Bonnie Raitt

Interpreter for the ages

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By Gary Graff  

Bonnie Raitt has seen, and overcome, her share of tribulations in her long and sometimes difficult Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recording career, including her own battle with alcoholism in the '1980s.

But the run-up to her latest album, Souls Alike, was trying even by those standards. First, while she was making her previous release, 2002's Silver Lining, her brother was diagnosed with brain cancer. Then both her mother and her father fell ill and passed away in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Raitt dealt with those untimely tragedies and soldiered on with her music, not only recording Souls Alike, which she co-produced, but also taking part in 2004's Vote For Change tour.

What Raitt didn't do, however, was include any of her own songs on Souls Alike. Instead, the album became a showcase for writers she has admired or recently discovered, including Randall Bramblett and Maia Sharp, as well as Raitt's own band members Jon Cleary and George Marinelli. The results, nevertheless, are pure Bonnie Raitt, with the same familiar blend of rock, blues, folk and R&B that's defined her sound for a generation, and brought her Grammy gold in the process.

Q: You've dealt with a lot over the past few years. What kind of impact has it had, if any, on your music?

Raitt: There's no way to tell whether I would have had a different personal life or creative life had those not been on the front burner. I can't even think about what kind of music I would make if I wasn't going through that. You really put everything else aside. It was a stressful time, but I try to stay in the moment. That sounds like a cliche, but anybody that's been dealing with illness and shock and trauma, you just have to be glad for any hour that's gone by without trauma, or you just try to stay very focused and stay healthy and be as clear a caretaker as you can be to help the family members and make the right decisions.

Q: Was the music kind of an escape?

Raitt: Somewhat. You never forget what's going on, but it wasn't 24-7. I do other projects, and I was all the time listening for songs and all the time excited about the tunes I was finding.

Q: How do you know when a song is right for you?

Raitt: People ask, "What are you looking for," and I don't really know. But when I hear it, I recognize it. I'm not a Zen practitioner, but there's an expression in Zen that expresses how to show up with fresh eyes and fresh ears and not be cynical, 'cause otherwise it would just be too much drudgery for me to try to figure out what I want to say. The exciting thing about being an interpreter is that uncovering jewels of songwriters, when you go through twenty-five or thirty CDs that are well-intentioned, but just not right ... and then, all of a sudden, you find Randall Bramblett or you find Maia Sharp, and I was just so excited. They were like reflecting back things I knew were inside, but just couldn't put a voice to. The songwriters I picked, almost to a person I could have done five or six of their songs.

Q: You've frequently recorded others' songs, whereas many artists try to do only their own.

Raitt: I don't have any ego attachment to that. Thank goodness that even though you can make a lot of money if you write songs, it's never been what drives me. It's always which ones knock me out at the time.

Q: Some of your band members have become rich sources of songs as well.

Raitt: Jon and George, sure. Their vocabulary can cover so many different styles of music without thinking about it. It just comes out of them that way. The artists that appeal to me most have that kind of nexus of soul music and country and roots. You can't really categorize The Band or Little Feat. There's a certain kind of Americana music, I suppose, that I'm knocked out by.

Q: How do you and the band go about arranging songs once you choose them?

Raitt: This unit's been together off and on for five or six years now. When I get the songs I know I want to do, I send them the demo versions of them done by the songwriters. In the old days, I'm sure they shook their heads and said, "Now what in the world is she gonna do with this? This doesn't sound like her at all." But they trust me to know that by the time I get them in the same place and we gather together and put the songs in my key and try them, I already have an idea in my mind of why I want to do it and how I want to do it. But I rely a lot on their inventiveness, like a good jazz band where you just let it rip.

Q: Do you tend to give much direction?

Raitt: I don't tell these guys what instruments to play or what approach to take. I give a minimal amount of direction because we have a shorthand amongst ourselves as a band. We have so much mutual respect for each other. We just delight in the way these songs take on a form of their own. Having said that, as a producer and a bandleader, if it's going off in too country of a direction or too jazzy or this and that, I'll reel it in. But I want to let those guys have their head, like a really great race horse. I don't want to really pull 'em in any more than I have to.

Q: Have you enjoyed taking on greater production responsibilities?

Raitt: I'll tell ya, it's lonely! (laughs) Basically I'm wearing the responsibility as I really did on most of my records. I'm bringing the songs and picking the musicians and am involved in every aspect of the mix, and have been since my first album. But you can't take a break or go watch a movie while someone does the conga parts. You have to be there, too. It's more challenging but also more thrilling. I was ready to step into the hot seat.

Q: You were one of Ray Charles' duet partners on Genius Loves Company. Was that an amazing experience?

Raitt: Absolutely, an honor and a thrill. I have had the good fortune to be friends with a lot of my heroes in the R&B field, but Ray was someone who I didn't know. So when I got to be in the room with him, just him asking for me to do a duet knocked me out already. He's the guy for me. I just couldn't believe I was in the studio with him. And George, my guitar player, was in on the session and I knew that Ray still had his headphones on after we did one take, but I just had to say somethign to George and he was way on the other side of the room, and we were still on our instruments. I said, "Hey, George," and he goes, "Yeah?" And I said, "Can you believe this!" I'm saying it, and everyone in the control room can hear it, but I just had to share it with somebody. What a thrill that was!

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.