With a brilliant new album just released, this soulful singer reflects on what it’s like to win, lose, and then win again.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
At first, Beth Hart seemed to have it all – an uncanny ability to write hit songs, a major label affiliation, full concert itineraries, and plenty of positive publicity. An accomplished musician since the age of four, she clearly commanded a future flush with promise. Yet, in no time at all she was done in by her demons. Haunted by the specter of drug abuse and an undiagnosed bi-polar disease, she slipped into an abyss that threatened to derail both her career and the rest of her life as well.
Fortunately, she managed to triumph through sheer tenacity, and after spending time in a sanitarium and kicking her drug habit, she subsequently got married and resumed her successful trajectory. She’s been engaged in some all-star alliances, including collaborations with guitarists Jeff Beck, Slash and Joe Bonamassa, elevated herself to headliner status in Europe, found herself receiving kudos for her spotlight performance at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors, and, earlier this month, featured prominently as part of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Fest at Madison Square Garden. She’s also touting an excellent new album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, her fourth recording of the past two years.
These days, with her struggles mostly behind her, Hart sounds happy, proud and committed to a relentless work routine. When BLURT spoke to her from Paris recently during a break in a rehearsal, she tempered that well-deserved sense of accomplishment with obvious humility and easy-going affability. (Below: Hart performing the title track on the Conan O’Brien show.)
BLURT: You’ve lived that perennial show business story, starting out with early success and acquiring a major label deal, before falling into that vacuum of drug abuse and personal demons, before finally emerging with triumph and tenacity. Is that how you see it?
BETH HART: Oh yeah, I think my whole life has been that way, outside of music as well as in it. Maybe it’s just what I’m drawn to — lots of highs and lots of lows. I don’t know what it is; I guess maybe I find peace to be boring. It’s either really going great, or it’s really going shit. That seems to be my pattern in life. But at this time in my life, I want to take as good a care of myself mentally as I can. I’m trying to learn how to find peace by having peace.
But given that one of the predominant genres that you work in is the Blues, isn’t that drama somewhat appropriate?
Absolutely. Even when I was writing music that was more singer/songwriter kind of stuff, a lot of those lyrics were really bluesy. A lot of self-deprecation and funk.
How did you pull yourself out of it?
I went through a lot of rehab. I don’t want to say it didn’t work, because really, I didn’t stop using, but it must of worked or found its way somewhere inside of me, where at least it got me to a place where I realized what an alcoholic and drug addict I really was. And then I went through a lot of psych ward stuff, where they kept saying the word “bipolar.” I kind of knew what that was from being a kid, because the doctors said that to my mom. When I was young, they told her I had some form of mental illness. But I really believed it was just from the drug taking. So I went to jail. By the way, I come from a family of bail bondsmen. I had been around the jailhouse mentality my whole life. And then I get bailed out by my brother’s ex-girlfriend Jeannie, who’s also a bail bondsmen. I remember when I walked out, she looked at me up and down, and said, “What happened to you?” That day, I went home and cancelled my prescription for my drug of choice. It was the first time I had ever done anything like that. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, was a major contributor to helping me get well. He’s a great guy, a positive guy and comes from a great family who really, really loved me and loves me still, thank God. And we got married a few days after I got out of jail. We ran off to Vegas and we got married there, just the two of us. During our vows, I remember hearing something powerful, a voice that told me “You got a lot of problems girl, and you’ve got to work your ass off. You have to turn it around so you can keep this amazing man who really loves you, and learn how to love to him.” That really went through my head. After that, that was it. I got married to Scott when I was 29; I’m 41 now. I haven’t touched those prescription drugs again. Eventually I had to get on bi-polar drugs, but they also helped me tremendously. But I didn’t get on the bi-polar meds for the first five years of my sobriety, and that was really hard.
Clearly, you have a lot to be proud of. Not many people could overcome those setbacks and then end up playing the Kennedy Center Honors.
I know! Isn’t that crazy? That’s so crazy!
What was it like playing the Kennedy Center Honors?
It was so above and beyond! We get to our hotel room and I’m calling my family and friends… “I’m here! I’m here!” Then we go to rehearsal, and right behind me, here comes Tracy Chapman. And I’ve been a fan my whole life, so I get to meet her. I get to watch her sound check. Plus, my favorite record last year was the Fiona Apple record, and Charlie Drayton was the producer on that album, and he was the drummer we played with at the Kennedy Center. I got to talk to him about how every moment of that record was done. He was so awesome. Then we went to the State Department for dinner and I got to meet Hilary Clinton, and I got to talk to Bill Clinton for awhile. Aretha Franklin was sitting at the next dinner table over, and that just freaked me the hell out. Then there were all these beautiful celebrities like Buddy Guy and Led Zeppelin and all the other people being honored. And we’re all sitting there having dinner together. The next day, we had a major rehearsal and I got to meet Bonnie Raitt, which I just shit my pants over!
It sounds like you were kind of excited…
And then we went to the White House and I got to meet President Obama and I got to meet his wife Michelle. It was amazing. Then after the White House, we went straight to the Kennedy Center and did the show. I got to say, it was a highlight of my entire career.
Were you nervous?
You know what? I get really nervous just about everything. Everything! I guess it has to do with insecurity and that kind of bullshit. But when it came to that, I swear to you I was not nervous. Isn’t that wild? It was like some kind of guardian angel came over me and said, enjoy this. Don’t miss this because you’re all nervous and weird. Enjoy this. Be present. Soak this all in. Know you are here because you deserve to be, so be proud of it. And you know what? I enjoyed it!
You also got this incredible ovation after you sang. That must have been pretty amazing as well.
Yeah man. That was pretty cool.
And yet the song you did, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” is such a standard. That in itself kind of raised the bar, no? You really had to do a great job to meet the standard that had been set before.That was no small accomplishment.
Thank you. (Below: Hart and Beck)
How did you originally meet your current collaborators Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck and Slash?
Okay, I’ll tell ya. First, it started with Jeff some years ago. I had covered a Billie Holiday song on a Toots Thielman record. I had such a great time doing it. And somehow it got into the hands of Jeff Beck’s manager, who was also once the manager of Led Zeppelin. And he was also turned on to us by Jason Flom, who was my old record company guy from Atlantic Records. It was going to go in one of two ways. I was either going to work with Jimmy Page or I was going to work with Jeff Beck.
What a choice…
Yeah, isn’t that rad? Anyway, Jeff Beck heard it and said he wanted to come in and write with me. So I ended up writing with Jeff, and it was an amazing couple of days. He was just as sweet as can be. And then that was it. Then he saw a DVD I did called Live at the Paradiso that I recorded in Holland. And he said he wanted to go on tour with me and I’d be his singer while he was touring here in the States. So we were all really excited. And Slash was at one of the shows, and then Slash ended up calling me a few months later, and he said he also wanted to write with me because he was making a new record. So we wrote the song and it was great, but it didn’t end up making the first edition of the record, although it did end up making the second edition on I-Tunes. That was wonderful and he ended up playing on my record as well. We did some different dates together, and Joe Bonamassa came to one of my shows in London because he had heard a song on one of my records called “37 Days,” which he later played on the radio show he does on Sundays. He came down, but I didn’t meet him, but he told my husband, “I really want to make a record with Beth.” I was disappointed I didn’t meet him, but I know from being around for some time that people often say things, and you think, whatever. So I didn’t get my hopes up. But then I ran into him because we were staying at the same hotel, and he said, “I really do want to make a record with you.” We ended up picking out songs that we liked, but I didn’t know it was only going to be four frickin’ days to make this frickin’ record. My producer Kevin Shirley works so fast. However it opened up all kinds of territory overseas that I had never reached. It really helped my career.
What influenced your musical choices on the new album?
What I remembered while recording this record was all the great music that I loved while growing up as a kid. My first love was classical. But I also loved Jazz and Blues and Reggae. That was the kind of music I was turned on to. Before I did this record, I was doing my usual stuff. I had kind of gotten stuck in my own box. I was doing Rock ‘n’ Roll and singer/songwriter stuff for years. When I made my last record with Joe (Don’t Explain), I said, that’s it. I’m going to write some music for my next record that falls along these other lines because I really love it. I didn’t know why I hadn’t attempted to go in that direction before.
Who were your early heroes?
My early hero was definitely Beethoven, number one. And also Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Bob Marley.
No, she wasn’t when I was a child. I didn’t even know who she was. I listened to a lot of Queen. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin. I loved Ozzie. Just loved anything Black Sabbath and I loved Ozzy with Black Sabbath. That was the shit. (Below: speaking of Led Zeppelin…)
You put a dedication to Ozzy on your new album.
I think what it was about Ozzy was… when I was a kid, I never thought about technique. I didn’t know any of that kind of stuff. I thought about the way someone made me feel. So the thing I loved about him was that he could be totally wicked and scary when he was doing heavier stuff. But it sounded different to me than I had ever heard other rockers sound like. He was his own unique voice and tone and in the way he phrased things, and I loved it. And then he’d turn around and do something like “Changes” and that broke my heart and made me cry. The same thing with Queen, when I heard them sing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “I don’t want to die, sometimes I wish I had never been born at all,” I remember hearing that line when I was nine or ten, and it just drove me to hysterics. It seems like every time a song made me cry, it wasn’t because it made me feel sad; it was because it gave me hope, and made me feel like I’m not alone. It made me feel moved. Artists like that, when they do that, it stays with me forever.
You said you were originally inspired by classical music, but when did you realise you could sing and make a career out of it?
Well, I knew I could write at a really young age. I was four when I did my first piano recital and I played a little song I had written, a little song I had come up with, and the teacher let me play it. But I didn’t write lyrics. I just wrote music and I did a lot of that as a kid. I loved to play cello. I loved the guitar as a kid. I wasn’t very good at it, but I just loved holding an instrument and fumbling around and trying to come up with things. That made me feel really good. I think it made me feel calm, because I’ve always been a very hyper person. When I played, it would quiet the spinning in my head and it would help me, like give me a feeling of family, of God in my heart, and it was great. As far as the singing went, my mom took me to see the musical Annie when I was like six or something, and so I memorized the whole record and I’d sing it for my mom every night before she went to bed. It wasn’t like I thought I was a great singer or anything, but I just loved to perform and make her laugh and giggle, and she was best, the best audience. So the singing didn’t come until later, and the lyric writing didn’t come until later, maybe when I was 14 and auditioning for the High School of the Performing Arts. But it was all about opera…
You studied opera?
I did as a kid and I studied with a coach. As I said, classical was my first love, so I really wanted to do that, but my teacher said she didn’t think I’d succeed because I liked to “change the music into my own.” And she said that you have to adhere to the composer. So that was a little bit heartbreaking.
So do you include a little sampling of Annie in your live show?
(Laughs) No, I don’t. But I still love that show.
So what’s on tap now? You’re touring through September?
I’ve always toured, but I usually take some time off to do some writing or recording. I went to New York and did two dates with Jeff (Beck) at Madison Square Garden for Crossroads. Then I’m going to be working with Slash for a couple of dates for a fundraiser for the families of the kids that were killed at Sandy Hook. And then I’m back on the road in the States, and I do a press run before I start a tour with Joe (Bonamassa) in Bergen Norway. Then I immediately start a European tour with my band two days after that.
It’s exhausting just listening to this…
I know. It’s a crazy schedule.
With all this frantic activity, how do you manage to stay so prolific?
My last album was a covers record, and then I have a new album coming out with Joe, and that’s also a covers record. So it’s only two original records in two years and two covers records.
That’s still four albums in two years.
Maybe I just got really inspired. This new medication I take, I gotta tell you…it’s really helped me. I just started taking it five years ago, and it helped me to relax mentally where I think I can do more physical work. Not that I’m not tired… I am a little tired right now, and I definitely need a break – which I don’t get until September. But I’m not a high profile artist. I’m not a big star right now, so if I’m going to work, I have to work really hard and try to get as many people as I can to come to the shows and hopefully build it up. So that’s what I’m trying to do. And I’m also at this place, kind of a crossroads in my life musically, where I want to be so much better as a songwriter and as an artist. It’s a big change in these last two years. So maybe I’m inspired by that, the challenge of going in different directions.
The new album is really varied. It sounds really fresh, but also sounds so timeless. Certain songs come across like standards, music that you think you’ve almost heard before. It makes this really indelible impression.
Oh my God! That’s so nice of you to say that!
It’s true. There are so many touchstones in this album. But you also mix it up a bit as well.
Whenever I go to write and I’m alone, there are a lot of styles that influence me. Of course I’m getting caught up in that, and whatever style I’m writing in tends to remind me of some kind of memory or dream that I’m having or going through at the time. And that will come through as a lyric. Usually that memory doesn’t happen unless the music is there first. Coming off the Joe thing, and coming off the fact I just turned 40, and just experienced a lot of changes in my life… there’s something about when a woman turns 40. So it’s a scary year, like, oh my God, I’m here. What have I done? Have I done the things I thought I’d do by now? Some of the things I did by the age of 40, I’m very proud of, like I never quit making music, no matter what happened. And being married to my husband for so many years now, and being so crazy in love with him and knowing that not only was I blessed to meet such a great dude, but I also made the choice to say yes to someone who was amazing. And that is a lot to say, to be able to say yes. That means there must have been some growth in thinking because I believed I deserved something that great. There were things like that to pull from and write about, which felt good. But I was so scared when I went into make Bang Bang Boom Boom… I was shitting myself scared because I didn’t want to fuck it up, because I loved the songs and I had a lot of songs written… I had 51 songs, but 38 were finished. And I knew I was making a record with great musicians, and I was working with Kevin Shirley again, the second time. So I didn’t want to mess it up. Even though I’m doing better now, I’m still the person I was. Sometime when I get a great opportunity, I push it away before it gets the opportunity to push me away, and I didn’t want to do that.
With Blues being such a staple, how do you as a performer define yourself so as to make your own mark in such a well established idiom?
That’s a very good question. Of course, you can never copy someone else. So that means even if you’re trying to be up to the standard of your hero that you love so much, you never really can, because your own identity is going to come through. I know for me, when I sang “I’d Rather Go Blind,” I tried to really get to its core. Etta James is one of my greatest heroes, and I just wanted to sing it like she was in the room. And I hoped if she was watching me, she would be proud of me. I never felt like I was able to do that, because she’s like God and I’m just a piece of grass, you know what I mean? (laughs) There’s no way you can be your heroes.
[Photos credit: Jeff Katz]