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On 'Just Like That...,' Bonnie Raitt is a model of continuity

Since the start of her career, Bonnie Raitt's performance of roadhouse rockers, pop ballads, funky sophistication and plenty else has evidenced  a deep understanding of mutuality and its absence.  Her new album, <em>Just Like That...</em>, is out April 22.
Ken Friedman
Courtesy of the artist
Since the start of her career, Bonnie Raitt's performance of roadhouse rockers, pop ballads, funky sophistication and plenty else has evidenced a deep understanding of mutuality and its absence. Her new album, Just Like That..., is out April 22.

What career artist is shrewder than Bonnie Raitt? She started off the 1970s working in a folk-inflected blues style that had the heft of lineage and contemporary popularity, selecting songs that would hold up well. Patient and persistent, her prime focus was being fully in her element on stage. At the dawn of the '90s, she eased through a much brighter pop spotlight with equanimity, never making us privy to her private turmoils, but prioritizing honesty about where she was in life — a woman of advancing age transcendent in an industry where that fact is often presumed to diminish a performer's value and appeal.

Ever since, she's carried on in the groove that she established — cultivating heat through a deep understanding of mutuality, and its absence, with roadhouse rockers, pop ballads, funky sophistication and plenty else — for an audience that's found it rewarding to keep right on listening.

There's a moment midway through "Blame It On Me," a slow-burning blues number on Just Like That... — Raitt's latest release, out today, and the first album of her 70s — when she makes subtle and supple art of acknowledging the passage of years. "Blame it on time, the fugitive, the vagabond / It's the perfect crime," she challenges a drifting lover, her phrasing both elegantly anguished and knowing. Her voice flares as she tightens her grip around the most powerless line: "Poured like sand through your hands and mine / Blame it on time." Then she shifts her vocalizing to slide guitar, swelling into a melancholy note and mounting an unexpected upward climb. There's no surrendering to nostalgia here — only bracing emotional clarity.

Raitt is a model of continuity; she's been leading the same core band for decades —particularly the rhythm section of drummer Ricky Fataar and bassist James "Hutch" Hutchinson — and presiding over her recording sessions alongside established co-producers. The proceedings were solely in her hands this time. She convened the players near her northern California home, in comfortable command of her abilities and open as ever to refining feel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jewly Hight, NPR Music: You have been looking to models of longevity all along, from blues pioneers to your Broadway star father and others. What difference do you think that that has made to how you look at things and how you're operating now?

Bonnie Raitt: My role models were people that were aging, just getting more experienced and richer in their tones and in their musical abilities. Those that continued to stretch and try new things have always been an inspiration, whether it's Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards] or Tony Bennett or my dad or B.B. King or Charles and Ruth Brown— all of the people that I was so lucky enough to be touring with and look up to as my mentors, they seem to embrace being older and their position of emeritus, you know, being honored. The older they got, the more treasured that they were. I was grateful that I didn't have to be worried about that. I just never even think about it, except when I'm asked all the time, "What's it like to get older in the business?"

I mean, I wasn't aiming for commercial success, crossover success, but I watched a lot. I keep an eye on the industry. ... I was basically a live music artist that made my living that way, and always have been. But as I've watched other parts of the business that are more mainstream, those artists get booted off a little bit when they hit their late 40s or their late 30s. I was dismayed by that, but that's not really my end of the business.

There are certain features of your music that immediately announce themselves as Bonnie Raitt signatures: your slide guitar tone, the unhurried way that you sink into a note, the kinds of grooves that you favor with your band, the well-crafted arrangements, even the ways that the melodies and the chord progressions move. How did you flesh out a template that you can apply to albums and to putting together shows that also gives you room and isn't constricting?

I don't think about staying in a certain lane. I just really am song-motivated, if I hear a song that I know is right for me. It takes me years of listening and searching and turning over rocks and reading lots of reviews about up-and-coming songwriters, and then asking a lot of friends of mine, "Who have you been listening to lately," and then going back and hearing catalogs of other artists that I've already recorded songs of. The song really tells you what it wants, in my opinion.

For example, the first single off this new record, "Made Up Mind," and several of the other covers that I've done, those arrangements are almost identical to the original version. So sometimes I just fall in love with the way the song was done, and I just put it in my key and add my slide guitar and my sensibility with my particular band, the way they play. And it's not going to come out like a carbon copy.

Since you brought up "Made Up Mind," the first line of that song — "It starts out slow" — was one that stuck with me, and another line that stuck with me was "I don't feel like a fool, but I feel intoxicated" from a "Something's Got a Hold of My Heart." Love and lust and relationships are the favorite themes of songwriters throughout pop music history. But there is something about these songs that you chose for this album and your broader body of work: They show the power of getting swept up in feeling or desire, but also how easily those attachments can fade or disintegrate. What makes you want to sing those songs?

This is the 21st record where I've sung about [relationships]. I've looked at love from a lot more than both sides now. I mean, I honestly feel that if people got along, I wouldn't have a career.

I've covered a lot of topics about falling in love and the ways that it falls apart, and that's the fascinating side to me, like a prism, just turning it in the light. Some of the richest songs that I've heard in my life are those heartbreak torch ballads that Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington and Ray Charles sang, the great heartbreak songs when it's not working out. For me, that is probably the richest terrain, is to be able to sing about when it's falling apart.

Like "Made Up Mind" about the argument and the deterioration starts out slow, you know, it's just really important to be able to express that for myself and for the people in the audience. And of course, the ultimate one is "I Can't Make You Love Me." I mean, I've been on both sides of that, and every night when I sing it, it calls back the pain of both. That's what made me want to sing the songs that break my heart: "Dimming of the Day," "Love Has No Pride." These are the ones that just stick with me, and I think they stick with the fans as well, because no matter where you are in your love life right now, those memories are so acute.

You took some of your songwriting for this album in more of an observational, character-driven direction, zeroing in on specific human experiences. You've mentioned John Prine's passing as one impetus for that; I know he was an important peer and song source for you early on. What did writing and recording the song "Down the Hall" and the title track help you get back in touch with?

On this record, because I had really mined my personal life so much across the previous couple of decades — at least, I really covered almost everything I wanted to about my family and my regrets and memories and messages that I wanted to send myself — I wanted to take a shift and go into a third-person in a style that moved me so much when "Donald and Lydia" and "Angel from Montgomery" first showed up, when I first met John Prine and fell in love with those songs. I love a good short story and I love story songs in the folk tradition of writing in the third-person.

I also wanted to go away from the piano, where I usually write those, and play on acoustic guitar. I started out playing folk guitar when I was nine or 10 and just sat for hours and always played my heart out in my room. Those early, early albums of Jackson Browne and John Prine and my Irish friend Paul Brady continue to resonate with me as one of the greatest eras of my musical growth and emotional references, just the simple power of fingerpicking and singing over that droning sound. That's what I was aiming for with these songs.

It took me back to your early recordings, too.

It made it fresh for me. It opens up a whole window for me of being able to write from a point-of-view, inhabiting those people and finding my own personal truths and connection with them, as I did with the two people I wrote about in "Down the Hall" and "Just Like That." I don't have to go through having lost my son and donating a heart and being in prison, volunteering on the hospice ward. But those stories, when they appeared to me in my life, it was immediate that I was going to write a song about them.

I was so moved by this New York Times Magazine article in 2018 about a prison hospice program, and the photo essay that accompanied, and it stayed with me and I wept at the time. I'm sure it affected everyone who read it, but I'm really glad to be able to honor the people in that program and those prisoners that don't have anything to gain by volunteering to be of service on the hospice ward. I just tried to imagine what it was like for them to be there and what it was like for those that didn't have anyone to be with them at the end of their lives. I think it's such a beautiful story of human redemption and grace and love and action. Those two songs have messages that we need to reinforce to each other, that there is so much goodness going on in the face of so much cruelty and destruction and fear and discord.

You mentioned earlier your admiration for the richness in tone that all of these other voices around you gained over time. In your early 20s, you were in a hurry to make your own voice sound more weathered and lived in than it did. What is your relationship with your singing voice like at this point in your performing life? What qualities does it have that you find satisfying? And how have you adapted to the way that it's changed over time?

You're right in saying that I was frustrated with the way that I sounded early on. I always wanted to sound like the most seasoned blueswomen that I'd ever heard, and like my idols that had lived the long and hard life, and a lot of the bluesmen who really just sounded as worn as they were. I drank and smoked and hung out and did everything I could to try to beat my voice into submission in my 20s, until about 27. I was on the road maybe 10 months of a year, and I think I made six albums in seven years. I can't even imagine the pace that I was going at. Finally, by the time I was 29 or 30, I actually thought I could sound almost like what I wanted to when I was singing. And by the time I was 40, it was an instrument that I could feel comfortable was really reflecting the age that I was at and experience that I'd had in the soul that I wanted to convey.

Getting older in these last decades, it's been interesting to gain notes on the bottom of my range. ... I think I've got more colors to play with when I'm singing. I don't think about it too much, but it's been really rewarding to be able to have more options vocally, but it means that I have to take care of myself and warm up.

Are there performances on this album you can point to that reflect that deepening in your voice and things that you can do with intonation or inflection now?

When I was writing "Just Like That," I pitched it in a key that would have been too low for me. But I wanted to take on that character's voice of imagining a woman that had been really beaten up by life, and I kept it low, to have that kind of gravelly [quality]. I tried overdubbing to clean it up, and it just didn't work. So I sang it one time, and that was a kind of a magical moment, as the band hadn't really played all the way through. They just had heard the song minutes before, and they just instinctively backed me up so beautifully. It was just a very special moment. I think that shows the lower range that I'm comfortable living with, and I'm really proud of it.

You know, I'm pretty proud of all the playing and singing on all my records; I wouldn't put them out there [otherwise], because I know people are comparing them with the previous high points of what they think I've reached. I want to make sure that everyone grows older with me and appreciates the different colors that come into your voice.

You recently received the Icon Award from Billboard. When they reeled off your career accomplishments, one of the many things they recognized was your long-time bandleading. I can attest to how significant that was to me as a young instrumentalist. Sure, I loved riot grrrl, where bands completely made up of women or girls played raw and rough and righteous music. But to see and hear you moving with such comfortable authority through these supposedly masculine domains on the stage in the studio, as a consummate bandleader, as a musician who commands the respect of fellow players and connoisseurs of playing of all genders, was huge. What did it take and what kind of satisfaction has it offered you to work your way to owning those roles?

I learned early on that it's very tricky to be leading a musical direction of a song when you're not quite sure what you want to do until you try a couple of different things. And sometimes being the youngest or the only female in the room telling other experienced players, who have been in bands for years, when they don't quite know what you're talking about if you're not a schooled musician and you can't just reel off the chords and the time signatures, you just have to sing it live for them or say, "Can you move the register?" So the fact that I'm not a trained musician traditionally held me back a little bit in my ability to communicate what I want, including with my longtime band. A lot of times I'll have to show them physically what I'm talking about, because there's an art to carving out a sound that you want to have. You have to give people the leeway and the respect to play the way they feel it, and then you just have to use a great deal of diplomacy and sensitivity.

But that said, I have a musical idea and I have a compass that I'm trying to get to this place and I have to just surround myself with musicians that are willing to be flexible and understand that I come with that set of skills where I eventually am going to end up with something that's really original and new. But to get there, sometimes is a circuitous route. It's not always successful. Sometimes people resent being told what to play or to switch instruments or switch approaches. So it's a lot of risk of not being liked, being musical director, but it makes for an added layer of complication when you're a female as well.

I appreciate the work that you've done all of these years to have that be a central component of your music-making.

When you look back at the work, the music that I've done, those arrangements and picking the songs has really been me all along. But then it's a question of getting the right people in the room that will play well together with each other for each song. And that's why I've been so lucky to have a band that could basically play anything I throw at them.

On this record, "Waiting For You to Blow" is a complete arrangement I had in my head of a very unusual mix of jazzy tones and chords with a funk bass. There were all kinds of unusual stops and starts and little horn licks that I wrote for the organ to play. They weren't quite sure that it was going to be successful, but at the end of the day, it was worth the effort.

So it's tricky to arrange stuff and work well with others. But when everybody mutually respects each other and is willing to give everyone a little bit of rope to do what they need to do and not be didactic and boss people around, you end up with a great collaboration. And that's what I'm really proud of the most.

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