Cover photo © Jim Hartzell
“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve never had to be cursed with fame. I can’t even imagine how difficult that would be. Not the obvious with the paparazzi not being able to go anywhere. But, I mean creatively when people expect a certain thing and you don’t want to let them down, you wanna make them happy. Whereas with me (speaking excitedly) nobody can expect anything because I’ve never had a hit. So it’s fucking great, I can do whatever the fuck I want to do. It makes it so I can move and shake and go wherever I want to go and there’s no worry.”
Beth Hart certainly moves and shakes. Her powerful resonant voice is matched by her emotive piano playing and vulnerable revealing songwriting. Starting out with a hard Punk edge and moving into the Adult Contemporary Rock of the early 90’s, Beth became her own artist in the early 2000’s when she fully embraced her eclectic, often dissonant, muses. Beth also fully stepped into her trauma and mental health. A courageous advocate for taking care of one’s self, Beth speaks openly in song and interview about her trials and tribulations, demystifying mental health journeys by example.
At the core Beth Hart is a quick witted and endlessly creative artist. Someone who challenges herself to push forward, who thinks in often conflicting analytical and emotional terms. Beth lights up as much when she talks about the nuts and bolts of recording to a click track and post production as she does about the creative spark and the moments of creative conception. It is this ability to manage dichotomy that has allowed Beth to endure and what makes this unique child prodigy so engaging.
“When I was 4, I remember sitting underneath the den table and I had yet to play the piano. And there was a commercial for selling pianos and it was the most beautiful song that I’d ever heard. And I didn’t know of course who it was, it was ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ Beethoven. So that night in the middle of the night, my parents walked out and I was playing the beginning of ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ And they said holy shit we gotta put this kid in with a teacher.”
“So I got with Ms. Davis, but my first recital at 4, I didn’t play that bullshit ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ or whatever the frick that crap was that they were teachin’ us. I got to play some original stuff that I had written. I wasn’t singing, it was just some original piano playing. And my sister Sharon, the one who passed, I was so scared that she’s the one who sat next to me at my first recital while I played those couple songs.”
So Beth was always rebellious, from the start shunning lesser music and instead doing it her own damn self. But a precocious child operating with a high level of intelligence needs skilled support and close stewardship.
“My teacher made the mistake of always playing the piece that she was having me learn before I’d go home. So I wasn’t learning to read music, cause when you’re young you remember everything you hear right. So I’d go home and just remember what she’d play and I’d pretend I was reading. Until I hit around I don’t know 8, 7, and the material started getting harder and she went what the frick, why are you missing that note, what note is that? And I was like I don’t know and she fired me she was so angry. She had spent those 4 years, 5 years and I hadn’t learned to read.”
Beth did eventually learn to read music and did transcend Ms. Davis’ rebuff. Beth has had a prolific career producing remarkable solo albums: 2010’s My California was an amalgam of her Adult Contemporary songwriting with her Roots Rock sensibility. Her numerous collaborations with Joe Banamassa are high points in the Blues Rock genre. 2012’s breathtaking Bang Bang Boom Boom could rightly be considered her first step into a fully realized mature style. Over her prolific career thus far, Beth has learned and stayed fully present to her process and present to her collaborators.
“Whenever I’m doing a new record with whomever the producer is, I always turn in a lot of songs. So I turn in at least 50 songs. I give a very broad overall, usually I say eclectic. I’m not interested in doin’ a record where it all sounds like the same song in a different key. Even though I think there are artists that do that and it’s phenomenal, I can’t do that.”
Although Beth does have go to co-writers she often works with, her songwriting voice is singular and distinct. Songwriting is another intersection where Beth’s technical, Classical, grounding and her emotional availability intersect.
“Usually the deal is I always go downstairs everyday and frick around with the piano or the guitar, bass or whatever. And then when I make a mistake playin’ a song, it’s one of my songs or somebody else’s songs, the moment I make a mistake I hear a new chord. And for some reason that new chord just gives me this excited feeling it’s like foreplay. And now I want to frick around with that.”
“So it’s always the music that’s written first, chords and then melodies just start comin’ in and counter melodies. And then what will happen is, whatever that is, whatever genre that’s in, it will remind me of either like an old pain of mine or someone else’s that they’ve shared with me. Or a hope, a desire, a fear, of something that’s going on now. Or a projection of the future. It’s usually like, it’s either my story or it’s someone else’s story that I connect to with my own life, right. That’s what the music does, the music tells me what is the narrative, what’s the overall of what this thing is about.”
“Or, sometimes I’ll be in the kitchen cookin’ or whatever and I’ll just hear the whole song. And that’s rare but like ‘Sister Dear’ that was written in 10 minutes, ‘Mom, This One’s for You’ was written in 10 minutes. So it just wrote itself, it was just done. But that’s very rare. So ‘Tell Her You Belong to Me’ that took 2 years, the music a week, but the lyric 2 years. This pandemic there’s a couple a songs that also took over 2 years to get the lyric right. But, the music usually gets done right away.
“The lyric I’ll work on it and work on it. And the arrangement, the arrangement I’ll work on that really hard too. What I love about the piano is, the piano can give you all the drum parts, bass parts, string parts, guitar parts, it can do everything, it can give you all those counter melodies. Just like the Classical composers all played the piano for that very same reason. You can write for an entire orchestra cause you have everything you need at a piano.”
For some songwriters, writer’s block is devastating. Causing a shame/fear spiral, the blocked writer may never tap into the muse ever again – it’s all over! But…the lasting artist, the survivor like Beth, develops work around, with the luxury of time.
“I have a different relationship with writer’s block now. Now when I have writer’s block instead of panicking like I used to, I used to think oh shit it’s over. Now I’ve learned that no your pulling from the same well and that well has ran dry. So now you have to be willing to go to a new well. So usually what will encourage a new well is listening to a different artist, finding new artists. Going back to old artists, listening to different genres. Or going to see a lot of film and listening a lot of new soundtracks. Listening to the latest soundtrack songwriters and composers, things like that. It challenges me, lights a fire under my ass.”
Her most recent high water mark, and a major creative step forward, was 2019’s War in My Mind. Enlisting super producer and music industry bigwig Rob Cavallo, with War Beth was able to employ all her learning about her art and her creativity.
“I had started doing a little more listening. I went back and started listening a little bit more to Beethoven, I’d gone through a phase of listening to more Classical Music. I was pulling away from the Blues stuff, I was doing a lot more writing in Classical or Jazz. And I was also going through some mental turmoil. So it only made sense to use a lot of darker chords.”
“I said (to Cavallo) you just choose the songs that you love. Because I kinda learned along the way that when a producer doesn’t want to do a song it’s nothing personal against the song. Usually has to do with what they get excited about, what they can do with it. That was something interesting to me that I just started doing with the last several producers I’ve been working with. I just started saying you choose it, whatever the frick, I don’t give a frick. These are all songs I love, you know whatever you want to do.”
Having met at a dinner party, Hart and Cavallo’s first meeting is almost like something out of a movie.
“I ended up going to a party of my best girlfriend and her sister is Rob Cavallo’s wife. I happened to be at their dinner party and he had a piano there and I’d just written ‘Sister Dear’ and ‘War In My Mind’ and ‘Woman Down’ that week. So I got up and played those 3 pieces. He (Cavallo) came up to me and he said ‘hey, I would really love to record those songs.’ And I said well yeah that would be great and it evolved into him doing a whole album.”
One would love to have been in that room when Beth Hart sits down at the piano and plays those songs for the first time publicly. But after that initial meeting, the work of building a creative relationship takes time, patience and maybe a little deception.
“He was really sweet and kind. I’m really emotional and I’m really insecure. He could tell how nervous I was and he was so patient and Doug his engineer, oh my God, just as patient and awesome. So I got really lucky to not only be with people of that level of talent, but to be such kind people so that allowed me to be able to be myself. You know there have been some producers I’ve worked with that don’t like the way I play piano and they have great pianists step in and play all my shit. And I get that cause I’m not a play to a click guy, I play live with the band or I lay it down alone and you build the band around me, one of the two.”
“With Rob, he wanted to do everything to a click and I kept in the nicest way I could, cause I was so nervous to work with him, I was like dude I can’t play to a click the way I write these things move a lot in tempo. I think it comes from coming up and listening and playing in Classical orchestra growing up for so many years. Cause that’s why you have a conductor, the tempos are constantly shifting and changing, right. So I’m like that’s just kinda the way I write. So for the first couple of tracks I turned in demos that he kept and then built upon them. So those were already clicked out like “Bad Woman Blues” and stuff like that.”
“I’m such a frickin’ addict right, of course we addicts are so good at manipulation, so I come up with a plan one day (laughing as she’s talking) where I show up and I’m like: (with a silly pretend innocent voice) Rob, um, I was wondering if I could just get on the piano and maybe play 9 songs down in a row and maybe you record them or not it’s up to you. And then I’ll go to the other piano and I’ll play those 9 down just so we can see for a good sound. He’s like sure no problem. So I went to the piano I knew he loves the most, (innocent voice) oh I’ll just go for this one first. And I recorded the 9 down and when I was done he said those were all gonna be kept and I’m gonna have the band build ‘em. And I’m like this…yes! Inside, right. So that was the bomb, it frickin’ worked.”
The pandemic has been a struggle for everyone. Often exacerbating underlying struggles, the isolation was at times defining and unbearable. Beth began her time doing what one might have thought as therapeutic, writing songs. But it was not.
“I was doin’ a lot of obsessive songwriting, like not healthy. Just stayin’ up for days and days and writing. I was getting manic cause I was taking this diet pill called phentermine. So it was making me really manic and thinking I was like Chopin and bullshit like that, all this shit was so brilliant (laughing). Finally the phentermine made me so sick so I quit that and I’m like oh my God all these songs are shit.”
Beth took the opportunity of time that the pandemic offered to continue her journey of mental health. Speaking openly about mental health allows everyone to know they are not alone. Beth is open and honest about her experiences over the pandemic.
“I finally got off my antipsychotics which I’d been on for 14 years. Antipsychotics are really dangerous, you’re only supposed to be on them for 5 weeks until lithium builds up in your system. I refused to go on lithium because the few times I did I got really really really angry and aggressive so that drug just really didn’t work for me. I was with this psychiatrist who had convinced me I was bipolar 1. Where as my trauma specialist, who I’ve worked with since I was 28, he said absolutely you are not a bipolar 1 you’re borderline personality disorder and chronic PTSD which does not need medication. But I refused to believe that so I took frickin’ seroquel forever.”
“I was having so many organ issues and so much illness from seroquel so finally cause of pandemic I was able to wean off of it and I had to go on beta blockers for my heart. Because getting off the seroquel, even though I weaned off, it made my resting heart rate 150 beats per minute. Even on beta blockers, dude, my heart rate the lowest it got was 130, resting. Thank God I did it I didn’t get the Tardive Dyskinesia which is permanent brain damage. I would have never played piano again. I fired that frickin’ psychiatrist and I dove in really deep with my trauma specialist. So my brain now is adjusting cause I’ve been used to being so suppressed emotionally the last 14-15 years that now I’m feeling everything again. So I’m struggling with that.”
All these emotions came flooding in. It’s hard to imagine how someone as empathic and in touch with her creative spark could deal with this. Beth also kicks ass and is unapologetic, so rage, fire and intensity came. Fortunately Rob Cavallo had a Led Zeppelin jones he was chasing down and Beth was at the center of it.
“Thank God I had this Zeppelin record to work on. That was something to get out all that rage and that fear. It was really stimulated by pandemic and by getting off seroquel. I didn’t want to do the record at all because I didn’t think I could. But, once I started feelin’ all that energy again it was like fuckin’ A muthafucka send that shit over. I will learn that shit, yeah.”
The “Zeppelin Record” is A Tribute to Led Zeppelin in which Cavallo and Hart put together a faithful reading of 12 Zep classics. “The talent of that band,” Beth effuses, “they were so young to be that creative and insane. Like wow all of them, they were all brilliant.” But Beth only realized this when she was making the record.
“I didn’t grow up listening to Zeppelin cause my stuff as a kid was all Classical, Jazz, Blues, Soul, Baptist and Reggae, I was a huge Reggae nut, ah Punk and then like Black Sabbath. I loved Black Sabbath, I loved Rush, that kind of stuff. But of Zeppelin I knew of ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,’ I loved that, and I knew of ‘Black Dog.’ But those were the only 2 pieces and then later when I was like 30 my band had me learn ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ but that was it.”
“This was such a new world for me and (drawing out each syllable) mind blowing, dude. Because I didn’t realize what a level of a genius Page was. He was litterly taking the Classical; fuckin’ you can hear Beethoven, you can hear Rachmaninoff, you can hear Classical orchestration meets Black American Blues. And then his ability to produce. And then of course you can hear Plant was listening to a lot of Black Blues singers, so you can hear that in his singing. But then you hear what a poet Plant was cause he didn’t write just about getting coochie which, of course, all guys are gonna write about that at that age. He was writing some deep shit. And I was like wow, ‘No Quarter,’ unbelievable. I mean frickin’ ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is so unbelievably spiritual and beautiful. Yeah I was so humbled by their music man, I couldn’t believe it.”
Your interviewer balked when he saw “Stairway to Heaven” on the track list. Images of middle school dances awkwardly slow dancing as the gym lights come up to the overplayed arpeggios of “Stairway” haunt me. But Beth transforms this song not by reinterpreting but by feeling it. She sings it out and infuses it with emotion. I told her as much.
“I love that you say that cause that was my least favorite song. But what got me to go wow I get the song was to me it’s about my sister Sharon who died. I had to watch her die so slow, you know, 12 years of battling AIDS and finally she fuckin’ died. And it was so horrible back in those days when they had nothing for that disease what people turned into. So when I listen to that song I realized that’s really why I hated that song. It wasn’t cause I always heard it all the time at karaoke bars and wherever, I love karaoke bars. But like dude, the lyric is so beautiful. So now I just sing it for my sister.”
Beth Hart’s Led Zeppelin record works because she and Cavallo don’t reinterpret the music. They don’t defang the songs and turn them into Sambas or funky jams (not that there is anything wrong with that). The brilliance of this record is that it is in essence a modern Classical suite. Taking the cue from the source material, Zeppelin can be seen as modern repertoire music. But, to get it right is challenging to say the least.
“There were a lot of challenges. One challenge obviously was the technique. Robert Plant’s got such a huge range. Thank God I’m still with my vocal coach I’ve been with since I was 16, that muthafricka has dialed me in over the years off and on. So I knew the placement and I got to study that. But, the most challenging thing was to respect the way Plant sang it without doing a copy. So I knew I had to make it like if I wrote those songs who and what personally it would have been about for me in order to bring anything I would have to offer to it. And it’s such a fine line because it’s such hallowed ground so that was a concern. Be you but respect that this is hallowed ground. It was funny I didn’t realize that Rob Cavallo felt the same way until the mixing stage he was worried about the same thing as a producer. Tricky, definitely tricky.”
Beth concludes: “Either people are gonna like it or somebody’s gonna try and shoot me on the frickin’ street man. I mean you got to pray for me. Freakin’ Zep fans are hard core, you know.”.
Beth Hart is a moving and powerful artist. She is intense. Her music, even when it’s playful and fun, is deep and serious. Beth is a scholar of music, a child prodigy, a dedicated pianist and a reckless Punk. She holds conflicting identities within her art and, one suspects, within herself. It is what makes her music so moving, so pervasive. She keeps pushing forward and keeps surviving.
“I’ll tell yah the best advice I ever got was actually from Jeff Beck. He said the moment you start to get comfortable or get a lot of accolade about something make a left turn and get the fuck out of there as soon as possible. Because if you don’t, he said, your art will become all about your ego and just trying to continually get fed the ego of what you know is working and that’s when your artist dies. He goes, so have the courage to be very uncomfortable and keep making yourself uncomfortable.”
“It’s why I work with new producers a lot. Because it’s very uncomfortable. Sometimes when I’m working with a new producer they can be pretty fuckin’ brutal. But I’m grateful for that because it’s extraordinarily humbling, challenging, it beats me up. It kinda keeps me in that uncomfortability which keeps everything fresh and moving forward.”
Beth Hart is on tour adding Led Zeppelin tunes into her already massive catalog. Check her out at: https://www.bethhart.com/