Interview: Bonnie Raitt talks new album, 'Slipstream' and her biggest fan, Dave Grohl
Adele, Bon Iver, Kelly Clarkson and several “American Idol” contestants have all shown their love for Bonnie Raitt by covering songs the singer/guitarist made famous lately. But no one has expressed his or her devotion quite as ardently as The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl.
At the MusiCares charity dinner this February, the rocker bolted from an interview on the red carpet to introduce himself to Raitt, who was on his “bucket list.”
“I think he was surprised to hear I liked him as I was surprised to hear [he] liked me,” Raitt says with a laugh. “I was just very pleasantly surprised” to hear he was a fan. Currently, the pair have no plans to work together, but Raitt adds, “I’ll have to put that in my hat of things to go down the line because I was thrilled” Grohl approached her.
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On April 10, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member releases “Slipstream,” her first new studio album in seven years. She produced most of the tracks herself, but Joe Henry, best known for his work with Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, and Carolina Chocolate Drops, helmed four songs that helped get Raitt back into the groove of recording after the long absence.
“I was thinking about doing the record in three different parts, in New Orleans, and maybe working with Joe Henry,” she says. “Coincidentally, Joe was hearing from Mose Allison and Allen Toussaint when he just worked with them— they’re good friends of mine —and they said you should really work with Bonnie. So it was synchronicity that I came out of it with the idea of starting with Joe and he was thinking the same thing. It was really meant to be and that whet my appetite for getting back in the studio.”
Raitt’s recording hiatus came as she dealt with the deaths of both her parents, her brother, and one of her best friends. At some point, she realized she had to unplug: “I knew I wasn’t any good to anybody if I didn’t take a break.” She went to hear music for sheer enjoyment’s sake, instead of going to sit in, and she listened to music without thinking about whether they were songs she might want to eventually record, as she has done for her past albums. And sure enough, she got the “itch” to record and play again.
When it did come time to select songs for “Slipstream,” she turned to some of her favorite authors: there are two Bob Dylan songs on the album, as well as tracks from Irish singer/songwriter Paul Brady, Loudon Waintwright III and Gerry Rafferty (her video for “Right Down The Line” is below). Raitt also co-wrote a song, “Down To You.” “Finding great songs is what the hard part of my gig is — not as hard as songwriting, that’s much more daunting and a self exploration and a lot more time— but I love playing other people’s music if it speaks to what I want to say,” she says. “If I need to come up with something, I’ll write it, but primarily I was looking for great grooves that I wanted to play and ways to say things that I hadn’t said before and these songs I’m really proud of because lyrically they’re as beautiful as they are musically.”
She calls the album “Slipstream” because it signifies her place in the musical continuum of the great blues, soul, rock and country artists who have come before and those that will follow in her wake. “In thinking about what I wanted to talk about in interviews, that became the reason why,” she says. “Part of the reason I wanted to call it ‘Slipstream’ was because I would get asked why and I could bring up that topic.” That spectrum certainly showed itself as she paid tribute to one of her musical heroes, Etta James, at this year's Grammy Awards, with an artist who grew up on Raitt's music, Alicia Keys.
After long stints on both Warner Bros. and Capitol, Raitt started her own label, Redwing with “Slipstream” as the first release. “We’ve been planning for this for a while and been doing a lot of research. Beth Nielsen Chapman and Jackson Browne were two touch stones and, of course, John Prine years ago,” she says. “As Beth said to me, “you’ll love the math’.”
While the 9-time Grammy winner has had great radio success with such hits as “Nick Of Time,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “Love Letter” and “Thing Called Love,” her greatest following has always come from her tremendous live show that combines her exhilarating, brilliant slide guitar work and her raspy, soulful vocals. So she had her live show in mind as well as she culled through potential album cuts for “Slipstream.” “I basically look for songs that I want to add to the show that I’m already doing so it’s fresh for me and fresh for the audience. Lyrically it has be something very smart and not maudlin and not sappy.”
Raitt starts an 80-date tour on May 1 and she can’t wait to get back in front of an audience. Her father, the legendary Broadway performer John Raitt, instilled in her a deep appreciation for her audience. “I’m so aware of how lucky I am to get to do this and it was never lost on me when my dad felt that way,” she says. “Every single performance, throughout his life until he was in his late 80s, he loved and knew what an honor it was that anybody, 20 people, would want to hear him sing.”
She feels the same way, and even though leading up to the concert each day can feel mundane, she says once it’s showtime, she can’t wait. “It’s still so much fun and such a privilege,” Raitt says. “It’s very cathartic emotionally in the course of the hour and 45 minutes, or for however long we play. You get all those beautiful, sad songs and the funky songs and then you express everything from eroticism and longing, betrayal and fury, and heartsick love...all of those things. It’s very healthy for me and the audience because by the end of the night, you’re spent, as you should be.”