Inside the mind of Bonnie Raitt
The first lady of slide-blues is back with a new album that blasts politicians and laments lost love. “I wanted to write,” she tells us, “about how pissed off I was...”
It’s funny,” drawls Bonnie Raitt. “I’m reading a book someone sent me called A History Of The Redhead. It’s amazing how many stereotypes there are about women with red hair throughout history. Y’know, we’re either supposed to be especially sexual, or fiery- tempered, or fallen women. Maybe it’s a self- fulfilling thing that when you have red hair, you know you’re a little bit different. I don’t know many redheads that are shy and retiring. But I just happen to be an extrovert anyway.”
Whether or not you put it down to Raitt’s familiar tumble of russet curls – with a single grey strip to hint at harder times – there’s no doubt she can talk. Today, the bandleader phones direct from California – there’s no press flunkey to connect or curtail us – and rattles away with the energy of an artist at the start of a promotional cycle. “These are my first interviews,” she says.
“The first time I’ve talked about the new album. So I guess it’s a reality.”
Everybody should have a friend like Bonnie Raitt. Witty, wise and well-informed, she’s opinionated without coming off as preachy, political without getting up your nose. I wouldn’t be the first bluesman to fall under her spell. In the 45 years since her self-titled debut, Raitt has slipped across divides of race, gender, age and culture, charming everyone from the post-war heavies (Muddy, Wolf, Hooker) to the MTV-era hotshots (Cray, SRV). “They were all surprised to see this little white girl from LA – the daughter of a Broadway singer – play guitar like that,” she hoots of her 70s breakout.
I put my heart and soul into every single record, every single gig, every time I open my mouth and play
Woe betide anyone, though, who wanders into Raitt’s cross-hairs. Hints of that redhead temper are all over her 20th studio album, Dig In Deep, whose moments of personal heartbreak are offset by cranked-up attacks on the politicians hobbling modern America. “I’m a full human being with a strong set of ethics,” she says. “There are things I think are right. There are ways I think we can fight to improve the way we are on the earth, how we deal with each other. I’ve never pulled any punches about that.”
Beyond the music, Raitt is a ferocious social activist, going out to bat for causes from deforestation to women’s rights. “Y’know, we support over a hundred different groups with our tour profits,” she says, “and a dollar of all the tickets goes to a variety of different groups, from music education and social justice to election reform and safe energy. I do a lot of No Nukes and environmental work. I’ve probably ended up being a more effective activist as a musician than I could have been as a social worker.”
After several million album sales and 10 Grammy awards, it seems that Raitt at 66 isn’t so different from the arty teenager who had philanthropy drummed into her back in 50s Los Angeles. “I got a head start,” she recalls, “because I was raised Quaker, so we were involved in the peace movement since I was a kid. The civil rights movement was big in our family. We were big supporters of the fight for justice, the fight for peace and for banning the bomb. By the time I got to college [in the late 60s], I’d already been involved in a lot of different protests.”