The play "Life of Pi" opened this winter at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You may know the…
Singer Bonnie Raitt discusses her new album and enduring career
Geoff Bennett: And now to our weekend spotlight with a music legend Bonnie Raitt. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is out with her 21st album called, Just Like That. It's her first new release in more than six years, and has landed at number one on six different Billboard charts since its release. I sat down with her before a recent concert outside of Washington, D.C. And I asked her about her dynamic 50 year career and what she's learned about herself along the way.
Bonnie Raitt, thanks so much for speaking with us. I appreciate it.
Bonnie Raitt: Thank you for having me here, and coming all the way out to a gig.
Geoff Bennett: Of course, yeah. And what's it like to be doing gigs again, to be on the road? I mean, the last two years, you and your band, you've been sidelined because of the pandemic?
Bonnie Raitt: Yeah, it was…
Geoff Bennett: And now you're back in front of live audiences again?
Bonnie Raitt: Well, we knew eventually, we hoped that it would end up that people would do the right thing. And we could get safe, and they figured out a vaccine. So the horizon was clearing. And I just was frustrated, as we all were, that we couldn't play in front of live audiences. But I did a lot of recording in my home for Democratic candidates and various causes that I support. And I was able to participate. But just by myself, which was nowhere near as much fun as playing with the guys, and playing for an audience.
Geoff Bennett: Let's talk about this new album. It's doing incredibly well. Congratulations.
Bonnie Raitt: Thank you. Thank you.
Geoff Bennett: Most of it -- most of the album are covers, how do you do that creatively? How do you take somebody else's songwriting, their arrangement, and then put your own spin on it?
Bonnie Raitt: You know, it's something I've always done. I mean, I grew up loving Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra and my dad, and they always put their own spin on the songs that they pick it and I love taking an older song like Del Shannon's Runaway in 1977, I did kind of Al Green thing on it. And I did Gerry Rafferty hit and turn it into a reggae song. And we did an access song and a talking head song over the years. So it's really fun for me, to a lot of times, they're either by guys. And then I put them in my key and I put some slide on it. And it's absolutely different.
Geoff Bennett: I want to talk about one of the songs that you wrote called, Down the Hall.
It was inspired by a true story of a prisoner who was at a prisoner hospice. And it's told her his point of view, what drew you to that story that first appeared, I guess, in the New York Times?
Bonnie Raitt: Yeah, I read it in the New York Times Magazine, and I saw this photo essay with it. And the article interviewing these guys at for no benefit. They don't get their sentence shortened. And they don't make money. They just, you know, been in there for whatever they felt about what they did in their previous life, why they were there. They -- I put myself in the place of a guy that was just had compassion for the guys that at the end of their life, don't have anybody to hang out with him at the last moments. And the fact that there's these 75 programs I found out all over the country, where prisoners can volunteer and get trained to help care and, you know, be there pal and be there at the end. And I was so incredibly moved. I wanted -- I thought it'd make a great story.
Geoff Bennett: What is it about that sort of the folk tradition of writing a song in the third person, finding an entry point through somebody else's life?
Bonnie Raitt: Well, I mean, that great, literature's that way too. I love short stories. I love I loved O. Henry, when I was a kid, and I was very influenced by the great early songs of Bob Dylan. And, you know, the whole tradition of Celtic ballads telling, you know, from the point of view of the person that they're either about to murder somebody or get murdered. You know, there's just a hole crawling inside somebody's persona. And John Prine was a real inspiration for me, who we lost last year from COVID. And his story songs on his first album, Donald and Lydia being one and the Angel from Montgomery, which is a cornerstone of my sets since the early 70s. You know, he really showed me what it's like to, you don't have to live that person's life to write about it. You just have to emphasize.
Geoff Bennett: And Livin' for The Ones that I gather was a song about personal loss that you've experienced.
Bonnie Raitt: Yeah.
Geoff Bennett: When I first heard it, I thought, oh, this was -- this is about the pandemic.
Bonnie Raitt: Yeah, well, it kind of is. Yeah, it's about everybody we lost.
On the record in the liner notes, I started listing people that had just been passed since from the pandemic, and then some drug overdoses and cancer and accidents and suicides. And it was 14 people and I had to stop just because we were going to run out of artwork. You know, I -- what I did, started doing when my brother passed from brain cancer in 2009 was, I'm living every day for the life he didn't get to have. And that is literally in the lyrics of living for the ones. It's how do you get through? I'm living for the ones who didn't make it. You know, I'm just going to face the sun and look out the window and take a walk and think of, take a deep breath. And that's the life they didn't get to have.
Geoff Bennett: What's your songwriting process like? Do you write on the piano? Do you write on the guitar?
Bonnie Raitt: A little bit of both.
Geoff Bennett: OK.
Bonnie Raitt: I wrote nick of time on the keyboard.
Geoff Bennett: Really?
Bonnie Raitt: I took piano lessons when I was a kid. But my mom was an incredible piano player and my dad's musical director. I gravitated to the guitar and taught myself to play and I, you know, it's for different types of songs that play, I write on the guitar, and then kind of more personal ballads. I write on the keyboards.
Geoff Bennett: Yeah, so many of your songs, especially on this latest album, Focus on Grace and Redemption, how is that manifested in your life, that that's something that you're focused on it?
Bonnie Raitt: Oh gosh. Well, it's hard to say why those stories moved me. I mean, I hear in 35 years of recovery, I've heard some incredible stories in the meetings of people who just lost everything, and never thought they could reconcile with their family, or their parents or get a job or their health and, people find a way to reach out to each other and bring that redemption and grace and forgiveness. And that's a story that is universal and timeless. But especially I had no idea the pandemic was going to happen when I wrote the songs, but it's really resonating for me and the audience. I think that's why the album is striking a chord.
Geoff Bennett: You also write a lot about relationships. My favorite song ever is, I Can't Make You Love Me.
Bonnie Raitt: Oh, thanks.
Geoff Bennett: It's -- I think it's the best song in the American Songbook. It's so evocative, just from the opening, just tap on the snare.
How many seconds did it take for you to hear that song and say I have to sing it. I have to record it.
Bonnie Raitt: You know, Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin wrote the tune and I think they wrote it as an up tempo song. And Mike just slowed it down because I'd already cut a song of his own nick of time. And they sent it to me and I just -- I was gobsmacked as they say in England. I just, I knew right away what a gift that was that I was and they said, I think you could do a good job with this. So many other people have covered it, but I'm really grateful they sent it to me first. And it moves me every night when I sing it.
Geoff Bennett: I was going to ask you that. Do you ever get tired of singing some of these songs that have been so enduring?
Bonnie Raitt: No. And I look out, I can see people's faces. And, you know, I've said this before in interviews, but I wanted my most touching parts of my life is receiving letters from women who have said, I've never seen my husband in tears before. And I -- when you sing that song, I looked over and for the first time in our 30 year marriage, you know, either Angel from Montgomery or I Can't Make You Love Me. It's something is touching us all for it's just a heartbreaking song.
Geoff Bennett: It really is.
Bonnie Raitt: I love that don't patronize on me, I did so.
Geoff Bennett: It cuts you deep.
Bonnie Raitt: It's deep.
Geoff Bennett: You're in a really interesting point in your career, in that you've been getting all of these accolades, lifetime achievement awards, and yet you're still very much in your prime. What does that feel like, on the one hand to be so prolific and to still be producing music? And on the other hand, being heralded as the legend that you are?
Bonnie Raitt: Well, it was a big surprise to be getting these awards now. But I'm so grateful that people feel that way about me and I, you know, I was joking. I said, what do you guys know that I might sick, and I don't know it. But I just think that, you know, there's not that many people that last 50 years in the business and because of my activism, and my role model is a bandleader and a lead guitar player. And, you know, I do a lot of different kinds of music. And I think it's wonderful to be recognized for who I am in the world, not just the way that I sing. But I was surprised and pleasantly surprised as I am with the reception to this record. I've just was putting out another record and I didn't expect it to get they get all this attention, but it feels really on top of coming back from the pandemic. It feels fantastic.
Geoff Bennett: Yeah, I can't imagine the patience and the persistence that is required to navigate 50 plus years in this business, what have you learned about yourself along the way?
Bonnie Raitt: I've learned that I really love doing this and I will make whatever sacrifice I need to make sure that my voice is at its peak, my health is good. I keep my band and crew and salaries and like causes supported. And I have a bigger cause than just, you know, having a blast out on stage. You know, there's a, there's a higher purpose and then there's the fun of being able to play and mix all these songs together. So I start with I got to do it. You know, I look at Willie and B.B. King and Tony Bennett and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and all the other people that have lasted forever. And why would we retire? This is just too much fun.
Geoff Bennett: Bonnie Raitt, the best of the best