“After my biggest breakdown in my late 20s, I remember a doctor telling me, ‘I don’t think you should do music for a living. I think you should paint and make your music at home and don’t do it for a living.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because you cannot handle it. It’s too important to you what other people think. So, instead of you being yourself, you try and be something else, and that’s what you think people want to see. That’s what you think will make you successful. Because of that, it’s not the right business for you.’”
Eight albums later in the liner notes of her watershed album Better Than Home she writes,“This album is really the first time in my life that I feel that – if I were about to pass on – that I’ve expressed the heart of my truth.”
“God! Did I really say that,” she asks in our interview. Hart wrote 45 songs for the album, she recorded it in five days with producer Michael Stevens who was just out of surgery for stomach cancer that would eventually kill him, and when she was finished, she immediately recorded her next album which has yet to be released.
“I had to do it because the experience of making Better Than Home was the most horrific experience I ever had making a record except for my first record that I ever made. That was horrible experience, but Better Than Home was just way too painful.”
Interviewing Beth Hart is like flying a kite in a hurricane. Just holding on is an effort. You can try to guide its trajectory, but you have the feeling that an atomic bomb is attached to the tail, and if you jerk the line, it might go off in your face.
“I went into a psych ward twice while making Better Than Home,” she explains. “It was once during the actual recording which they didn’t know about, and I only stayed overnight. Usually they observe you for at least three days, but they didn’t on this. I stayed one night and then another time a little bit later after we were in the mixing stage.
“I just hated it. I was just afraid that who I really am or as close as I can get as to where I am as a person at this point in my life wouldn’t be good enough.”
Beth Hart’s voice embodies the anger of Nina Simone, the bluster of Janis Joplin, and the hurt of Billie Holiday and Etta James. In her 23-year recording career, she’s recorded nine solo albums including her yet-to-be released CD. She’s done three albums with Joe Bonamassa and played Janis Joplin in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Love, Janis. She has also worked with Slash, Buddy Guy, and sang Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” accompanied by Jeff Beck at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors for Buddy Guy.
When she was 20 Hart lost a sister to complications of AIDS. She was later dropped by Atlantic Records for drug addiction. Her childhood was scarred by a rocky relationship with her father. “When I was a kid, my dad left me in a bad way, and what f***ed me up the most was that he would be in the lives of my other sisters and brothers, but he wouldn’t be in mine.” She dedicates Better Than Home to her dad saying, “I love you more than words.”
She’s been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and credits her husband and road manager Scott Guetzkow with being her savior with his unconditional love. “I always had dog boyfriends. I always got with guys that were really physically abusive and big drinkers, and that’s the way I liked it. I always felt safe in those relationships, but thank God for drug addiction because when I was on my knees, Scott was there, and I was so out of my mind on drugs that I didn’t have the energy to do what I normally do.
“What I did normally was if a good guy came my way, I would push him out of the way so fast, I only would hang out with dick heads, because if a dick head leaves you, it doesn’t hurt. If a great guy leaves you like my dad, it kills you. So any kind of good guy that would come my way, I would push him away.
“If I hadn’t been such a drug addict, I would have pushed Scott away, but he was the only person that was there, so I couldn’t push him away. In order to survive, I had to hold on to whoever was there. So that’s the beauty of life when we say, ‘Oh, this is a bad thing that happened.’ No, not necessarily. It could be the best thing that ever happened to you.
“As tragic and dark and as scary as it seems, it may be just the thing you need to push you to go down a different road for once. And that’s what happened to me with drug addiction. So, thank God, I was born with this whatever you call it, addiction thing or who knows what the f*** where I come from, but thank God. If it hadn’t been there, I would never have got to be with the greatest love I’ve ever known. And that’s Scott. I’ll be with Scott until I’m dead. He is the guy. So, it’s funny the things that we think are such bad things. They end up one of the best thing that could ever happen to you. You know what I’m mean?”
Songs like “Trouble” and “St. Theresa” on Better Than Home boil with a level of anger and angst unmatched since Nina Simone’s best work of the ’50s and ’60s.
“One of the things that I love about the songs that were chosen for this album was a total coincidence that the songs that happened to be chosen were the songs that I’d written the music and the lyrics to. I didn’t do any co-writing. It was totally by coincidence, and I don’t give a s**t if I write the song at all. If I write it, if I co-write it, if I don’t write it, I really don’t care.
“What I care about is being able to connect to it on a level that I call a family level, a root level where you start out in life. And if I can connect it to that place, then I know I’m the right person to be singing it at that time. At least that’s what I think.
“What was really funny was later after I realized, ok, you got all these songs that are solely coming from me. I wonder if this is not about that I write it by myself, or if it’s more about this is what Michael believes to be my real spirit, and I kick and scream and struggle a lot against people. I don’t always trust people. So I’m always kinda looking around and seeing what one of their little side things they may be getting out of it, and I did that with everybody.
“(Producer) Michael (Stevens) really raised the bar and pushed me to be as personable and also try to look at life from a more positive (stand). So it was an amazing experience. He drove me up the wall, but I’m so thankful he did. I (figure) he brought out the best in me, and I think that he made this project such a beautiful project. I think it’s definitely the best or one of the best I’ve done, and he’s really all hats off to Michael.
“One of the things I like with Michael is at some point I saw that what he was trying to do was to bring me into my own as a writer, as a singer, and he said, ‘Forget the blues. Forget the rock chick. Forget the screaming and hollering. Just tell me a story. Tell me how you really feel.’ So it was interesting. Songs like “As Long As I Have A Song” and “Saint Theresa” and “We’re Still Living in the City.” I think if I ever got the closest to what my honest truth is as a singer or a songwriter, whatever, it would be that type of songwriting like “Leave A Light On” or “L.A. Song” (her 1999 hit single.) It’s my truth, or as close as I can get to telling the truth at that point.”
She says her yet-to-be-released album went down a lot easier than Better Than Home. “It did. It did! And I got to do some things that are fun and cheeky, and I’m not a heavy. There are fun, heavy songs, but it’s a lot more fun and sexual with attitude, and I got to take a break. I got to take a break and do something different, and that’s something that’s always been important to me probably ’cause I get bored really easy. So I just gotta do something different, and I had so many songs written, and there was stuff that I really did want to do that Michael just said no for Better Than Home. So I got to do them.”
Like Billie Holiday, Etta James and Nina Simone, Hart is propelled by a musical obsession fueled by an overpowering sense of self doubt that delivers her voice in a profound and breathtaking delivery that rises like a Phoenix out of a life filled with tragedy and fanned by drug addiction.
So, who is Beth Hart? Is she an insecure artist thankful for a loving husband who cares for her unconditionally even though she says she doesn’t deserve it, or is she the take charge artist who isn’t even nervous about performing in front of the President of The United States with Jeff Beck honoring Buddy Guy with a killer version of “I’d Rather Go Blind?” She’s both. What she is consistently is an intensely emotive artist who dances naked in front of the world and presents blues angst in a way that sucks the breath out of the listener’s body.
“I look at myself as having such a good life and being so blessed. I mean I’m born in a f***ing great country. It’s free. It’s as free as frickin’ any other country, and I get to see, I get to hear, I get to walk, I get to talk, I get to play the piano and sing. I’ve had a lot of loving people. As many dog people as I’ve met and as many times as I myself have been a dog, I’ve also gotten to see a lot of loving people and a lot of love within myself. So I feel like I’ve had it on Easy Street.
“There are people out there who have gone through so much more for – can’t even compare, and they’re not bitter. They’re amazing. They’re loving . I’m reading a book about nine different lives in the largest refugee camp in Kenya right now. That’s a f***ing rough life. It doesn’t get tougher. They get a tent when they arrive. The tent lasts maybe a year. Then they have to build their shelter out of mud and plastic.
“They live there their whole lives. They have children. They have grandparents there. They never live outside the camp. And the camp is full of sewage and rapes and they’re not allowed to work. For me that’s a mother***er, and I’m reading about these nine different people that have joy, and they still find (grace) in things, and they till rise above it.
“You get somebody like Billie Holiday. That’s a rough life. Yeah, she was a drug addict. So what? So everybody does what they gotta do to get by. So, I just think that I’ve been really, really lucky, and the moment I go into self-pity, that’s when I am in that jail cell. So it’s so important that I always am grateful and thankful because that’s the truth. I got way more to be grateful for. I’m alive, man. I’m 44 years old. I get to still breathe and wake up. I get to still have luxurious problems.”
Sometimes artists like Amy Winehouse get too close to the flame. Beth Hart recognizes that danger. “I’ve taken a break. I’ve taken a break from writing now for a year, and I have to because it was driving me insane. I couldn’t stop, and I just had to make a decision to stop. Let the well refill or whatever it had to do.
“I’m just a regular dude trying to make it through this world. I’m as much connected to you as you are to me. That’s what I believe. We’re all part of the same thing, and everybody’s got something to say, and it doesn’t matter. I’m one of ’em. So there you go. I gotta go because I gotta go vocalize – I gotta do a sound check.”
Visit Beth’s website at www.bethhart.com
Photos by Arnie Goodman © 2016