Bonnie Raitt wasn't entirely sure what to expect when her new album, "Slipstream," came out in April.
The Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist hadn't released a new album since 2005's "Souls Alike." She'd also dropped out of sight to mourn the 2009 death of her brother and "best friend," as well as the passing of good pal and fellow singer-songwriter Stephen Bruton. Raitt knew that, if nothing else, she was testing her fans' patience.
So she's been nothing but pleased with the reception for "Slipstream," which in addition to overhwelmingly favorable reviews has sold more than 250,000 copies since its release -- not quite the multi-platinum peaks of previous triumphs such as "Nick of Time" and "Luck of the Draw," but still better than Raitt hoped for or expected.
"I honestly never thought this record was going to sell 200,000 copies in the first couple of months or that I was going to sell out shows on tour," says Raitt, 62. "In this recession, with this much distance between 'Souls Alike' and now, I didn't know what kind of audience would still be there for me.
"So I'm absolutely knocked out. I just wasn't expecting this record to get this kind of response, so I'm just really happy the critics like it and the fans like it as much as they do."
Raitt -- whose parents also passed away within a year of each other in 2004 and 2005 -- says that the break after her brother's death "did me a world of good." She went into therapy "to work with someone who really knew how to get me through it, and in the process I learned a lot about family dynamics and other things that, grown-up stuff other people deal with every day, when you travel for a living, it's hard to dig deep into because you're never in one place for a long time. When it gets heavy you can always use the excuse of, 'Sorry, gotta go...' "
And, she adds, "it was fun to be home, deal with my house, repair things that need repairing. You forget how many things fall apart -- 'Oh, I better get that tree out of there before it falls on the house. And it was fun to witness what my town looks like four seasons in a row. I sent to see the symphony. I saw Jackson (Browne) come through a couple of times. Friends of mine from Cuba and Africa visited.
"It was just fun to be out and about without thinking if I wanted to do that song or collaborate with this person or that person. I don't think I've ever done that."
A refreshed Raitt started approaching the idea of another album in 2011, though she did not want the travails of the previous years to have any bearing on the new music.
"That was the last thing I wanted to write about," explains Raitt, whose activism has aligned her with Amnesty International, No Nukes and other environmental organizations. "I know people how have used the passion for their relatives to write some incredible music, like Rosanne Cash and Mike & the Mechanics. I was too deeply enmeshed in it, though. I wasn't thinking about how to transform it into songs." Instead she started gathering material before a fortuitous phone call got "Slipstream" into full flow.
Raitt had already decided to record some songs by Rochester Adams graduate Joe Henry, now a Los Angeles-based Grammy-winning artist (and brother-in-law of Madonna) who's produced lauded albums for Loudon Wainwright III, Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke, Ani DiFranco, Rodney Crowell and others. "I was going to call him when he called me," Raitt, who placed Henry's "God Only Knows" and "You Can't Fail Me Now" on "Slipstream," says with a laugh. "I said, 'You're about a month away from getting me to call you and ask if I can come over to cut a couple of things.'
"I just have so much admiration for (Henry). Who he picks to work with and produce makes him so cool even if he wasn't such a brilliant singer-songwriter himself."
Raitt went into the session with Henry as "an experiment," expecting to record two or three songs "just to try it out. We ended up doing eight songs in one day. It really ended up jump-starting me to want to finish the record."
Raitt did that with her regular band, producing the rest of "Slipstream" herself. Raitt only collaborated on one of the album's 12 tracks -- writing lyrics for "Down to You," which was composed by guitarist George Marinelli and good pal Randall Bramblett -- but she still considers herself as much "an interpreter" as a writer and says "the exciting thing for me is uncovering the jewels of other songwriters."
"It's all about finding something new to say and a new way to say it," explains Raitt, whose definitive versions of John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery" and John Hiatt's "Thing Called Love" are among her biggest hits. "A lot of my songs have certain feels that get repeated; I know that because I can't put them together in the same show 'cause they sound too much alike! So one of the big impetuses is finding stuff that has different feels so I can add it to the live show.
"And thematically you don't want to repeat yourself. I'm inspired by people who are definitely in their style, like Jackson (Browne) and (Bruce) Springsteen; when Springsteen did that ('Streets of Philadelphia') song, I really admired how he did a left-turn there. I have that in mind sometimes, but It's not that easy for me to find the songs. I get a lot of stuff sent to me that sounds just like 'Thing Called Love.' "
One song on "Slipstream" that raised eyebrows is "Marriage Made in Hollywood," which was co-written by actor Michael O'Keefe -- who was married to Raitt from 1991-99 and also co-wrote the title track for "Longing in Their Hearts." But Raitt says it was a natural place to go.
"I'm a big fan of the way he writes," she explains. "He doesn't write a lot of songs. He has a degree in poetry; when we first met he was doing poetry readings in L.A. I thought (the song) was a really brilliant take on fame and sensationalism and the tendency of all of us to rubberneck when we pass by an accident. This seemed like the right record to put it on."
"Slipstream" also features a reggae-styled version of Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line" as well as pair of Bob Dylan songs, "Million Miles" and "Standing in the Doorway," both done during the Henry sessions. Raitt says the latter, which is from his 1997 album "Time Out of Mind," is "one of my favorites, period, from his last few albums. That I have two on the same record is a coincidence, but I hope he likes them."
Raitt hopes it won't take another seven years to follow-up "Slipstream," but she's "not even thinking about the next record yet." Instead she's touring -- with a two-year plan that includes North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. "Then," she says, "I'll need a rest -- but not as long this time, I hope.
"I don't have any songs planned yet," she adds. "I know I have some leftover tracks from Joe that'll come out. And I didn't write much in the past decade, so I'd like to do more next time if I can find something to write about that's not unraveling my own personal story too much.
"I feel like I did a lot of that in the 90s, so I'd like to say something different now. And I get so many great songs by writers I love, I feel like whatever I do has to stand up to those, which is a pretty high standard."
Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 16, at SoundBoard in the Motor City Casino Hotel, 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $68-$98. Call 866-782-0633 or visit www.motorcitycasino.com
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