Roots rebirth as Bonnie goes with the flow

BONNIE RAITT has a lump in her throat.

“The past few years have been tough,” she says.

“My parents passed away within 12 months of each other. Then, my older brother, to whom I was very close, developed a brain tumour. He was blind and paralysed. I came off the road to tend to him. After he died, there was a period during which I couldn’t care less about making a record.”

The feeling didn’t last. One of American’s most iconic roots singers, Raitt (63) soon wanted to get back in the studio, out on the road again. So, in 2012, she returned with the fantastic album, Slipstream. It’s a rebirth.

“Slipstream won the Grammy for best Americana album,” she says. “That was unexpected and very thrilling. I had already received great reviews from fans and critics and it was enough just to be nominated. Truly, I didn’t think I would win. I was speechless.”

This isn’t false modesty. The Americana category was among the most hotly contested at this year’s Grammys. Raitt was competing against young hit-makers, Mumford and Sons, and The Lumineers. She assumed the gong would be awarded to one of those acts.

“They had both released truly huge albums,” Raitt says. “I like to think Americana is a format for people who don’t fit in elsewhere. We jokingly refer to it as the format for people with banjos in their songs. It is fantastic, because it has provided a home for folks like me, John Hiatt and Lucinda Williams, who might not otherwise slot into a genre. For all those reasons, winning was immensely satisfying.”

Slipstream is an especially significant album for Raitt, as it is the first she has released without the support of a major record label.

She fielded many offers. However, with a large fanbase, she decided it was viable to go it on her own. Friends in the industry assured her it was the smartest move she could make. Thus far, she has had little reason to regret their advice.

“It was not something I did lightly,” she says. “Me and my team spent a lot of time looking into it. We had support and advice from Jackson Browne, and other people who have done this previously.”

Given the state of the modern music industry, going independent can be logical, she says. “The sort of label that it would be appropriate for me to work with tends to offer partnership-type relationships with artists, nowadays. However, often there isn’t a huge difference between going into partnership and doing it for yourself.

“If you have acquired an audience through the years, the simple math means the independent route is the best to take. I have enjoyed it,” Raitt says.

Raitt has built a large and loyal following without ever compromising her music. She was a Harvard student, playing in coffee houses around Cambridge and Boston. She soon became a leading figure in the early ’70s American folk revival. Raitt was good friends with songwriters Warren Zevon and James Taylor, and collaborated with Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.

Her first big hit was a 1977 cover of the Al Green song, ‘Runaway’, which she reworked as a bluesy dirge, a gorgeous showcase for her gritty vocals. She was soon at the centre of a record-company bidding war, an unprecedented situation for a folk artist at the time. Through the ’80s, she clocked up further hits, her raspy style and distinctive guitar-playing marking her out as a singular presence in the roots scene.

For Slipstream, she took a step into the unknown by working with Elvis Costello and Madeline Peyroux producer, Joe Henry (who, bizarrely, has a writing credit on Madonna’s Hard Candy LP).

“I had heard he was a fan of mine. I had made a list of two or three people I wanted to make the record with. It was serendipity that he reached out. I went out to his studio. It was immediately clear to me we would get along. We started intending to do three songs. However, the number grew and grew. He has a beautiful base in south Pasadena, which is an enclave of progressive culture in a conservative part of Los Angeles.”

One thing that sets Raitt apart from her peers is that she is an interpreter of songs rather than an originator of material. She says she has a good nose for a potential hit and is always on the lookout for artists with whom to collaborate. She has a creative relationship with Paul Brady. Raitt was introduced to Brady’s music as she was looking to take her career in a new direction, in the ’80s.

“I had known Paul as a trad’ artist and he had actually opened for me at Tufts University, in Boston, in the ’70s. However, I was completely unaware that he had gone and done something in a songwriting direction. That was a surprise to me. When we got together to record, it was a marriage made in heaven, not Hollywood,” she says.

As with any artist who has lasted the decades, there have been highs and lows. By the late ’80s, Raitt’s stock had sunk and she was the one trying to gin up record-label interest, rather than the other way around. She is currently prominent because of Adele and Bon Iver, each of whom is covering her 1991 hit ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ (penned by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin).

“I’m a huge fan of both of those artists. I was thrilled to hear them doing that song. For me, it is the most exquisite song about heartache ever written. A lot of people have done it down the years — from Prince to George Michael. I was lucky, I was sent it first. To have younger people appreciate my singing, and treatment, means a lot.

“I’ve gotten to know Justin Vernon, from Bon Iver. Hopefully, we can work together in the future. It is nice to know your music makes a difference.”

* Slipstream is out now. Bonnie Raitt plays Vicar Street, Dublin, June 19


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