Bonnie Raitt Heads to the Grammys, Recognized as a Songwriter at Last
Bonnie Raitt is no stranger to the Grammys, which will be awarded Sunday in Los Angeles. She has won 10 of them since 1979, and she has also been a frequent presenter and performer on the show, befitting a musician who has long been the model of a sustainable, self-guided rock career.
Raitt has never depended on hit singles or spectacle; instead, she relies on the quiet power of a voice that draws on blues, country, soul and rock to speak plainly about complicated emotions. Modestly but tenaciously, Raitt has cycled through decades of recording albums and touring, selling out 3,000-seat theaters and playing regularly at festivals. Musicians like Adele and Bon Iver have drawn on her repertoire, and younger musicians, particularly women, have cited her example as a bandleader and producer.
Raitt, 73, has long been renowned as a finder and interpreter of songs, but most of her albums have also included a few of her own. Her four Grammy nominations this year include her first ones for her songwriting. The title track of her 2022 album, “Just Like That…,” has been nominated as song of the year and best American roots song. It’s a quiet, folky track about a heart transplant; a mother whose son was killed in an accident meets the recipient, and she gets to hear her child’s heart beating again.
“Just Like That” and “Down the Hall,” a song narrated by a prisoner serving a life sentence and working in the prison hospice, show the influence of John Prine, a master of folky, laconic character studies, who died of Covid in 2020. He wrote “Angel From Montgomery,” a song Raitt always sings in concert.
In a video interview from her living room in Marin County, Calif., Raitt wore a rainbow-hued outfit and spoke about songwriting, autonomy and awards-show serendipity. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
“I don’t write all the time,” Raitt said. “So it’s almost like having a whole body, spiritual, emotional, physical feeling when you get shaken like that.”Credit…Peter Fisher for The New York Times
You have a lot of Grammy Awards already, but “Just Like That” is your first nomination as a songwriter. It seems a little belated for someone who has written dozens of songs.
I was never expecting this song of the year nomination. But I was very proud of the song, especially since it was so inspired by John Prine, and we lost him. I put my heart and soul into every record, and I never know which ones are going to resonate. But I can tell people are really moved, looking out there in the audience.
Tell me about writing the song. You’ve said that it began with fingerpicking guitar.
I usually write my ballads on the keyboard. Probably because I took lessons, it just seems to be freer, more flexible. The guitar style that I have is really homegrown, primitive folk guitar chords and those old blues licks.
This particular time, I wanted to write, but not about my personal life, because I really had covered that. I didn’t have anything else to say. So I was looking for a story.
And completely out of the blue, I saw this news program. They followed this woman with a film crew to the guy’s house who received her son’s heart. There was a lump in my throat — it was very emotional. And then when he asked her to sit down next to him and asked if she’d like to put her head on his chest and listen to his heart — I can’t even tell the story to this day without choking up, because it was so moving to me.
I wrote it for awhile without the music. I worked on the lyrics for both “Down the Hall” and this one. It was like there was a higher purpose for both of those songs. It was a really different process for me to have those lines that are crucial in each song just appear in my head.
I don’t write all the time. So it’s almost like having a whole body, spiritual, emotional, physical feeling when you get shaken like that. And the music — after the vaccines were available, I decided to make the record six months early, in the summer, and tour again. That put the pressure on to actually finish the song. So I just sat and played my acoustic guitar. And at that point, we had just lost John, and I just had him in my heart. I just started fingerpicking, and I had the lyrics in front of me, and the song poured through me without any thinking about it.
You’ve been an example for a lot of younger performers as a woman who is indisputably the bandleader.
Maria Muldaur told me that years ago. She decided that she could actually be a solo act after watching me with my band in the studio in Woodstock, making “Give It Up.” And in the last 10 years of Americana events, I meet all these other women like Brandi Carlile, and they’ll tell me that they were growing up on my music and what an influence I’ve been.
But it’s hard for me to think about that because I know my foibles and my failings. I still hold myself up to a standard I probably can’t live up to. But I’m really grateful when people say those kind things about me.
It’s a very challenging position to be in when you’re very young. But I’ve been my own boss since I was 20. I walked into Warner Bros. and said, “You can’t tell me what to wear, when to put my work out, who to work with and what to record. But I’ll work my ass off if you put out my records.” And they went for it. Now, I can’t even imagine somebody telling me what to do.
And I could not live with somebody overriding my musical taste. I always picked someone that was not going to produce me and decide the arrangements, but work with me as a partner in the studio. So sometimes, when I needed to tell somebody that they just weren’t cutting it, I would use my producer partner to go in and say something instead of me. As a live bandleader, I have sometimes been on thin ice, when I’ve tried to find the words to explain something that I wanted when I couldn’t play it myself.
The tricky part is that I know what I want. I know what doesn’t work. I know what direction I like. I can say, “Play something more like this.” But it’s how to say that in a way that doesn’t deflate someone’s joy or their ability to feel.
At your concerts, it seems that you’re totally relaxed and casual, but you’re onstage in front of thousands of people. Do you think about pacing, timing, theatricality?
Somehow I just learned to put a show together. There’s nothing like performing live. It’s just something I was born to do. And when I put together a show, I leave room for some wild cards. It’s a joy every night — to know that you have the aces on each of those instruments, and that we’ve rehearsed enough where we can have some fun with it. And I think the audiences are not there to see a jukebox show. They’re going with me wherever I want to go. I’m more comfortable onstage than any other place in my life. I wish I was as comfortable offstage as I am onstage.
It seems awards shows and festivals are rare chances for a lot of performers to meet.
I think all of us are like a kid in a candy store backstage. My favorite story about the Grammys was going through the metal detector at the Staples Center, at the afternoon ceremony. I was in the line between two guys in Slipknot, and the guy behind me is like in a Hannibal Lecter kind of a mask, and he goes, “I really dig your music!” I wouldn’t have expected Slipknot guys to know me. You know, maybe a “My mom loves you” kind of thing, but he was clearly a fan.
And I just never expected the number of people that come up and tell each other that. I got to tell Dave Grohl what a fan I am of the Foo Fighters, and he was so surprised on the red carpet. Pharrell Williams, when he was in N.E.R.D., he grabbed me as I was walking back to my seat at the Grammys, and he said, “Any time you want to do something together …”
“Nick of Time,” which was your title song for the 1989 LP that won album of the year, was about the fact of mortality, and now so are “Down the Hall” and “Just Like That.”
Yeah, and I dedicated this record to friends that I lost in just two years. It’s just been an unbearable amount of loss. Suicides, drug overdoses, cancer, Covid. It’s unbelievable, what’s going on with the climate and with Ukraine and the Somali famine, which isn’t even getting any coverage, and the migrant situation on the border, and Syrian refugees. I mean, I’ve never been as discouraged and heartbroken as I have been. I soldier on.
People say, “Well, how come you don’t do political music?” Most of it is just so insufferable. And I try to be really careful about not preaching my politics onstage because I know there’s a lot of people out there that may not agree with me, and they’re there to hear the music. So we have a table out there in the hall, and we tithe a dollar of every ticket.
I do have a couple of songs that are political, like “Hell to Pay” and “The Comin’ Round Is Going Through” — I couldn’t wait anymore. But the politics between people, and love relationships, are just as thorny and important to lift up and write from interesting points of view.