On a recent L.A. afternoon, Brandi Carlile is talking about the moment when everything changed for her. It was the 2019 Grammys, when she played her ballad “The Joke” live and took home three awards. “I was 39, kind of an outlier underdog character,” says Carlile. That week, her sixth album, By the Way, I Forgive You, went to Number 22. She recently sold out Madison Square Garden. “I went on vacation, and never put down my phone,” she says of the award show’s aftermath. “I was obsessed.”
“I’ve been there,” says Bonnie Raitt, sitting across from her. In 1989, Raitt released her 10th album, Nick of Time. It sold more than 5 million copies and won the Grammy for Album of the Year, making her a superstar at age 40. “You’re in hyperspace after that,” Raitt says.
Hard-won success is only the beginning of the similarities between the two artists. In addition to building cult followings, both have used their music as a platform for activism. (Raitt has campaigned for clean energy, Native American rights, and more over the years; Carlile has raised money for kids affected by war and for imprisoned women.) “Bonnie illuminated the path I could have,” says Carlile.
Before the interview is over, Carlile has one request: “If you could just teach me one or two slide-guitar licks.” Raitt responds: “It would be my pleasure. I get so much acclaim for doing stuff that just sounds like ‘whooo,’ ” as she slides up an air guitar. Carlile is ecstatic: “You’ve got to be shitting me.”
Brandi, how did you first hear Bonnie’s music?
CARLILE I remember singing “Something to Talk About” all the time as a kid. One of my most significant times was when I moved out of the house and in with my first girlfriend, Jessica. I was 19 and we were huge fans, and we wanted to go listen to you play and we couldn’t get a ticket, so we sat outside the fence and listened to your voice reverberate around Washington state. It was a big moment, a beautiful memory.
RAITT That is so sweet. I would have let you in if I had known. I’m gonna be a mess in this interview, because I’ve never been with anyone that talked about me before. I haven’t ever heard anyone say they were influenced by me.
CARLILE We get together and talk about you all the time. Do you ever hear yourself in my voice?
RAITT Well, I hear the attitude. I wish I could have the range and sing like you do. But if I could, I would sing like you.
CARLILE The song that speaks to me the most is “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The empathy is just unbelievable. I feel really vulnerable when I sing it, in a way I’m not entirely comfortable with.
RAITT Is it because you’ve been through that situation yourself?
CARLILE I think it’s because I am not strong enough to go through that situation myself. So when I put myself there, I almost can’t handle the thought of being that person.
RAITT I’m so grateful for the writers that sent me that song. Every night, I’m reminded of being left when someone was not in love with me anymore. I think it was even worse to have to be the one to break somebody’s heart because you don’t love them anymore. I’ve been through both sides of that. I always dedicate it to someone going through a heartache. I’ve gotten letters from people saying, “I’ve never seen my husband cry except when you sing that song.” Now I’m gonna cry.
Bonnie, you dropped out of Harvard to tour. What did your parents say?
RAITT They said, “You’re on your own.” It was just a sideline until I went back to college. I was singing blues stuff, singer-songwriter stuff, James Taylor stuff. I was cheap. I could carry my own guitar. I wasn’t threatening to the male acts. I said, “This is great. I can open for John Hammond, Muddy Waters, and go back to college.” I was just at the right place at the right time, then I got offered a deal.
CARLILE You hear Bonnie Raitt stories, and men tell them, about how you’re tougher than anyone else. You hear about this kind of rugged, road-weary woman that’s just thrown down the gauntlet and outworked the men. I’ve heard those stories for years.
RAITT Oh, my God. I’m glad those guys told those stories, and not some other ones. I remember watching Amanda Blake in Gunsmoke. She owned the saloon and didn’t get married. She had no interest in a regular life. That’s what I wanted to do. And I ended up getting to do it!
CARLILE You own the saloon, that’s for sure.
RAITT Maybe I appear tough, but a lot of it is bravado. I just wanted my brothers and my dad to pay attention to me. I could tell women were getting the second shot at society. I watched a lot of marriages of my classmates break up, and the wife was left with nothing. I just thought, “I’m always going to pay my own way.”
The toughness was [also] having to be tough in a man’s business. When you’re starting out in the studio with a bunch of guys, and the way they’re playing is too busy or too fruity, you know they’re thinking, “What right do you have to tell me what to play?” It becomes a challenge how to say it in a way that doesn’t push the mom button, the know-it-all button, or the diva button.
CARLILE That’s the best way I’ve heard that explained. Because they have those buttons. Knowing how to avoid them is the key to kind of climbing the ladder in those circles. It’s a sad thing. As women, the scariest place is to pull that chair up next to the console. People are ready to laugh.
RAITT Oh, I would just level them with something. . . . I’ve known we were connected for a while. From your lyrics, your incredible musicality, your foundation. I really admire you for that.
CARLILE I still have my “No Nukes” guitar pick I picked off the ground at one of your shows. I remember my dad said, “What the hell, no nuclear power?” It was a radical statement.
RAITT I was just basing it on role models I had, like Joan Baez. They were all using their music to raise money for a great cause. The marrying of the arts and political action, like the Staple Singers, seemed like a part of what we do.
CARLILE There’s been a great awakening. I feel like we flipped on a black light: “There’s still racism, war aspirations, hatred for displaced people.” I love Obama, but we were lulled to sleep in those eight years. You weren’t. Now, you don’t get to be in the public eye without attaching activism to your career. When you did, it was a risk.
RAITT This current younger generation in particular have really been amazing and galvanizing. As distressing as it’s been since the last election, the seeds of change have been planted.
CARLILE Bernie Sanders’ entire demographic is college-age kids and younger. How is that even happening? That has to be something on a cosmic level if I’ve ever seen one. I sang for him recently. I got some shit about it. I said that he doesn’t have much charisma. I meant it as a compliment, because he was not nice to me, at least in the way we’re used to people being nice to us because of what we do. He didn’t think there was anything more special about me than any of his volunteers handing out fliers. I appreciated that, because we need some fairness in this country.
RAITT He’s not messing around. I’ve never seen anyone more energetic for so many years. If I had any doubt about what my older years are gonna be like, he’s the guy. . . .
CARLILE I read a piece today that said every big mistake the United States has made for the last 30 years can be coordinated alongside a video of Bernie Sanders trying to stop it.
RAITT That’s great.
Bonnie, what excites you about today’s music?
RAITT There’s never been more women that do country or country-tinged music in my life. There is an amazing list of women out there that are just killing it.
Brandi, this year you staged Girls Just Wanna Weekend, an all-female fest. What did you learn?
CARLILE I learned a lot. I am a big fan of the Instagram called Book More Women. Did you know about that?
CARLILE They take a festival poster and take all the men’s names off it, and just leave the women, so the next page is just, like, blank.
I always just thought, “The fucking promoters, they’re not booking women.” The truth is, there aren’t enough women being signed. There aren’t enough on the executive level. And the pay gap affects the industry in such a way men have more money to consume music, so they’re targeted as a demographic. That’s the big secret. So when I tried to find women to do it with me, I realized it’s not just the promoters.
RAITT I didn’t know that. Everything is pocket-driven. There has to be a reason they’re gonna put more money into promoting more women. I saw Reese Witherspoon started her own production company [focused on promoting women]. We gotta do the same thing with Live Nation.
What’s next for the two of you?
CARLILE We’re going over to Joni Mitchell’s house! It’s gonna be fun, because she’s really struggled since the aneurysm. She swore off music. But we’ve been doing these get-togethers at her house. We drink wine, she tells stories, then we play music. I played my song “Cannonball,” and I was shaking. I brought Hozier and he played a song — and Chaka Khan walks in. She’s cracking everybody up, stealing people’s wine. Joni got real loose when that happened. She thought it was funny someone wasn’t nervous. We sang a CSN song, and Chaka threw a fourth part on top.
Then Herbie Hancock walks in. I think it was Joni’s cruel surprise, to make these kids squirm. He sits at the piano, and he’s hovering on this chord; nobody knew what it was. But Joni did. And from the middle of the room, you hear “Summertime and the living is easy,” and it’s Joni fucking Mitchell, singing for the first time since her aneurysm.
RAITT I don’t get to see her very much. We had some classic hangs at my house in the Seventies, one time with Jackson [Browne] and Graham [Nash]. It’s just a thrill for me to be back in a musical setting with her.