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POP MUSIC : Not Fade Away : Bonnie Raitt isn't about to hang up her rock 'n' roll shoes. In fact, her new album shows she may be entering her prime as a singer-songwriter

March 20, 1994|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

At 44, an age when many pop-rockers are in the twilight of their careers, Bonnie Raitt exudes the energy and ambition of someone just entering her prime--which she may well be.

Pop's most-famous redhead was radiant as she walked into an office at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood to talk about her second album since her recording career was dramatically rejuvenated.

Though widely admired throughout the '70s and '80s, the Burbank-born singer was largely a cult artist until the February, 1989, night when her "Nick of Time" album won three Grammys, including best album, and turned her into a mainstream star.

The album's commercial breakthrough--nearly 4 million sales--was all the sweeter because her recording future had been in doubt after Warner Bros. Records dropped her in the late '80s because of lack of sales.

Not only have her sales been strong since moving to Capitol (1991's "Luck of the Draw" sold 5 million copies), but Raitt has also blossomed as an artist. In her new "Longing in Their Hearts," she shows increasing confidence as a writer and character as a singer. (See review, Page 72).

Raitt has gone through an equally dramatic transformation in her private life. She turned to Alcoholics Anonymous in the late '80s (recently celebrating her seventh year of sobriety) and--after years of singing about the heartaches of romance--married actor Michael O'Keefe in 1991.

For all the changes, however, much about Raitt remains the same. She and O'Keefe (who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for 1980's "The Great Santini" and is now a regular on "Roseanne") live in the same Hollywood Hills home she has owned since 1975. She also still devotes much of her time to benefit concerts and to championing overlooked blues and folk artists.

On the eve of the release of her new album, the confident but refreshingly unassuming singer-activist spoke about music, marriage and second chances.

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Question: Do you think all the talk after "Nick of Time" about "Bonnie the survivor" was over-dramatized? Were your personal problems as severe as some people imagined?

Answer: I think things got sensationalized a bit. It's not like I was (being dragged) kicking and screaming to a sanitarium. It was more like I decided to hit 40 at a healthy place instead of kind of a sluggish one. In your mid-30s, the lifestyle of rock 'n' roll doesn't look as good or feel as good internally as it did in your 20s. You can get away with more (then).

*

Q: Still, that was an important recognition. Weren't there risks in not changing your lifestyle?

A: Sure . . . and in that sense, yeah, I am a survivor. I know some people that have been buckled under by life throwing them a bad deck . . . Richard Manuel (of the Band), Paul Butterfield . . . the list goes on and on, who have been lost because of drugs and alcohol. There are also a tremendous number of people whose careers have suffered from neglect--by not having opportunities given them they deserved. The result is they lost their will and just sort of faded away.

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Q: Do you think that your career could have faded away without the success of "Nick of Time"?

A: I don't think so. My career was never at risk in terms of whether I would be able to work again. Even though the mainstream of America didn't ever really adopt me, my loyal following would still come to see me at the Santa Monica Civic, or wherever, every time. It was just that my recording career was problematic.

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Q: Did the success of "Nick of Time" and then "Luck of the Draw" put pressure on you? Did you feel you had to live up to that sales and acclaim?

A: No, I have never felt any pressure, including after that. The reason I've been doing this all along is for my peers to like what I do, and my fans. To me, that kind of massive success that "Nick of Time" brought was like winning the lottery, which was what the Grammy was. It kind of threw me on the front page of a lot of newspapers and people bought it out of curiosity.

The only thing I could focus on was the quality of the work and I feel I had a good team with me in the studio . . . (producer Don Was and engineer Ed Cherney) who helped me hit upon some sort of better version of me than I had recorded before.

*

Q: One of the most positive things about "Nick of Time" was that it encouraged you to do more songwriting instead of depending chiefly on other writers' works. Did you feel more confident as a writer?

A: The fact that record and that song in particular got such an incredible response was the most beautiful nurturing of a songwriter that you could possibly ask for. Plus, I found it harder and harder to find songs from other people that expressed what I wanted to say in my music.

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Q: Of your songs on the new album, "Circle Dance" seems especially personal. Where did the idea--about the inability to express emotions--come from?

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