When Bonnie Raitt launched her career in the late 60s, she took her lead not from flash-in-the-pan chart-botherers but from the blues and folk greats she would see on the Boston club circuit, people like Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and, a particular favourite of hers, Sippie Wallace.
“I’m certain that it was an incredible gift for me to not only be friends with some of the greatest blues people who’ve ever lived, but to learn how they played, how they sang, how they lived their lives, ran their marriages, and talked to their kids,” she tells me as she gets ready for a UK tour that visits Manchester and Liverpool this month. “I was especially lucky as so many of them are no longer with us.”
“At some point in my early 20s I knew if I could keep my chops together and didn’t kill myself, then I might have a career. In blues, classical and jazz, you get more revered with age. I was hoping that I’d get like that one day, and now I’m like Muddy, John Lee and Sippie, I hope.”
That’s why the title of her new album, Slipstream, her first on her own label, is so meaningful for her.
“I’m in the slipstream of all these styles of music,” she says proudly. “I’m so inspired and so proud to continue these traditions, whether it’s reggae or soul or blues. I’m in the slipstream of those who came before me, and I’m leaving one for those behind me. I’m holding up the traditions of the music that I love”.
Four decades on from that valuable early learning, she has an enviable reputation as a live act and enjoys consistently good album sales (graced with the odd multi-million seller like her award-winning Nick Of Time album in 1989).
But it’s not all been plain sailing – she was fairly unceremoniously dropped by her long-time record company Warner Bros. in the dark days of the 80s, when rootsy rockers went out of style, and sank into alcoholism for a couple of years. That period ended with the aptly-named Nick Of Time album, while the equally-propitiously named new album and tour ends a differently-motivated seven year break.
The years before and after Raitt’s last album, 2005’s acclaimed Souls Alike, hadn’t been an easy time for her, with the passing of parents, her brother, and a best friend. So after following that album with her usual long run of touring—winding up with the “dream come true” of the ‘BonTaj Roulet’ revue with Taj Mahal – she decided to step back and recharge for a while.
“It was not a relaxing time,” she says. “It was a transformational time, and it was necessary.
“I took a hiatus from touring and recording to get back in touch with the other part of my life. On the road, under stress, it’s hard to stay in balance and move forward.
“So I was excited to have time when I didn’t have to be the professional version of myself for a long time. It was a chance to take care of a lot of neglected areas of my life, a lot of processing after all that loss and activity. I could be with my family and friends, go to the symphony, check out live jazz and Cuban shows, ordinary stuff like that. I could devote time to political work, too.
“It’s amazing how the scaffolding of your everyday life and your job hold you together,” she reflects. “Grief therapy brought up other things that needed to be addressed, childhood stuff. It was time to look at it. At first I thought, maybe I’ll buy an easel and get my watercolors out or sculpt with clay or go to some exotic place. But I realized you can’t run away from things you’re feeling. I’m lucky. A lot of people don’t have the luxury of unplugging from a job.”
When she started thinking about making music again, as she knew she would, Bonnie found she “was really interested in working with different people. Someone I had always been drawn to was Joe Henry. I’m a big fan of his writing and albums and love the work he’s done producing Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke, and others. I thought it would be really intriguing to see what we could come up with. Coincidentally, he had been wanting to call me as well. Our first phone call lasted over two hours.
“I didn’t have to produce or get the band together, I could just show up and sing,” she recalls. “I came to Joe’s with, to use a Zen expression, ‘beginner’s mind’.'” The experiment yielded eight songs in 48 hours. Four of them can be heard on Slipstream and the rest “will surface very soon, somehow”, she promises.
“I loved singing these songs and playing with these guys so much. This was just the jumpstart I needed to get me back in the saddle and wanting to work on a new album. I had no idea how much I missed it until I got in there,” she laughs.
“This is just the greatest job you could ever have and I’m looking forward to being in a travelling circus again!”
By Kevin Bourke
Photo credit: Matt Mindlin
What: Bonnie Raitt
Where and when: Bonnie Raitt is at Manchester Apollo on June 13, 2013, supported by Martin Simpson, and Liverpool Empire Theatre on June 22, 2013, with support from Foy Vance.
More info: www.ticketmaster.co.uk/Bonnie-Raitt-tickets/artist/735932