Let's give 'em something to talk about

Bonnie Raitt has a new album out and is planning to tour New Zealand.
Bonnie Raitt has a new album out and is planning to tour New Zealand.

It is 8.54am on a bleak Monday morning. American musical legend Bonnie Raitt is calling me at 9am. I have a flat tyre. Rain beats down like mocking shards of glass.

Gritting my cellphone between my teeth I push the car to the side of the road, knocking over a road cone in the process.

The classy Raitt, punctual to the second, phones at 9am. We exchange pleasantries then a burly man in a high- vis vest knocks on my window. I point to my phone and shrug. He knocks again.

Apologising to Raitt, I open the car door and explain I'm on a phone interview and I'll just be 10 minutes. He is unsympathetic. Roadworks wait for no woman, apparently. But once he discovers it's Raitt on the other end of the line . . .

"Let's give 'em something to talk about," he sings surprisingly well, holding a road cone aloft like a mic.

Minutes later he is kindly changing the tyre while I perch under an umbrella on a table outside Subway on Riccarton Rd, talking to Raitt.

"What a comedy of errors," she laughs. "It's not funny but, I'm sorry, it kind of is."

Raitt is in her living room which is, she says, full of Christmas lights and garlands of cedar. She's had fun buying space toys and princess outfits for her "great-great-great niece and nephew", 6 and 2 respectively.

"When I start putting the lights on in the middle of the day, I know I'm getting the spirit."

When we speak her new album, Slipstream had just received a nomination for a 2013 Grammy Award in the Best Americana Album category. She's up against Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, amongst others.

"We are very happy we got nominated," Raitt says. "I'm in a rich and fertile field at the moment. The category is a bit of a surprise, but I'm not sure if there is a category that fits the record."

She's no stranger to such awards, having received nine Grammy Awards in her 40-year career. She is listed at No 50 in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and No 89 on the magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

Slipstream, her 16th album, was released on her own Redwing label last year after an extended break following the release of 2006 DVD/CD Bonnie Raitt and Friends.

Raitt says she knew back then she wasn't "retiring for good".

"It's not the music that I needed a break from, it was the business. To make an album and take on the two to three-year period of the tour is a big commitment and you have to be up for it."

The daughter of Broadway star John Raitt, she was born in California on November 8, 1949, and first picked up a guitar at 12. She immediately found a deep love and affinity for the blues.

Her first self-titled album was released in 1971 and quickly marked her as a critics' favourite, particularly for her guitar playing style (she is one of few women who play bottleneck) - but it wasn't until Nick of Time, released in 1989, that she found commercial success. In between there was a battle with drugs and alcohol, which Raitt won.

She describes herself as having a business mind and comes across as an astute woman.

"I grew up in a showbusiness family. My dad chose not to be involved with the business side of things.

"He was laissez faire and I am just the opposite. I wanted to be a political and social activist.

"I've got a logistics managerial business mind - that just happens to be the way that I work."

She finds it "thrilling and exciting" to take a hands-on approach and be involved with how her music is released.

"It's my vision and I get great people around me that help me realise it. The women that work in my office, four incredible women, it's a lot of work to run your own record label. As an independent label we had quite a successful year and it's because of the work that my team did."

Most of Raitt's repertoire consists of covers, and she delights in crediting her many sources and inspirations. She has also inspired covers herself, most recently from British artist Adele.

True to form, Slipstream includes covers of Gerry Rafferty's 1978 hit Right Down the Line and two Bob Dylan covers - Standing in the Doorway and Million Miles.

Raitt describes the genesis of the album forming from a session with producer Joe Henry.

"I have a few songs lined up, one of which was the Joe Henry song You Can't Fail Me Now. I've always admired his work.

"I knew I wanted to call him and try and record that with him and his musicians but about a month before I was going to call him he called me at the urging of a musical friend of ours who thought we'd really hit it off.

"I recorded at his legendary home studio, which is in the basement of his old manor house in Pasadena. I wanted to do something different for me and the fans. Three songs turned into eight songs, in two days we did eight or nine songs but there were only room for four on Slipstream, I'll put some of the others on future records.

"We had such a great time, I called up my band and said 'I'm back'."

To my ears Ain't Gonna Let You Go is a standout.

"That's one of my favourites. None of the critics have even mentioned that song. What a hero of mine Bonnie Bramlett is, to find out she co-wrote that song with Al Anderson, my friend. I got inspired by John Lee Hooker and just let it rip.

"I'm all over the map musically. It's fun to have so many styles of music to draw from for the live shows."

In 1979 Raitt organised five concerts at Madison Square Garden for M.U.S.E. (Musicians United for Safe Energy), which spawned a successful album and a Warner Brothers feature film, No Nukes. The No Nukes movement is something which Raitt is still passionate about.

"We really need to push for safe energy."

Raitt plays four dates in New Zealand in April, including a show in Christchurch as the headline act for the New Zealand International Jazz and Blues Festival.

"I feel for you all in Christchurch so much regarding the earthquake. I'm waiting with trepidation to see the city for myself. I love the country."

Raitt bids farewell and the rain stops as suddenly as it began, revealing a rainbow.

Bonnie Rait headlines the New Zealand International Jazz & Blues Festival in Christchurch at CBS Canterbury Arena on April 5. Tickets $79-$129 plus booking fee from Ticketek.co.nz. jazzfestivalnz.com

The Press