Bonnie Raitt: The 13th Floor Interview

Bonnie Raitt and her stellar band return to New Zealand at the end of March for two shows as part of her Dig In Deep Tour. Bonnie’s been making music for well over 40 years and she seems to just get better and better.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Bonnie Raitt recently about the upcoming shows in Wellington and Auckland. She also reflected back on the album she recorded 40 years ago and revealed what it was like to celebrate her birthday on the US election day this past November.

Click here to listen to the interview with Bonnie Raitt:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: You’re coming with your regular band – which includes ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson and Ricky Fataar, and all those guys.

BR: Yeah, same guys on the last two records. The three main guys, George and Ricky and Hutch, have been with me since Nick of Time, and George joined about Longing in Their Hearts, and Hutch has been with me since ’83. And actually, Ricky played on a record that I did in 1981… then he moved to Australia for ten years and came back for Nick of Time; not just for that, but he was on the road and on most of my records.

MD: So, what’s the key to keeping all these guys together? It’s unusual to have the same band hanging around for so long.

BR: We love playing together, and if one of them was falling short, then they’d have to get somebody else in their seat, but they’re all really incredible musicians. One of the great gifts of winning all those Grammys in ’90 was being able to afford to get the same level of musicians that sometimes play on my record. Ricky is just an amazing musician, and Hutch and he, together, have played on so many different albums over the years, but I’m really lucky that they still want to tour with me. It’s a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship. They all have other projects that they do, but we keep it interesting, and we can get along great. They’re smart, they’re well read, they’re political, they’re caring people, they’re good to their families; so, it’s as important that they’re good people, as it is that they play good.

MD: You guys were on the road quite a bit last year, right? You did a ton of shows together.

BR: Yeah… I started doing a promotion three or four months before, and I was running a record company, and we took about a year and a day out for me to get it all lined up – and produce it and mix it, and all that. But the band comes in on January, and we finished our last date on Election Day – on my birthday – November 8th.

MD: Oh, man! Your birthday was Election Day?

BR: Happy birthday! I went on stage in Austin, Texas, with one outcome likely, and came off to do the encore, and saw the faces back stage, and I went, “You got to be kidding me.” Then I had to go back out and sing I Can’t Make You Love Me…. Let’s just say that I didn’t need any more motivation to get sadder.

MD: I can imagine. It’s been quite a few months. These shows, I assume, will be your first ones out of the country since Trump has taken over?

BR: Yeah! We just did a couple of weeks in California and Nevada, and we’re going to be stopping in Hawaii on the way to New Zealand; so, this will be our first out of The States show. I’ve been doing quite a bit of press; so, I’ve been queried by a lot of people asking, “What’s it like  over here?” There are a lot of people looking into New Zealand, and wondering if they have enough money in the bank account to be able to immigrate.

MD: Isn’t there a movement, in California, to secede from the union at some point?

BR: Oh, I know. I think they’re called Calexit, or something. I don’t know how serious it is – I’m making jokes about it, but it’s no laughing matter…. For those of us that are fighting for… the environment and equal justice and equal rights and tolerance, it’s really a setback; so, we have our work cut out for us.

MD: Yes indeed; that’s a fact. Listening to your latest album, Dig In Deep, and listening to the song, The Coming Around is Going Through, it seems like your addressing some of those issues in that song. Is that what was that happening when you were writing that?

BR: You know, I wrote it about three years ago, actually, and my guitar player and I put the music to it. I wanted to write it just because I don’t often get up on a high horse with my politics; I keep that for when I do benefits – what I do with my fund raising, and when I’m doing interviews, and playing rallies and benefits, that’s when people ask me – but I had had about enough of the system being broken, and money determining who gets elected, and buying legislation, and buying judicial seats; and the Koch brothers and different entities that are having no connection to reality, and the media with Fox News. My affiliation lies on the progressive side of politics, but for the other side that likes the Tea Party and Trump, they feel the same thing: they feel that the elites are running everything. Bottom line is that only those at the top are controlling policies, and if the bottom doesn’t feel like their being represented, or they don’t bother to vote, it’s not really democracy, it’s an oligarchy; so, I was really pissed off that there wasn’t enough campaign reform and election reform and going after Wall Street. It really started in 2008: it’s been an issue for a long time – money and politics – but it’s gotten to the level of criminal absurdity to have billions of dollars spent on these campaigns and no transparency, in terms of truth, of where the money’s coming from.

MD: Do you see any change likely, after all that’s happened over the last year and a half?

BR: I think the women’s march that I was a part of – it was about three and a half million people worldwide that happened right after the inauguration – I think it’s just the beginning of many more people marching for civil rights – like in the ‘60s, against the Vietnam War. I think that the issues that have stayed important  everybody just waking up, and they’ll realise that they can’t lie around and not do something anymore; so, there’ll be a lot more rallies, a lot more marches, and a lot more… people calling their congress people and writing in; which I’m really happy to see. I think everybody’s awake, and realise we have everything at stake, to be more involved.

MD: Speaking of money – on a more musical note – I think you’re involved with a ‘kick starter’ campaign for a documentary called Sidemen: The Long Road To Glory?

BR: Yeah, that’s one of the things that I’m involved with.

MD: It has Pinetop Perkins and Willie Smith and Hubert Sumlin. Has the doco been made? What’s the status of the film?

BR: I don’t know if it’s in the final editing form, but the music’s pretty much finished, and I think they’re trying to get some funding to be able to get the final mixes in and the commissions for the songs; that always costs a lot of money: you have to pay for the right to put a song in – even if it’s a documentary. They’re wonderful people. It’s a very worthwhile film topic, and they’ve done a great job with it. I think these public funding efforts are so great on so many levels to support the arts; especially with music that’s not mainstream, that really deserves more attention.

MD: Are you appearing in the film?

BR: I have an interview; whether they’re using it, I don’t know; I think so.

MD: You had played with several of those gentlemen; haven’t you?

BR: Oh yeah, I played with Muddy Waters since I was twenty one, opening shows for him all through the ‘70s, and then we were double billed right up until he passed away. I’ve been on some blues festivals where the band members continued, the all-star band of Muddy Waters, and they were all good friends of mine that I’ve known since I was twenty years old.

MD: Speaking of the ‘70s: it occurred to me that it will be forty years ago, next month, that your Sweet Forgiveness album was released – which is where you got your first medium sized hit with Runaway. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the making of that album?

BR: Yeah, this is great! If you hadn’t mentioned that, I wouldn’t have realised it was the anniversary. I know that Luck of the Draw and Nick of Time were coming up on twenty five years – that happened fast. The Sweet Forgiveness album was done with my touring band – and previous records had been done with members of Little Feat and different amalgamations of players in LA or New York – …but this was my touring bands and that version of Runaway: I loved doing covers anyway, but in the previous record, in the studio, I was jamming with my friend John Hall from Orleans, and I was playing Love And Happiness by Al Green – who had just come on the scene, and all of us were just floored by how great he was – and the same chord changes of Runaway came in my mind, and I started singing to that, and I said, “Oh, great! I’m going to put this on my next record.”


I have that memory, and I have a lot of… great honing down of getting better in the studio; and it was great working with Paul Rothchild – he made some wonderful records with The Doors, of course, and Janis Joplin. I picked him because he had played with my friends, Paul Butterfield and their blues band; so, I really like that wide sound he got.

MD: Of course, back then, you were mostly concentrating on singing other folks’ songs – songs by Jackson Browne and Karla Bonoff and Don Covay, and folks like that. When did you make the move to write your own songs? Right now it’s 50/50 on most of your records.

BR: It just depends on whether the songs make the cut, or whether I’m finding enough by other people. I have a specific bunch of grooves that I wanted to add to the show this time; and so, I custom wrote some songs that had some topics – the last song on the record, The Coming Around is Going Through, is one I definitely wanted. I wanted to play piano, this Leon Russell shuffle style that I like to do – and I wrote a song so I could play that; and that’s What You’re Doing to Me. Then I really wanted a new funk – we have a lot of really funky Used to Rule the World kind of songs… just one of the songs that I do, but there’s probably half a dozen that have that funk feel to them – and I wanted something new to add to the show; and so, I came to Jon Cleary, and he had this cool title – it was already so rhythmic; it sort of wrote itself – Unintended Consequence of Love, and I put the words to that… that opens the record. In my early days, I had two or three songs on my early records that had just been stored up, because a lot of people have more songs stored when they first get recording, and then as you end up making record after record, you go through all the ones you’ve stashed; so, I stayed on the road ten months of the year during the ‘70s, and there just wasn’t time or… opportunity to find the privacy and room to write, and I didn’t sell enough records to be able to afford to take many months off. I think I started writing more around  Nick Of Time, because when the record did so well, I actually could take a month or two and go away…. I don’t always pick my tunes as my number one favourite; so, if I don’t make the cut, I don’t have any uber attachment to whether my song’s going to make it or not.

MD: Looking back again: forty years ago: how would you describe yourself back then, in comparison to the artist that you are these days?

BR: Ha ha ha!… I was twenty seven: I think that’s when you’re coming into the height of your powers… when someone says they’re going to get married, and I say, “How old are they?” And they go, “Twenty seven, twenty eight,” and I go, “Yeah, that’s pretty cooked;” that’s cooked enough to make that decision. I think you really stepped into your adulthood – or at least you did back then; sometimes now they say, for younger people, that your thirties are really what your twenties were, and I know, if you extrapolate to your fifties, your sixties were more like what your fifties were like for my parents – so, twenty seven, I think I was coming into my own. I had made… my seventh record, maybe. I made a lot of records in a short period of time, and I think I got better in the studio, and I felt more confident, and I started running – I was really healthy – so, I remember feeling more like in the driver’s seat, and happy about it. Then you go through your thirties, and realise you’re not in the driver’s seat!

MD: Yeah, because the ‘80s were a bit tough for you, weren’t they?

BR: Well, I think they were tough for everybody, in terms of Reagan and the Central American wars. A lot of the roots music that had a home in FM progressive radio were kind of beaded off, and people like John Hiatt and John Hall and myself and Little Feat: people didn’t know where to put us. It wasn’t until AAA radio, adult oriented rock and college radio, and then independent stations proliferated a little bit more in the late ‘80s, that Tracy Chapman and The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Edie Brickell and Robert Cray all had hits, and I went, “Hey, man, something that’s changing; maybe there’s a place for me,” and I found Capitol Records, instead of Warners, who had dropped me, unceremoniously, a couple of weeks before my tour started with Stevie Ray Vaughan; so, I had to pull out of that; so, I was really happy to have a new home. VH1 had just come out, and they would actually play somebody forty years old on that video outlet; so, a lot of things lined up in 1990 for me to have more success; to, basically, doing the same thing I was doing on all those other records.

MD: And it seems to have been consistent since then for you.

BR: Well, those big million selling records of the early ‘90s, that abated it a little bit. VH1 stopped playing people 45 and over in about ‘95… or they’ll play you, but at three o’clock in the morning…. I still have a really good following – I’m certainly more well known than I was in the ‘70s – but I never felt unsuccessful; I was always able to draw 2500 seaters, make a good living for my band and myself. Some people don’t love the road as much as I do, and they have the luxury of making a living from CDs, but in this day and age, it’s people that have a live following that can make a living at it, because people think that they should get their music for free.

MD: Yeah, that’s a fact.

BR: Yeah, it’s not great. And for Journalists as well: a lot of my friends have been cut from newspapers, and they’re writing from online blogs, and they get nothing for that. The whole career in journalism and photography and documentary films and song writers and publishers and editors and engineers: they’re out of a job; but you know Google and YouTube are making a lot of money.

MD: That’s a fact. One last thing that I wanted to touch on: you covered INXS’ song, Need You Tonight, on Dig In Deep. Are you going to be playing that to the Australians when you get over here?

BR: Absolutely! And I have their blessing: Andy Farriss let me know, when the song came out, that he loves the way we did it. It’s been one of our highlights of the show, in all the reviews. I picked the tune, because I loved it from the first time I heard it; I’m a huge INXS fan! I wanted to slink it up a little bit with slide guitars. To this day, it’s one of the sexiest songs I’ve ever gotten to sing, and it sets the tone for the show; so, I have to put it up, right at the top.

Bonnie Raitt performs at Wellington’s St James Theatre on Thursday, March 30th and in Auckland at The Civic Theatre on Saturday, April 1st. Click here for tickets and more info.