Bonnie Raitt, who is 44, won't drink before her London show tonight because she never has. But she won't drink afterwards either, like she used to before she cleaned up, became a big star and got married (in 1991, to Michael O'Keefe, an Irish actor and poet. Theirs was an intimate wedding: 'just friends and their agents').
We know this narrative, we recognise its chat-show specifications: American artist liberates herself from risky dependency, cuts back on milk and cheese at the same time and then goes public with her new smile, her new life. But in Raitt's case, the tale isn't a whitewash. The turnaround has been made impressively substantial in her work as a performer and still more impressively, over her last three albums, in her work as a songwriter.
She used to be reluctant to write her own material because she felt if she couldn't match Randy Newman there was no point. 'I tend to do them when I get some time away, take my keyboard and guitar up to this cabin that I have in California. And I basically go on a retreat and I wake up and burn incense and do yoga. I look at it in a spiritual way, as if I'm preparing to receive something.' Hard to know whether it's the yoga or the incense, but Raitt grows more receptive. She only wrote eight songs across the first nine albums; but she has written 10 across the last three, and four on the most recent (Longing in their Hearts) including the exquisite 'Feeling of Falling', a song which, with a flexibility you don't normally associate with the reformed, pines for the bad old days.
'I was 20 in 1971, hanging out with the Rolling Stones, and drinking was part of my lifestyle. It wasn't something I did because I was tortured, but because it was fun. It's not hard not to drink. It's hard not having as much fun. There's times I wish I could cut loose.'
Her father sang in Broadway musicals, her mother was a pianist, but Raitt played the slide guitar and sang the blues. She did so all through the 1970s, though virtually in secret. Warner Brothers, looking to slim down their operation, dropped her after nine albums. (In what proved to be a particuarly ill-advised roster trimming, they ditched Van Morrison at the same time.)
By the end of the 1980s, she was reduced to playing acoustic duets in clubs. That was how the producer Don Was, from the group Was (Not Was), first heard her. The projected sales of the first album she made with him, for Capitol Records, were 150,000. But this was Nick of Time and it sold three million and won four Grammys during a tearful televised ceremony which finally announced her virtues to America.
Was once said he felt Raitt was the kind of person people wanted to be intimate with; so all he did when he recorded her was to offer people 45 minutes of intimacy - no big sounds, just the illusion that you were getting to know Bonnie Raitt a little better. Raitt says: 'It's hard to be specific about Don's approach as a producer. Jackson Browne calls it 'Does Not Does' - Don doesn't really do anything, but there's something about his way that brings out the best in people.' It's an approach which worked on their second collaboration, Luck of the Draw in 1991, and again on Longing in Their Hearts, with its basic blues instrumentation, its strains of country and pop, tough but always rounded and fluid.
The songs she doesn't write are selected with extreme caution from a mountain of publishers' tapes. She says she has 'two and a half trash bags of them' waiting for her now. 'Then there's a tremendous number of unsolicited tapes. Five a night will come out of the audience. In all the years I've listened to them, I've never found one I could do. Plus there's the threat of someone claiming you've ripped them off.
'I drive around with boxes of publishers' tapes, 50 or 60 in the car. And I listen to the first bridge of the first song. If it's no good, I forward to the next song. If it's two songs of nothing I can use, they go behind the driver's seat and if it's something that's good enough to listen to again it goes behind the passenger seat. Just when I think I'm not going to find anything, something like 'I Can't Make You Love Me' falls into my lap. Or, on the new album, 'You'. '
Belatedly, she is rock royalty. She took a duet in last year's Aretha Franklin tribute and recalls sitting on a stool on the stage, trying to control herself while Franklin sang 'Lookin' out on the morning rain . . . .' And there was the time she got to record with Willie Nelson for his Across the Borderline album. 'We were face to face behind glass in separate vocal booths, with just the little turn-light from the music stand. I closed my eyes to get into it and I opened them and it was just his head, like the Cheshire Cat, suspended in all this darkness. And I thought to myself: I am singing with Willie Nelson . . . The same way that Ray Charles can sing anything, Willie Nelson can sing anything.'
She says many of her most ardent fans are 'people unable to deal with turning 40, the despair they feel. Not only did I not mind turning 40, but my life actually took off, and that seems to have inspired some people. That you could find love then, that it could get better.'
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