After taking a break from touring and recording, the bluesy singer-guitarist Bonnie Raitt has returned with Slipstream, her first album in seven years. She spoke recently from her California home.
You recently played Toronto’s Massey Hall, where the story goes that you burst into the green room and yelled out for Richard Flohil, that Canadian folk-music promoter and raconteur. True?
It is. He was the first Canadian that I really knew. I had met Dick Waterman, who was one of the three people who rediscovered Son House, and who managed Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Richard and Dick were very good friends, and I inherited that friendship. Who told you the Massey Hall story?
Richard did, of course. I assumed you were looking for him because he owed you money, for Mariposa or something.
Oh, that’s pretty funny. I don’t see Richard enough. He looked hale and hearty and fantastic.
Meeting Waterman and Son House during your freshman year at Harvard changed your life. But, up to that point, what had been your relationship with music?
The tradition that I grew up in, regardless of whether I was going to do it for a living, was just falling in love with music and being a fan. And what moved me to sing it myself was that sometimes it’s not enough to listen to House of the Rising Sun on the radio. I didn’t want to be a star. I just wanted to create that feeling, in my room. So, I taught myself guitar when I was eight or nine years old.
You didn’t take lessons?
I had a couple of chords shown to me by my grandfather. He and my parents gave me my dream, which was my own Stella guitar from Sears Roebuck. I went into my room and played and played until my fingers bled, so that I could haunt myself singing those ballads of Joan Baez.
Hearing your version of Gerry Rafferty’s Right Down the Line on your new album made me think of the song in a new way. The line “I just want to say this is my way of telling you everything I could never say before.” Could we look at that as your history of interpreting other writers’ songs? Singing and saying things through words written by others?
It never even occurred to me, until Bob Dylan came along and the Beatles, that people wrote their own music. Everybody was interpreting other people’s songs. If you connect with a song, enough to want to sing it, or it moves you, it doesn’t matter if it’s coming out of your exact pen or not. It’s what you want to express.
Adele covers your 1991 single I Can’t Make You Love Me. Justin Vernon recorded a version as well. How does that make you feel?
Adele said wonderful things about that record. It wasn’t just me. It was the writing and Bruce Hornsby and producer Don Was. I’m very proud that as a singer, people across different genres appreciate me.
It calls to mind your recent quote: “I’m in the slipstream of those who came before me, and I’m leaving one for those behind me.”
I called the album Slipstream so people would talk about that, as a jumping-off point for discussion, instead of “what’s new about this record.” You know, one of my greatest joys is B.B. King thinking that I’m the best slide guitar player. I have the respect of my peers, in my own generation, in my musical world. It means so much to me.
What about your legacy as a female guitarist? With your popularity, now it’s a little less surprising to see a Sue Foley or a Susan Tedeschi strap on a Fender electric.
I’m really proud of that as well. I’m setting a standard for women leading a band, and also for my activism and who I am as a person. I’m proud that that glass ceiling has been broken a little bit. But I’m certainly just one in a big long line.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Bonnie Raitt plays Vancouver, Aug. 10; Edmonton Folk Festival, Aug. 12; Calgary, Aug. 13.