Q&A: Bonnie Raitt on ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’: ‘It struck me deeply’
George Michael. Bon Iver. The R&B singer Tank.
These are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “I Can’t Make You Love Me” since Bonnie Raitt had a hit with the song on her Grammy-winning 1991 album “Luck of the Draw.”
Written by Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, the tune -- about someone begging an indifferent lover to stay just one more night -- has become something of a modern standard, a go-to source of grown-up melancholy for established stars as well as the young hopefuls on televised singing shows “American Idol” and “The Voice.” (For some insight into how a song enters the atmosphere, read Alan Light’s recent book “The Holy or the Broken,” in which he examines the rather unlikely ascent of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”)
On Friday night, Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves will add another version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” to the pile when their episode of CMT’s “Crossroads” premieres.
I was at the Culver City soundstage where the pop diva and the country upstart taped the show several weeks ago, and their duet got me wondering what Raitt thinks about what’s happened to her song, which was originally produced by Don Was and featured Bruce Hornsby on keyboard. So I called her up.
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” might be your best-known song at the moment -- it’s the one at the top of your Spotify page, for whatever that’s worth. Tell me about hearing it for the first time.
I knew immediately when Mike Reid sent me the song that it was absolutely one of the most honest and original heartache songs I had ever heard. It was a point of view that I had been on both sides of, and it struck me deeply; I knew immediately I wanted to sing it. Just the demo was as evocative to me as people say my version is to them.
What grabbed you?
There’s just something so soulful about the combination of the keyboard part and the lyrics and the melody. It’s a marriage that comes together once in a while, where the music really sounds like what the person’s singing. Part of it for me is Bruce’s beginning. The way Bruce plays -- he calls it Bill Evans meets the hymnal -- he’s one of those piano players where there’s just so much intrinsic soul in the way they play. And it’s the simplicity of the arrangement that we wanted to do when Don and I were talking about it. It just didn’t need any gussying up, you know? The song is best naked.
Did you have a feeling that other singers would be attracted to it?
I knew that it would be covered by people putting more of an R&B spin on it, which Prince did. Aretha [Franklin] sang it once to me at her concert. I didn’t even know she knew I was there, and she completely surprised me and did her own incredible version, different from anyone’s. George Michael, of course -- George and Prince were the ones who had the most notable versions, in terms of other people knowing about them, besides mine. But then recently Adele covered it. With the Internet, people send me things immediately -- like when Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] recorded it with a little bit of “Nick of Time” on Jimmy Fallon’s show.
It’s a staple now on TV singing shows.
Carrie Underwood and Emmylou Harris and I worked up “Blue Bayou” for the Linda Ronstadt tribute [at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in April], and the first time I met Carrie, I found out that she had auditioned [for “Idol”] with “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” It’s meant so much. I used to get a lot with “Angel From Montgomery” and “Something to Talk About,” but of all the songs I’ll ever be associated with, the number of people -- of all races, all ages, all musical genres -- that come up to me and almost tear up talking about what that song means to them, that’ll make it the greatest gift I’ve ever had musically.
You’ve sung it so many times over the past two decades. Some singers will change up their most-performed stuff as a way of staying interested in it.
Hello, Bob Dylan. “Guess what song this one is.”
What’s your feeling on tweaking “I Can’t Make You Love Me”?
There’s times that I know, because I’m a singer, this person had to sing this song so many times, that I don’t mind if they take some liberties as long as it’s a cool direction. In fact, I welcome it sometimes. But I try not to mess with the melody too much, because first of all I know there’s people at the show who haven’t seen me for three years. There’s people who haven’t seen me in 20 years! So this is almost a sacrosanct version of this song. I owe it to them that when they pay good money and parking and baby-sitters and whatever, I want to give them an experience that is the reason they came.
They’re looking for that moment to feel what you’re singing.
I can see it in the audience. And I’ve been told by women I meet backstage at a reception or something, they’ll say, “My husband never cries, and because of you singing that song, he’s able to get in touch with things. I look over when you sing that and see him respond, and it really brings us together.”
I’m choking up just talking about it. Every night when I sing it, I go back to my younger self when my heart was broken and I was so desperate to have the person just give me that one more night. I mean, that is devastating. And I’ve also left somebody and stayed with them longer than I should have because they begged me to not leave yet.
Not many songs embody that perspective.
“Don’t patronize me.” Who would have thought you could sing that?
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