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Bonnie Raitt: Lady Talks The Blues

Twenty albums, 10 Grammys and three comebacks in, Bonnie Raitt could be taking it easy. But the blues megastar still has a lot to do and say.

It’s two weeks before Christmas. But, in the sleek modern lobby of the Hotel Amarano in Burbank, California, you would be hard-pressed to know that. It’s like sitting in the middle of a very large marshmallow; everything is a quiet study of a sanitarium white, from the ivory marble tiles to the linen couches, the champagne-beige rugs to the cream-coloured lampshades. Even the floor-to-ceiling-bookshelves are filled with tomes that have all been covered in white leather, with none of the titles showing. It’s a metaphor that is as disturbing as it is a bland diet for the eyes. Worse, the Christmas tree is done up in monochromatic beige that absorbs more light than it reflects.

It is a hushed and quiescent place, with an almost inaudible soundtrack of unobtrusive jazz playing in the background, conveying, as the hotel’s general manager brags, “a place where a five-time Oscar winner can walk in the door and no one’s going to ask for an autograph”. Given that only cinematographers, make-up artists, dress designers, visual effects supervisors, the late Walt Disney and composer Allen Menken (who won eight) generally reach those multi-Oscar heights, that doesn’t seem like a tall order. 

But that’s not even true. Once, I spotted someone march right up to basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman and ask him to sign his coat. Then there was the time that Julia Roberts threw open the French doors of her second-storey room and screamed down at the hotel’s gardener to stop using the electric leaf blower because she couldn’t hear herself think. It’s more like a place where Oscar winners come to recover after having facial surgery. 

But not Bonnie Raitt. The seemingly ageless musician sweeps into this austere lobby in a riot of colour and feverish activity, wrapped up in a winter coat against the December chill, her trademark red hair swathed in a long cashmere scarf the shade of the storm clouds outside and which exactly matches the blue-grey liner that rims her watchful eyes. 

Raitt looks more like that elegant and tough-talking old-school Hollywood actress of yore Barbara Stanwyck at about the time she made the classic Double Indemnity than like a legacy artist who is one of the world’s most steadfast sustainers of the blues tradition and the best slide guitar player of her generation – making it on to Rolling Stone’s lists of both the top 100 guitarists and top 100 singers. But really, Raitt looks like nobody so much as herself – that is, when she’s properly made up.

“Oh my god, I just did my eyeliner in the car,” Raitt laughs, sitting at a small table in the hotel’s tiny bar and rummaging in her purse for a small bottle of vanilla Stevia. “I never wear eye make-up in real life because people don’t recognise me if I don’t have it on. If I’m drawing my eyes, I must be going back to work.”

Which she is. She’s just come from finishing up some last-minute chores. She’s closing her Redwing Records for the holidays later today, and there are still cards to send, packages to wrap, tour dates to finalise, and a performance with her old friend Jackson Browne for the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Right after she’s finished here she’s off to meet her long-time stylist for a fitting of the stage clothes for her upcoming world tour, which will run at least through 2017. Which means a lot of outfits, most of which – you guessed it – Raitt designs herself. 

“I’ve designed my shirts since I was twenty-one, and piece them together. I take the sleeves from this shirt I like and a collar from that, and then I custom-make it to my body, and we pick new fabrics and have different things. So it’s really creative. As is designing a set and working with somebody that’s doing that. So there’s a lot of things that harken back to producing a Broadway show or a movie. There’s a lot of things that I have my fingers involved in, as creative to me as the music part.” 

As well as being a label head, the fingers in every pie extend to producing and writing nearly half the songs on her new album, Dig In Deep, released on February 26. She produced everything except for one track: You’ve Changed My Mind, written by Joe Henry, a friend and the producer of her previous album, Slipstream, after a conversation the two of them had. That rather qualifies as a co-write in itself, so it wouldn’t be wrong to add it to the five songs she wrote on the 12-song album, the most since 1998’s Fundamental. And the subject matter is similar to Fundamental’s: navigating that sometimes mysterious terrain that exists between men and women. It’s not exactly new territory for Raitt. 

“Well, a lot of music is writing about what goes on between men and women,” she tells me. “I’ve written other songs like this. What do you do in relationships where you are bumping up against each other? How do you get back to what you had? I’d forgotten till after I wrote these. But there’s one on Fundamental that I wrote called Meet Me Halfway, and on Sweet Forgiveness there’s Standing By The Same Old Love. There’s been a lot of times when I’m talking to the person that I’m with and I’ve said: ‘Hey, man, let’s pay attention. We’re gonna lose it.’ And there’s another one, called Baby, I’m On Your Side, that’s also on Fundamental, that’s about how we lost the thread here. Now let’s get it back.”

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