Adele and Justin Vernon both covered “I Can’t Make You Love Me” last year?

I think it did surprise me. I know after I had the hit, Prince and George Michael covered it, and I think Nancy Wilson did a version. I had the great thrill of having Aretha sing it to me at a concert. Ten or 15 years ago, I was visiting my brother in Minneapolis and went to see her live show for the first time. I didn’t even know she knew I was in the audience, but she said she had a special dedication and sang it to me. It just floored me. I had not been aware of anyone covering it again, except maybe the “American Idol” people would email to say someone did something with “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About” or “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” But I was really happy to hear Adele sing it. I admire her a tremendous amount. And I love Bon Iver’s music, and I was very surprised that he liked what I do as well. I didn’t write that song, but certainly one of my big gifts was to be given “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by the two songwriters [Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin]. I’m sure they’re thrilled to be getting this attention as well.

What’s your relationship with your older material like? Do you still do songs from “Give It Up” and “Takin’ My Time”?

There are certain songs from then like the Fred McDowell medley “Write Me a Few of Your Lines/Kokomo Blues,” and “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy,” that Mose Allison song. And “Angel from Montgomery” of course, from “Streetlights,” the fourth album. There are certain ones that have stayed with me, that I have a really soft spot in my heart for, and there’s a lot of them that I don’t know what they’d sound like if we resurrected them. When you get 18 or 19 albums, you run out of stage time to put them all in there.

Those early albums are very stylistically adventurous, as is the new one. Are you thinking about genre when you’re arranging or recording songs?

Not really. I think that’s just what my style is. I’m never self-conscious about it. People ask, Why don’t you do a blues album? And I say, Because I would be so bored. I’m aware of not duplicating anything thematically or musically — I wouldn’t want to repeat myself. I just try to get to all the different styles that I love so that when I go on the road, I can pick from those. That “Down to You” song has a Stones feel that I love, and “Right Down the Line”… I knew the minute I heard it a few years ago that I wanted to cut it in that style.

You’re pretty well known for your social and political activism. What is an artist’s responsibility in that regard?

I think we have responsibilities to be active in the things we believe in, regardless of what our job is. At least in my lifetime, there has been a tremendous combining of activism and music, that came up in the era of Pete Seeger and the Weavers and Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Peter Paul & Mary. That was the music I cut my folk roots on — at 1o or 11, I would sit in my room and learn those songs. Being Quaker, my folks were involved in the peace movement and the civil rights movement. That was a very fertile time for music and politics, so by the time I was playing in clubs, it was just natural for me to play for a women’s health clinic or for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and that has dovetailed into most of the other causes that I’m involved in, whether it’s safe energy or no nukes. The whole idea of the election year being an auction instead of an election is just so abhorrent to me. Thank God for Occupy and thank God for “The Daily Show,” Colbert and the rising up that’s going on around the world. I salute all the people who are finally pissed off enough to get out in the street.

Is “Used to Rule the World,” the opener on “Slipstream,” meant to comment on Occupy?

I liked the song before the Occupy movement was happening. Randall Bramblett wrote the song, and he’s been doing it for years. It’s not just about America; it’s about how everybody gets a reckoning in their lives. When you’re in your 20s, you think you’ve got it made, but by the time you’re in your 40s or 50s, you realize there was more to it than you thought. But also, we just have to take a look at the hubris and arrogance that makes us think we’re the quote-unquote First World, that we have a right to go on a rampage and have more than what we need and ignore the rest of the world. That’s broad strokes. I don’t mean to be so reductionist, and certainly the song has resonance on a lot of different levels. A lot of political music to me can be rather pedantic and corny, and when it's done right — like Bruce Springsteen or Jackson Browne or great satire from Randy Newman, there’s nothing better.

Stephen Deusner

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