Bonnie Raitt: A Brand-New Model For A Classic Sound
This April, roots-rock singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt released her first album in seven years, Slipstream. It's classic Raitt, mixing bluesy slide-guitar riffs with her soulful voice and a pop-friendly sensibility.
The delivery system, however, is brand-new. After years of working with the majors, Raitt decided to start her own label, Redwing Records. Raitt runs Redwing with the help of a tiny staff; Slipstream is the first release in its catalog.
"A lot of my peers have been doing it for a while," Raitt tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "John Prine was one of the first to do it years ago — Oh Boy Records. And then Jackson Browne and Beth Nielsen Chapman were two people that I talked to, and Beth said, 'You'll love the math.' "
Raitt says Chapman was right: Advances in recording technology have made extremely small labels sustainable. But she says it's important to remember that there's more to releasing an album than the recording budget.
"The way that manufacturing is now with the digital age, the cost of making a CD is so much less than it was," she says. "Since I always love to tour, we'll be able to let people know there's some new music. But you need to have all your ducks lined up: a great PR company, a great distribution arm and a fantastic team of four women that are just superpowers."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT DOWN THE LINE")
LYDEN: Bonnie Raitt waited almost 20 years before her first number one album. That was 1989's "Nick of Time." Today, she's enjoying another resurgence. Her latest album, "Slipstream," is her highest-charting record in almost two decades, the fact made all the more impressive because it's the first release on her own label.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT DOWN THE LINE")
BONNIE RAITT: (Singing) You know that I need your love. You've got that hold over me. Long as I've got your love, you know I'll never leave.
LYDEN: But the road back for Bonnie Raitt has taken a toll. Since her last recording, she endured the deaths of her father, the Broadway singer John Raitt, her mother and her brother, all within five years of each other. When I caught up with her backstage before a performance this week, she said she just had to take a break from recording.
RAITT: I really just wanted to live and not just recover from the losses and go through my brother's things and the estate. But what I did was that was invaluable was I learned to balance taking care of myself and being a good sister and a good girlfriend and friend to my friends and really listening. Not just dropping in, because you can avoid real life by being not just a celebrity but by being on the road all the time. And I just wanted to be Bonnie Raitt without the capitals. You know, I just wanted to see what it was like to live a regular life. And so I really needed and had the luxury of pulling away and taking some time to really grieve and process so I know how lucky I am.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD ONLY KNOWS")
RAITT: (Singing) But the world is always beautiful when it's seen in full retreat. The worst of life looks beautiful, as it slips away in full retreat.
LYDEN: Did you tour in the summertimes with your father? Did he do SummerStage sometimes?
RAITT: He did - actually, he did 25 consecutive years of Summerstock.
LYDEN: I swear I saw him - I feel like I did - at a place called the Melody Top...
LYDEN: ...in Milwaukee that my mother would take me to.
RAITT: Oh, he played there (unintelligible)...
LYDEN: Yeah, Melody Top.
RAITT: I mean, there was a circuit where the stars of the shows, and in his case, "Oklahoma," "Pajama Game," "Carousel" were his big three. He always used to come out in my California shows and sing "Oklahoma" at the, you know, Hollywood Bowl or the Greek Theater. And this audience would stand up and sing it with him and, you know, he'd steal the show every time. And, you know, what - of all the incredible duets that I've been able to sing, you know, John Raitt was still the one that I just shook in my boots just standing next to him. I loved him so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
BONNIE RAITT AND JOHN RAITT: (Singing) The thing that's known as romance is wonderful, wonderful. In every way, so they say.
LYDEN: I'm speaking with legendary singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt. Her new album is called "Slipstream." I want to ask a little bit about the title. You know, we were kind of wondering, "Slipstream." And I said, isn't that an aeronautical term? Why'd you choose it? I mean, I know now because I looked it up.
RAITT: Yes, I know.
LYDEN: You tell me why you chose it and what it means to you.
RAITT: What it means is that it's the kind of ease you get being in a slipstream of people that are going in front and it makes your resistance, literally, you know, aeronautically or even in a sailboat. You know, you pick up more speed, and it's more easy. And I wanted to say that I'm in a slipstream of these styles of music that are always represented on my record. It's not a formula, but I'm honoring those people that I love and those influence, and I - hopefully, I'm setting a slipstream for those behind me.
LYDEN: You covered a couple of Bob Dylan songs here. You ever feel when you are covering someone else - because we almost think of you sometimes as a musical curator - do you ever feel at all intimidated or a bit nervous about covering someone like Dylan?
RAITT: You know, maybe I should. But I'm so in that slipstream of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Tony Bennett, my dad. I mean, when they would sing, they didn't look who wrote the song. I mean, they would appreciate it, but, I mean, my great joy is, as you said - thank you for saying that - as a curator because that's how I feel every time I make a record. I should maybe have been intimidated.
LYDEN: No. Not necessarily. Have you ever met him?
RAITT: Oh, yeah. I met him back in my early days at the Gaslight.
LYDEN: At the Gaslight Inn.
RAITT: In New York - sorry - Greenwich Village. That's, you know, my first gigs of (unintelligible). He heard about me from a waitress there who was a friend. And it was during a period of time after his motorcycle accident when no one had heard from him. She said, you know, a friend of mine wants to meet you. He's heard about you. And she took me to this place, and he answers the door. And he wanted me come in a play some guitar. So we'd be - we don't get to see each other very often, but I've known him since then.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'MILLION MILES")
RAITT: (Singing) I'm drifting in and out of dreamless sleep. Throwing all my memories in a ditch, a ditch so deep. I did so many things I never did intend to do. And I tried to get closer but I'm still a million miles from you.
LYDEN: I know that, as rough as the last two years has been, this album is doing really well. You've landed in the top 10 on Billboard - and that has to be very, very gratifying because this the first time that you've done that with the record in about, what 18 years, I think?
RAITT: Well, this record has jumped out of the box. This was a phenomenal beginning for me. And to have it be on Redwing, on my own label, it sends a really big signal that it's possible to do this on your own and get some traction.
LYDEN: Did you do anything special to celebrate?
LYDEN: Or did you just - just played another gig in another town?
RAITT: It was, you know, it's - it was hard to get sleep for various reasons the first couple of months before. I mean, we were doing promo in the mornings. So - and then there were six-hour rehearsals, and then you would go out with your band and your friends and try to fit in some social life and - but then, like all of us, we go online to think we're going to pick up on our emails, and then there's all these great reviews coming in. So I was up until really late, you know, just basking and celebrating with people who are already awake in different time zones. It's like - it's just surreal when your product comes out and not only is it well received, but it's just selling, you know? I mean, it's fantastic. I guess what I celebrated was not sleeping.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "USED TO RULE THE WORLD")
RAITT: (Singing) You were sleeping in your happy home, when you woke up, baby, your life had come and gone. And now you're mystified, standing with the rest of us, who used to rule the world.
LYDEN: I think the time that I remember listening to you the most avidly was the "Nick of Time" album - of course, beloved album. I was based in Amman, Jordan, then. It was the Gulf War. And my ritual between filing - I had some time around 5 o'clock - was to fill a bath, light a candle and listen to that album.
RAITT: I'm very, very moved by that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THING CALLED LOVE")
RAITT: (Singing) Don't have to humble yourself, to me. I ain't the judge of your king. Baby, you know I ain't no queen of Sheba...
LYDEN: I remember one of my colleagues gave this to Queen Noor because of the queen of Sheba line.
RAITT: Are you serious? And I must tell John Hiatt that. Oh, my gosh. He wrote that song. I mean, that is so fantastic.
LYDEN: Yeah. It was great.
RAITT: It makes me so happy that that song would reach the end of the world in the middle of - that you got out of that time period. I remember being...
LYDEN: It was my sanctuary.
LYDEN: It's really been just wonderful. Thank you.
RAITT: Thank you so much for coming out. Wonderful to be part of it, Jacki.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THING CALLED LOVE")
LYDEN: That's singer Bonnie Raitt. Her latest album is called "Slipstream." You can hear a few tracks on our website, normusic.org. We spoke backstage just before her show at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, this past week.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPLIT DECISION")
RAITT: (Singing) It was more than just any old Friday night fight, with your mean left hook and my roundhouse right. We were both going for the heavyweight crown... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.