Whether touring, winning Grammys or fighting for the rights of music veterans, singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt has always had plenty to keep her busy. So over the course of her four-decade career, a gap of a few years between albums wasn’t unprecedented.
But this time around, the seven-year lapse between her last CD and her new effort, “Slipstream” (arriving Tuesday), is different.
The nine-time Grammy Award winner pulled off the road, put the band that she’s toured with for decades on ice, and joined the audience.
“I got to go to gigs — just be a fan, no pressure whatsoever,” said Raitt, 62, in between sips of iced tea at the vintage Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City, the neighborhood just outside where she grew up as the daughter of Broadway star John Raitt and singer-pianist Marge Goddard. “I got to see a lot of jazz, African world music and the symphony, and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass [Festival in San Francisco] — I got to go two years in a row. That’ll fire you up to get back into music.”
The experience recharged Raitt for the making of her new and 19th album, most of which she produced, sans four tracks that came out of sessions with singer, songwriter and producer Joe Henry.
“I waited until I was really ready, and then those Joe Henry sessions, it was like having my blood changed,” she said. “You can be off only so long when you have this in your blood.”
Now back in the game, Raitt is gearing up for her forthcoming tour, which will hit the Greek Theatre on Sept. 22. On that leg of the tour she’ll be sharing the bill with one of her heroines, Mavis Staples.
She’ll play old and new material, some of which was co-written by longtime friend and former NRBQ guitarist, singer and songwriter Al Anderson for her new record. And although she recorded at least an album’s worth of material with Henry for “Slipstream,” she decided to include just four songs on the record, saving the rest to release later.
“I couldn’t do two CDs — it would be too confusing for the fans,” she said, “and I wanted to give the Joe project its own space down the line. I didn’t release Joe’s first because I didn’t think it was the right blend of all the different sides of me to put out an entire record of that kind of beautiful, elegiac, stately, spooky kind of tone next to something like ‘Split Decision,’” she said, referring to one of the characteristically raucous rave-ups from Anderson on “Slipstream.” “I picked these songs so I could play them live, so I can have that [elegiac ballad] groove, or I could play a James Brown song.”
The album is the first release on her own label, Red Wing Records. It’s largely run by trusted associates so Raitt can focus on being a musician, “but ultimately,” she said, “I’m saying yes or no to everything. If you’ve got a good management team and you can find a good distributor and a great PR company, it works better than being at a label. If somebody’s not working out, you can change it, which you can’t always do on a label.”
She expressed less frustration about music business issues in recent years than with the often hostile, fractionalized tenor of debate she encounters in her many social and political endeavors.
Raitt, who helped launch the Rhythm and Blues Foundation to protect the rights of veteran R&B musicians and started the Bonnie Raitt Guitar Project with Boys and Girls Clubs of America to provide instruments and lessons to underprivileged youths, has also been a longtime supporter of anti-nuclear efforts.
She was one of the participants in the original No Nukes benefit concert in the 1979, and was on the bill in last year’s anniversary reunion show in the Bay Area, along with Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills & Nash and others. She’s also been sympathetic to the Occupy movement protests.
“It’s so polarized,” she said of politics today. “It’s hard not to get cynical. I hope it won’t be tragedy that brings us all together, but there’s a slow burn going on.... We need to reconnect and find out how many of us are purple instead of red and blue. There’s Prince — he could do it.”
The egalitarian sentiment may reflect her pacifist upbringing as a Quaker, but the biggest factor in her refusal to give into cynicism is her music. “The great thing about the arts, and especially popular music, is that it really does cut across genres and races and classes,” said Raitt.
“At Farm Aid, especially in the early days, somebody like Willie [Nelson] and Neil [Young] and John Mellencamp could get artists from all different sectors to come together on behalf of the farmers.... You see people come together and cut across all lines, and there’s no judgment when there’s inarguable suffering because of a man-made or natural disaster. Maybe we could take a cue from that.”