We’ve Got A File On You: Bonnie Raitt

Shervin Lainez

We’ve Got A File On You: Bonnie Raitt

Shervin Lainez

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Bonnie Raitt has, infamously, had one of the stranger career trajectories out there. Way back in the beginning of the ’70s, she quickly garnered the respect of older musicians and the interest of labels thanks to her guitar playing and her ability to dig into blues and folk standards. Across that decade and into the ’80s, she built up a loyal following, but never crossed over to runaway mainstream success — that is, until she was 40 and a whole new chapter of her career began with Nick Of Time.

There were plenty of winding roads along the way. Now, Raitt is back with her new album Just Like That…, her first collection in six years. On the occasion of its release, we called up Raitt to talk about her new music, interpreting everyone from John Prine to INXS, would-be collaborations with Prince, and more.

Just Like That… (2022)

The line “just like that” comes from one of the new originals on the album, and you’ve said that phrase felt obviously relevant to what we’ve all been through in recent years. Was that a song where you were specifically reacting to the pandemic?

BONNIE RAITT: No, I wrote the words to it in early 2019, and then I wrote the music closer to when the rest of the record was in place. I was looking for a particular texture to put in there, and that song lent itself to acoustic guitar rather than keyboards. Both of the acoustic finger-picking songs were written before the pandemic. When I’m looking for an album title, I go through all the song titles and phrases from them. I staged that picture so it was looking back, looking over what we just went through. Just like that — you’re going through your life and all the sudden life happens.

The album has another song, “Livin’ For The Ones,” that touches on losing friends as you get older.

RAITT: I wanted to write something about what we’ve been through. My brother was going through brain cancer and eventually passed away in 2009, followed close on the heels by a dear friend of mine, Stephen Bruton, who was in my band for years. I remember when my brother lost his sight and couldn’t walk in the last months. He had a brain tumor that was spreading, and he put up a valiant battle for eight years. I said, “Man, I’m never going to complain again. Every day I wake up, I’m going to live for the day you never got to have.” That’s really how I got through the losses that were catapulted into this time of my life. There were an awful lot of people I knew who were older, legendary rhythm & blues artists, they’d been passing.

That’s not the main theme of anything other than wanting to say, “How did you get through it?” I sat down and wrote everything that was real for me — for the election nightmare cycle we went through, the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter [protests], the climate catastrophe, immigration nightmares, and then COVID shutting down our ability to give ourselves so much of what brings us joy and release. We’re just shuttered. Those of us who tour and play for a living, it’s not just our livelihoods. It’s our great sustenance on many, many levels. To have that shut down and then be in the pressure cooker of watching the country flail at each other, the polarization and delusion and misinformation. The opening line: “I can barely raise my head off the pillow.”

How I got through it was, I remembered all those people who didn’t get a chance. That was heightened by how many people who had passed away in the last couple of years, to the point I dedicated the record to some of my close friends. I couldn’t even list them all. It’s an unbelievable amount of loss and it’s tough for all of us to go through, not just me. I’m one of the privileged to have security and savings and my health. I know how lucky I am. So I’m going to live for the ones who didn’t make it.

Another one of the originals I was going to ask you about is “Waitin’ For You To Blow.” Do you know Jason Isbell’s work?

RAITT: Yes I do, I love him.

You know that song he has, “It Gets Easier” — where he talks about how recovery gets easier but it never gets easy. I was wondering if “Waitin’ For You To Blow” was kind of a similar thought even though you’ve got almost 35 years sober.

RAITT: There’s a certain wink to this song. It’s somewhat sardonic and satirical. But it rings true. When you slip and you just eat everything in sight or you make excuses or you don’t return phone calls — all the ways our character defects and addictions and crutches and habits trip us up, you know? There’s that little devil on your shoulder just urging you. That’s the task of living a balanced and mature life, to not be too hard on yourself but also to just not succumb to every temptation that comes your way. If you want to be high-functioning and have some joy and balance, you have to be both forgiving and somewhat disciplined.

Being self-aware and able to make somewhat of a snarky comment about how there’s someone on your shoulder waiting for you to blow — you’ve gotta be attentive. I wrote it as someone in recovery, but it’s really all those things I was writing about. Including “I let her draw love close enough/ To see she really cares/ But no way do they get inside/ In case there’s no one there.” There’s a whole lot of us who keep people away or pick the wrong person because you’re afraid if they really get inside there won’t be such a lovable person after all, if there’s anybody.

Early Days At The Philadelphia Folk Festival And The Gaslight Cafe (1970)

It seemed your career was getting started in earnest around the time you appeared at the Philly Folk Festival in 1970, and then you were in New York playing at the Gaslight. What are some of your memories from those days?

RAITT: For me, it was such a thrill. I wasn’t ever expecting to do music for a living. It wasn’t lost on me that it was so cool my dad got paid to do something he loved to do. He had his daytimes free to do whatever he wanted and made a bunch of people happy at night. I was going to be a social activist. I went to college to work for the American Friends Service Committee, which was sort of the social action arm of the Quakers. Undoing all the colonialist taking over Africa and all over the world where they were throwing off the yoke of oppression and becoming independent nations. I wanted to take off and work in another continent.

My hobby was playing music. So here I was hanging out with all these blues guys, my heroes, because of the man I met at Cambridge when I was a freshman who managed Son House and Mississippi John Hurt and Buddy Guy. We started hanging out, and I took a semester off, because I knew a lot of those guys were older and they weren’t going to live forever. This was an opportunity to hang out with my heroes, and I could always go back to school. In the beginning, to have this career drop in my lap because I happened to play pretty good blues guitar for a girl — which was kind of a joke at the time, but it’s what got my foot in the door. The fact I could play like I did and it was unusual.

When I was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which I had gone to as a fan — it was unbelievable to me. It would continue to be unbelievable until about my third album. I kept waiting for Warner Bros. to say, “OK, that was fun, but you’re not selling, so see you later.” But I signed with them because they didn’t care about selling. They said make whatever record you want and we’ll make our money from Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.

First TV Appearance On The David Frost Show (1972)

RAITT: Wow how did you find that one!?

Oh I just find stuff online — but sometimes it’s wrong and people are like, “I didn’t do that.”

RAITT: My favorite one was when I was getting my teeth cleaned and the hygienist started singing “Total Eclipse Of The Heart,” which is by Bonnie Tyler. [Laughs] But anyway, I’ve been telling people that was my first appearance. Though, I did the Dinah Shore Show and the Mike Douglas Show with my dad early on.

This is only two years removed from the Folk Festival and the Gaslight.

RAITT: It was the afternoon and Robert Klein was guest hosting for David Frost, and I’d opened for him on a college tour in upstate New York. He just really liked my show and invited me to come. Later, he also guest hosted on The Tonight Show and I came — that was the only time I did The Tonight Show until Jay Leno. But yeah I remember being really thrilled about it. I was really nervous, because he was the host and he was a harmonica player.

What I remember about that show is he asked me about the bottleneck and being the little smartass that I was I held my hand up with the bottleneck on my third finger and was basically flipping the bird at the camera explaining that that’s how I hold it, which is actually true. The friends who saw it thought it was hilarious. That’s why I used that finger when I taught myself to play. I was a little tomboy and my brother used to flip the bird all the time in LA. When you wanted to be tough, you called everyone by their last name and flipped the bird.

Saturday Night Live (1978)

You appeared on SNL later on, but 1978 was the early wild west days of that show.

RAITT: It was nuts. It was full party all the time. They have to come up with the show with such short periods of time week to week. I think Monday or Tuesday they stay up all night. By the time it’s the taping and the dress rehearsal they’re fried, but luckily we all had youth on our side. I had already done a couple of shows, like the performance at Wolf Trap in 1975 or 1976. I did Old Grey Whistle Test. I was more used to playing live at that point.

By the time we got to Saturday Night Live… the fact it was so iconic and it was live was very nerve-wracking. I wasn’t that professional. When the camera goes on I get self-conscious. In a live concert, I’m not nervous — I’m excited. I remember being in a skit with my guitar player and they asked if we could behave ourselves. Unfortunately it was the skit with Bill Murray doing the lounge singer and Gilda Radner had her leg in a cast in the lounge of the ski lodge. I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt really bad because they were right in front of me trying to keep a straight face and I was just losing it.

Doesn’t Lorne hate when people break? Did he say anything to you?

RAITT: Well, we were just in the scene at another table. I don’t know how much that dissuaded him from including musicians in the skits in the future. [Laughs] He didn’t say anything to me. I think we did OK at the dress rehearsal. The other thing I remember is we had to play dead. One of the other skits was this King Kong lobster was climbing up Rockefeller Center and it broke through the window so they had people in the audience getting attacked. After we finished performing they squirted fake blood all over us and we had to lie down over the wires as if we’d been killed by the lobster. For me as the girl who had to look good for the party, I had to go start over and wash all my makeup off and do my hair.

You didn’t do the after-party covered in fake blood.

RAITT: I didn’t, but I should’ve. We were up all night partying with those guys. It was really fun.

Urban Cowboy (1980)

RAITT: I got called and asked if I’d be in the movie as well as sing two songs on the soundtrack. I think we recorded first and then we played to the tracks. That smoke at Gilley’s? It was a full day of super toxic carcinogenic old-school — the oil that OSHA has long since banned because it gets in your lung tissue. You could barely see John Travolta and Debra Winger, anybody in the audience, because of the smoke. They were trying to duplicate back in the day, when people smoked in those clubs.

It was hard to sing. When you’re lip-syncing, you do have to sing, so it looks like you’re real. Maybe there’s a way you can do it where you don’t get hoarse. But I remember trashing my voice. I was nervous, but it was fun, and I loved the movie. It was a thrill to be a part of the movie. I don’t do that kind of music ordinarily, and then the album was such a huge hit, that for the next 20 years I ended up with people thinking I’m a country artist, and I never actually got any airplay on country radio except that record.

Did you get the bug to do more of that kinda stuff?

RAITT: Oh, well… singing a song is different than acting. I don’t think I’m a babe enough for people to call me and be in other kinds of movies. You know, John Prine was in a movie with John Mellencamp once. James Taylor was in a movie with Dennis Wilson. I always got a kick when people went off and [did that]. Tom Waits is our king of double duty. I just don’t have enough time as a touring musician that wants to keep my band and crew and staff being able to stay in their homes and eat — there’s not enough months in the year to do what I do and fit in something else. I don’t know how people do that, who have multiple careers. Dream on. Not me.

Trying To Collaborate With Prince (1986), Prince’s Version Of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (1996)

At one point you were supposed to work with Prince, but nothing ever came out.

RAITT: He knew I’d been dropped by Warner and I had a tour opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan and I had to cancel it at the last minute. I had the video cast and the clothes made. We were all lined up with the band and crew. They dropped me and the record, which was mastered and ready to come out, and never did. It put everyone out of work. Prince heard about it and called me up a few months later and said, “You got a raw deal, why don’t you come over to Paisley Park? I’ve always been a big fan of yours and I’ll make Warners eat their words,” basically.

I love his music. I didn’t know him well. But he sent a car for me when he was in LA. We love R&B, the Staple Singers and Sly Stone. I made my first album in Minneapolis, which has an incredibly integrated scene of rock and R&B. It’s funny, it’s the origin of the Mississippi River and the other city that’s like that is New Orleans at the bottom of the river. We made a plan for me to come to Minneapolis and work on some songs together. I said I’d love to do something as long as I can bring what I do. I’m not interested in just being a girl singer and guitar player on a Prince record. If we can meet in the middle and have a true collaboration, I’d love to do that.

I was making my living on an acoustic tour, just touring with my guitar player. We were touring as a duo after all those years being with my band. We were doing good business and it didn’t cost a lot to go on the road. But I took a ski lesson in Idaho and fell on the mountain and my thumb pulled away from my hand, so I had to go and get it repaired. I had to cancel two months’ worth of work. It was a great opportunity for me to lose some weight in case Prince and I wanted to make a video. At that point, I was really chunky. I had to stop running because my knees were acting up. I was dropped by Warners. I had a love affair go awry. I was just drinking and not taking care of myself. I said, “I’m not stupid, if I do a really sexy song with Prince, I’m going to want to make a video and I don’t look like someone he’d ever hit on, you know?” [Laughs] So I took opportunity of being in a cast while my thumb healed to quit drinking and go on a diet. I went to a musicians AA meeting and I saw a bunch of my friends there and they were all healthy and funny and having a great time and playing their assess off. Within two or three days I went, “This is for me.”

Prince and I ended up working together for three days, because we were postponing when I could go there because I couldn’t play. He went ahead and recorded some songs, or brought some songs out of his vault that were not in my key. And one of them had lyrics I would never sing. We didn’t get to collaborate. It was just him giving me three tracks and saying, “Go out and sing and play on this,” and me saying, “Well, they’re not my thing.” If we’d been able to recut the tracks in my key, there’s two of them that probably would’ve worked. But nothing’s fun when something’s four or five keys too low.

So it’s not like there’s a bunch of material in the vaults that hasn’t come out, it just never clicked.

RAITT: He told me he sampled my slide guitar for that song “Cream.” Which… would’ve been nice to have a little credit on. [Laughs] We were going to work together again but then he extended his tour in Europe and never bothered to call me so I wasn’t too thrilled with that. I was all ready to come to Minneapolis. I heard from people in Minneapolis he was actually going to be in Europe for another month and I said, “What!?”

It worked out OK. There were a lot of independent record labels I knew I could work on. But by the time Joe Smith moved over to Capitol — he’d signed me to Warner Bros., and we already had that connection. Don Was and I had forged a friendship on the Disney tribute album. I said, “Hey, let’s go into the studio.” He said, “If you can play the song for me on your guitar and piano without anyone else backing you up and it sounds like your song, that’s what we should use as a parameter.” And that’s what we did for Nick Of Time. It’s not that big of a change to pick the songs I picked. It was just a better version of it and I was a better version of myself.

After having briefly worked with Prince, what did you think of his version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” from the ’90s?

RAITT: One of my favorite songs of Prince’s of all times is “Nothing Compares 2 U.” When he does ballads, it just slays me. I thought he did a beautiful job with “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” I deliberately didn’t want to take it that R&B, even though I knew it could be interpreted that way and I do a lot of R&B-tinged arranging of Jackson Browne songs and others. On the version I did, I really wanted to pull it back and not go in that direction, have it stripped down. It was fun to hear what Prince would do with any song, but he did a beautiful job I thought.

I want to say that my most surprising version was to be in the audience in Minneapolis with my brother. I found out Aretha Franklin was playing, and I got tickets through the promoter. I’d never gotten to see her show. In the middle of the show she stops and says, “I’d like to sing a song for someone out in the audience here tonight that I think is terrific.” We had done a duet together on a special. She did “I Can’t Make You Love Me” for me, looking at me, while she’s onstage. You know that face in Home Alone when he’s got his hands like the Edvard Munch scream? That was me in the audience. Can you imagine how that felt to have her sing that song to me? Then Adele did it, and that was one of my favorite versions. But Prince, it was a beautiful reinterpretation.

Singing On Warren Zevon’s Self-Titled Album (1976)

So here’s a collaboration that did come to fruition.

RAITT: Oh man, Jackson [Browne] turned me on to Warren. You just never met anyone like him. He was such a great, squirrelly guy with an incredible rapier wit. As a huge Randy Newman and Tom Waits fan myself, it was great to have another quirky… I don’t know, quirky doesn’t begin to cover it. He was a totally unique character, incredibly musical and literary. It was really fun to have him in our circle. The same way that Tom Waits came into our orbit, or Rickie Lee Jones. Warren was just as unique a drop-in to our music scene, and I was so happy they wanted me to sing on the record. He was exactly like what he seemed when he was doing interviews. He was very, very funny.

The song you sang on was “Join Me In LA.”

RAITT: I would imagine he had already cut the track and it was just time to do backups. We were friends, Jackson and myself and Danny O’Keefe, for a while we were on a management company together in LA. We hung out when we weren’t on the road. He just came and asked me if I’d sing on it. I think he asked me because he liked the way I sang and knew I’d be the right person for that song.

“Angel From Montgomery” (1974)

You had a long history with John Prine, and you’ve said this is one of the most important songs in your repertoire. Do you remember what you thought when you first heard it?

RAITT: John was starting out not long after when I first started. We all kind of got our first and second records out within a few years of each other. But the word was out about John Prine in the folk music circles. We were really contemporaries. Everybody was just hearing about this guy. His first album came out and I was just floored, and still am. I’ve don’t a lot of interviews about him and his significance. Just to have that many brilliant songs on one record is astonishing. He just kept bringing it, album after album.

I knew I wanted to cut “Angel From Montgomery” the minute I heard that song. We played the Philadelphia Folk Festival together, and we toured together in those early days before either one of us had a band. He loved the way I did “Angel.” I made my fourth album with a kind of uptown R&B legend, Jerry Ragovoy, who wrote “Piece Of My Heart” and “Time Is On My Side” and a bunch of great records. Warner said, “You have an independent production deal and you can pick whatever producer you want, but now it’s three albums in and we’d like you to use somebody who’s at least had a hit.” I was like, “Oh really, watch this.” I picked somebody who had a hit, but in the R&B world.

We did a more uptown R&B version of “Angel From Montgomery” than what I normally would’ve done. But with my band, and solo, and duets with John, there’s a lot of permutations of that song. Over the years, I’ve sung it for myself, for my mom, for her generation. Lately I’ve been singing it for all the women around the world who don’t get to go to school or get out of a bad marriage or wear a short skirt or any of that stuff. The fact he could be so insightful about being in a marriage like that — the dead zone. Especially as a young feminist, I never wanted to get married but that song really nailed it for me.

You’ve been singing this song for almost 50 years, and it’s become a standard otherwise. You’ve interpreted many, many songs in your career, but you’re still finding new angles and meanings here?

RAITT: Absolutely. Because I do it every show, and I’m glad to do it every show. We arrange it a little bit. Sometimes I open it a cappella and the band doesn’t come in until the chorus. Sometimes there’s harmony, sometimes not. It’s who I’m thinking about when I’m singing it, which is as varied as the arrangement. I just did an unusual version, kind of a pandemic version because I was alone in my house, recording it for the second volume of the John Prine tribute album that [his widow] Fiona put out since John’s passing. I’ve had a lot of people come and sing with me on it, like Liz Wright and Ann Wilson and India.Arie. A lot of women I tour with and that are guests at my shows come up and join me. Some of my favorites are John himself and Jackson, singing “When I was a young girl,” and then the look they give me when they sing that part. [Laughs]

Covering INXS’ “Need You Tonight” (2016)

From Prine I wanted to zoom up to a more recent one — on your last record, you had INXS” “Need You Tonight,” which is a little bit different than the stuff you often cut for your records. What made you decide to do that song, especially about 30 years after it came out?

RAITT: I knew I wanted to cut that song from the minute I heard it on the radio. And not just because they said, “Slide over here,” but it did occur to me that that was great. [Laughs] I loved INXS, I loved their hits. They deservedly filled huge stadiums and I wish I’d been able to see a live show of theirs. I was always saving that song to do. I have George Marinelli in my band, who could take that tune and Keef it up a bit and do some great jagged edge. I slowed it down a bit. I had this sexy version, I just wanted to be able to sing that to somebody live. I wanted to do it every night.

The Gerry Rafferty song I did on the previous record to that — I’d always loved “Right Down The Line” and I’d always wanted to do it as more of a reggae song. One of the things I’m most proud of that I like to do is what I did with “Runaway” and “Burning Down The House” — sometimes it’s more similar to the original, but a lot of times it’s a little bit sideways and goes through the Bonnie filter. I was really happy that [INXS] liked it too.

Lilith Fair (1998)

Like you said, you were a young feminist, from a different generation. What did you make of the experience of seeing that festival being put together by a younger generation?

RAITT: It was all of our dreams coming true. For Sarah [McLachlan] to have been told, “You can’t tour with another woman, nobody will come and see it.” It’s just like, “Oh, give me a break.” Oh, really? How about this? And then it ended up being one of the most successful tours of that era. It was decidedly different, the vibe backstage — having been run by mostly women, top to bottom, production side. Certainly there were men involved in the management and road crews and everything like that, but it was really a very collaborative, welcoming backstage hang. A lot of sisterhood is powerful. It was very diverse, musically and ethnically and age-wise.

The fact she did a press conference every day and gave a significant portion of the proceeds? It was incredible. To do full makeup in the afternoon when she didn’t have to to present the check for the local women-centered causes. I just had tremendous admiration for what it meant, how far we’d come to have that tour be so successful and to tell the business once and for all that they were wrong about putting multiple women acts on one bill.

No Nukes Concerts (1979)

Earlier you were talking about how you were looking to be a social activist, not a musician. Broadly speaking, how important has it been for you to mingle activism and music over the decades?

RAITT: When I look back, there were some seminal, great collaborations. Live Aid. Concert For Bangladesh, although a lot of that money never got to the groups that we thought it was going to get to. I wasn’t involved in that, but I was sorry to hear that later. The No Nukes concerts came out of a bunch of us doing anti-nuclear work. Jackson, and Graham Nash, and David Crosby. Kris Kristofferson. The safe energy movement was coming out of the California scene trying to push wind and solar. There were a lot of nuclear plants that were leaking. There was environmental racism of uranium mining on Native American lands. The whole situation of storage problems and lack of safety and threat of terrorist attacks. We got a heavy education in that in the mid- and late ’70s.

I did a concert at Avery Fisher Hall, with the Karen Silkwood Defense Fund, because after she was murdered they found tickets for a Jackson Browne/Bonnie Raitt concert in her car in 1974. Her family approached me and asked if I would do a benefit. James [Taylor] and Carly [Simon] came and sat in. By the end of the night, I said, “Man, all we need is a couple more, Graham and Jackson, we could maybe aim for Madison Square Garden.” Not long after that we founded Musicians United For Safe Energy, with the aim of CSN, Jackson, myself, maybe doing one or two nights at Madison Square Garden.

Then Jackson asked Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty was asked. It snowballed. Gil Scott-Heron, Chaka Khan. It was a fantastic lineup of people. It went for five nights, and we played to 250,000 people in Battery Park on the afternoon of the last night. It was an amazing accomplishment. None of us got much sleep, but it was one of the most thrilling and satisfying events I’ve been a part of in my life. I’m so proud of what led up to it, and what we did after. Jackson and Graham and myself all still take a lot of our proceeds from our charity fundraising along the tours to support local safe energy groups in the United States.

Collaborating With Don Was And Mainstream Breakthrough (Late ’80s To Mid-’90s)

You alluded to this when we were talking about Prince. You got together with Don Was in the mid-’80s for this Dumbo song for a Disney tribute. How did you guys click where doing this one-off thing turned into working together for Nick Of Time?

RAITT: Don is one of the coolest, kindest, hippest, most generous people you will ever be blessed to know. Positively the most humble and erudite and knowledgeable and not stuck-up people in the music industry. When Hal Willner called and asked if I’d consider doing this song and suggested Was Not Was, I thought it was such a brilliant idea. I was already a fan of Hal’s work and his tribute records.

When we met, Don had no idea what a Was Not Was fan I was. I was completely blown away by the fact that he, being quite a bit younger than me, was such a fan of my early records and knew all about me. I was knocked out that somebody I admired as much as him also felt the same away about me. It was a match made by mutual deep respect and admiration. When you are received like that, whether it’s a romantic connection or a musical collaboration, it’s magic when that happens. It’s rare. The depth of our appreciation of each other as artists was so apparent. We got on like a house on fire. He brings out the best in everybody.

At first you two were just doing this scrappy thing, writing in the basement. And then Nick Of Time became this big success neither of you expected. From there, was it just a matter of, “Well let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.”

RAITT: Oh yeah, never any question. We were having so much fun together, that was already a success, just to make a good record. It didn’t cost very much. I already had a career. I didn’t need to reinvent myself. I didn’t care about whether I made money, he didn’t care about whether he made money. We just liked doing music for the sake of music. I was glad to be on a label that cared about me. I had built myself a solid recording audience, 150,000 fans that would buy my record no matter what. From staying on the road and by giving up a regular life, a marriage and kids — I love staying on the road, and I knew if I built my following slow and steady, they would be with me like my dad’s following was. My heroes were all able to work into their seventies and eighties. I had the long game in my sights. Don was just somebody I had been looking for for a long time.

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