The extremely talented singer/songwriter with an amazing voice talks with Pollstar about her career, keeping her demons at bay and how Jeff Beck’s invitation to join him in performing at the Kennedy Center Honors made her feel “a little healthier.”
The old expression claiming that one must suffer in order to be an artist almost seems to have been first uttered with Beth Hart in mind. A national winner on the old “Star Search” television program, Hart attracted the attention of Atlantic Records, which released her major-label debut, Immortal, in 1996.
But being on a label and having hits such as “Am I The One” didn’t necessarily mean carefree life for Hart. Anxiety, depression and a bipolar disorder bundled with alcohol and drug dependencies almost did her in. That is, until she married road manager Scott Guetzkow who helped her get back on track. That was more than 10 years ago.
Today, Hart is a very busy woman, a singer’s singer who’s received praise not only from fans but from fellow artists. In 2012 Jeff Beck invited her to appear with him and sing “I’d Rather Go Blind” at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Buddy Guy. That experience led her to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival at New York City’s Madison Square Garden earlier this month where she once again performed with Beck.
She released her latest album, the bluesy, gospel-tinged Bang Bang Boom Boom at the beginning of April and her latest collaboration with Joe Bonamassa, the CD/DVD/double vinyl Seesaw, drops May 20 in Europe, May 21 in the U.S.
While talking with Pollstar, Hart not only described her approach to music, but also gave us an inside glimpse of what it’s been like to be her during the past two decades. Once you read her words, we think you’ll agree that not only is Beth Hart one tough lady but she’s also a shining example that one can rise victorious over mental problems and overcome substance abuse.
You have such a big, wailing, blow-the-roof-off, soulful voice. Do you do anything to maintain and/or protect it?
Yes. There definitely are some regiments. Even when I’m not on the road I try to take care of it as well. I got to tell you, I do smoke, which is horrible as we know for you. Other than that, I don’t smoke a lot and I really try to stay pretty quiet during the day while I’m on the road. When I speak, as loud as I am on stage when I’m talking to the crowd, I’m never that way off. Sometimes I barrel it out, vocally, and sometimes I don’t. It kind of goes up and down through the night. I warm up but not like I used to warm up. As a kid I used to do massive amounts of scales. I worked with a coach and he got me really strong by doing all these scales. When I got older I was finally like, “Forget these scales. I can’t take it anymore.” And it was funny, I didn’t really need it anymore. Maybe that’s because I’m on the road a lot, my voice is always being used so I don’t have to do all those scales anymore.
[There’s] typical stuff, like tea. I sleep a lot. About 10 hours a night. So, all that stuff kind of makes a difference.
Speaking about sleeping – when you’re on the road, do you follow the regiment of leaving for the next town right after the show, or do you stay in town and leave the next morning?
I don’t do the bus thing. I don’t do mornings, either. I hate the bus and I hate mornings. If I’m doing promo where I need to be up early, I’ll usually do that as a separate tour. If I do any promo while actually on a show tour, that will be at the gig. I’ll meet with people at the gig or I’ll get on the phone at the gig. Otherwise, not at all and that’s another way I preserve my voice.
I do flights, but I don’t allow them to fly me out in a day. I also don’t do six shows a week. I do four. So I get plenty of time to recover and rest. But it’s not that I do that just for my voice. I do that for my head because I have my disorders, so I watch my stress level and can never miss sleep and things like that that are really important to keep myself balanced.
I’m really lucky in things like [having] a good manager who makes that a priority. Also, a record label that really understands that and respects it as well.
When I was younger, first of all I wasn’t aware of how ill I was. Also, I felt unworthy to ever say anything about anything. I should just go along with the play. That’s the nice thing about getting older. You realize you got to tell people what you can do and what you can’t do. If they respect it – great. If they don’t respect it – fuck ’em and move on.
Do you think your disorders contributed to your creativity, perhaps acting in a way like a muse to stimulate and help you form and/or inspire your work?
I wouldn’t have said, “Yes,” but my psychiatrist definitely says, “Yes.” I wouldn’t have thought that because I don’t want to be overly dramatic about thinking like that kind of stuff. “Oh, in order to be an artist you have to be half crazy.”
But my doctor believes, with every gain in your brain there has to be a give and take. What may be a lack in the brain, you gain somewhere else. It can be with all kinds of different things. Certainly with mental illness it tends to be a pretty consistent pattern that someone can be really smart with mental illness but have the worst social skills possible. And no matter how much they care about treating people really well, they just really can’t. They don’t have social skills. So, I guess because of that, I’d say, “Yes.”
I’ve often wondered in regards to past artists if some of the more colorful personalities might have suffered from a mental disorder in one form or another that helped make them who they were. Say, the great drummer Buddy Rich, to toss a name out there.
It’s funny you mentioned Buddy Rich because I remember coming across some bandmember’s tapes of him being on the bus with them. And he’s ranting and ranting at them, just pissed off. Listening to those tapes, that’s a total manic thing.
Before I went on medication, when I’d get angry at someone, I would not only get angry but I’d stay angry and keep repeating myself over and over for about an hour and a half until they just ran away. That is definitely mania. You’re so worked up that you can’t stop.
I remember hearing that from those tapes and going, “Dude! This dude definitely needs some therapy.” Wow. He was out there.
Because you have received treatment and, through the years, have learned so much about your affliction, do you find yourself recognizing the same traits and/or symptoms in other artists? Are you more aware of others in your profession that might be facing similar issues, even if they don’t recognize it themselves?
I really believe that human beings … when our brains are balanced, we naturally behave with kindness and love. We’re basically pretty good. But when you have imbalances, it can lead to all kinds of things – anorexia, bulimia, workaholism, drug addiction, cutting yourself, robbing, stealing. You’re doing things that are incredibly self-destructive.
And I think anytime you see someone caught up in that, it’s not because they’re an asshole or because they don’t care. They probably have some form of imbalance. What I’ve learned about it, anyway, at least what they know so far is that it could be an inherited thing. It also could be because you had a major brain injury as a child. Also, being treated certain ways as a child can change the function of the brain. They’re learning more and more about that all the time.
I know for myself, personally, I hated myself for so many years. I was so embarrassed of the way I would behave. I was always so ambitious and I loved music but for so many years whenever I would hear of a great opportunity that came my way, the first feeling I would have was a sinking gut feeling of terror, that I was unworthy. I hoped to God they didn’t find out that I would suck, and that I would just grin and bear to get through it. And I never got to enjoy the great options that came my way.
Since all the therapy and taking medication. … A perfect example is when Jeff [Beck] asked me to do the Kennedy Center; it was so wonderful that I got to enjoy being asked. I got to hear him ask me and my first feeling wasn’t terror or feeling sick. It was a feeling of … the joy of getting yourself a little healthier. To learn to believe in yourself and trust others on a whole other level. And I think overall it just gives you more peace in your life.
Is it difficult listening to recordings of yourself or watching yourself on video?
Yes, it is. It always has been. However, now, instead of learning from it I will force myself to watch or listen. And when I’m tripping out, I remind myself that it’s not because I’m singing bad or performing bad. It’s because this is how my head works and I give it a minute and just listen or watch again. Narcissism can really screw with me. So, if I just force myself to get past that, the narcissism begins to go out of the way and I start to go, “Hey. That’s all right.” Because if I don’t allow myself to listen to myself or watch myself, I’m not going to improve. That’s one of the things about being narcissistic is that you’re so defensive and wrapped up in yourself, you can’t take any criticism from anyone.
This is one of the things with the psychiatrist I’m working with now. He’s just like, “This is a big part with a lot of people with this illness. I’m going to get you used to taking a lot of criticism. But instead of you thinking that someone is trying to beat you up, you take it as an opportunity.”
Another example is, a couple of press tours ago for another record, I was on the road for two months and just doing press. Sometimes, some of the questions journalists would ask me, I just thought they were trying to be really mean to me. They were just giving me their criticism but … I didn’t view it as that.
And that was another thing the doctor brought to my attention – “That’s because you’re narcissistic.” He’s like, “When you learn that you are not out to get you and other people aren’t out to get you, and you’re willing to listen and take what you can from it, then you get to grow.” It’s the same thing with listening to yourself and watching yourself, it’s all about you learning and growing. But if the first thing you’re going to do is beat the shit out of yourself, you’re probably not going to watch and listen, therefore, you won’t learn.
It’s little things like that make such a huge difference in being able to use your brain.
You often leave the stage during your shows and walk into the audience for the ultimate up close and personal moments. But when you’re playing an instrument, your electric piano, for example, do you feel as if the instrument comes between you and your audience?
I totally know what you mean. I never feel that way on a keyboard which is what I use on stage. I have that keyboard as close to the edge of the stage as I can. I don’t prefer to do theatres even though I know some people enjoy sitting down. … I like when people are standing right to the tip of the stage and I’ve got my keyboard. But I don’t like playing on a real piano because I feel I do get separated from the audience. I don’t feel like that on a keyboard at all, because a keyboard is only a foot-and-a-half wide. And a grand, you have this gigantic thing in front of you.
Do you compose on the piano?
Oh, yeah. Probably … 85 percent of the time. Sometimes I compose on bass and acoustic guitar. But mainly it’s piano.
What is the creation process like for you? Do you pretty much have the song in your head before you sit down at the piano or with one of your other instruments? Or is it in bits and pieces?
It depends. Sometimes I do hear the song and I quickly go to the piano and hope that I can get it out the way that I heard it. That happens pretty often, I guess.
But the lyrics are always something that come later for me. I never have a lyric first. If I ever have, it’s been so rare that I couldn’t even remember.
I remember my mother would always say, “The melody and music is like the beautiful woman you see across the room at a bar. Then you go to her, talk to her. Maybe you take her home, maybe you get together with her. But if she doesn’t have anything to say, if she doesn’t have the lyric, you’re probably not going to call her back.”
It’s seemingly pretty easy for me to come up with the music. But the lyrics, the bar is set so high, so I get on this rampage about it. I’ll spend 16 to 18 hours in a day, going back and forth from my piano to the balcony – I’m not allowed to smoke in the house – and I just go over and over it like a psychopath. I always take breaks to pee or to smoke. And I just do it all day long. My husband watches me going back and forth talking to myself.
But I love it. I love the challenge of it. I think that’s a good thing.
Are there certain days of the week that you’re more creative than on other days?
Oh, God, yes. Sometimes I feel like music just turns its back on me and says, “Goodbye, I’m never going to see you again.” And I get really sad, really scared and angry about it. But then, at some point I try and remind myself that it doesn’t mean that I should ignore the piano. I should go and maybe practice scales or … I have some different jazz books that I love and I kind of just poke my way through those on the piano. Or I’ll play something classical or go back to stuff in early childhood that I love and just play that and enjoy it. Or I’ll buy a record, put it on and play that. That way I’m still embracing the piano. If the piano is not giving me what I want, why would I ignore her? It’s like spend time with her and love her and trust that when that creative time comes it will come and that will be OK.
How do you approach covering other artists’ songs? You did such a fantastic rendition of Randy Newman’s “Guilty” on your live album that it really sounded as if it was your song. How do you do that?
With that song in particular, I was out on the road. My first record was on Atlantic and we were touring all over the U.S. My band and I, we loved each other so much off the road, but as soon as we hit the road we just tore each other a part. It was really sad. It was so sad and depressing.
So, we were in Alabama one night, in Birmingham. This other band that played before or after us, I don’t remember, the lead singer was so cute and the whole band had just the best vibe. So we all hung out with them and they invited us back to their house. The whole band lived together. I fell crazy in love with the lead singer and I ended up being his girlfriend. And, whenever I was on the road, as soon as I got back instead of going to Los Angeles, I would go straight to Alabama and hang out with them.
Anyway, he would play his guitar and sing sometimes. One day, just for me in the bedroom or something, he sang that song. I had no idea who had written it or who had done it but when I heard him sing that song, it was so sexy and beautiful and heartbreaking. At that time I was struggling so much with eating disorders, with alcoholism, with drugs, with so many things and not being able to love myself. Some of the lines in that song, it was so close to home I felt I could have written it. That’s the key for me. It’s like, how much I might love the person who sings it, or how much I might appreciate the way they’ve written it, I can’t do it if I don’t think I could have also written it. Not meaning I’m so talented I could write it. I don’t mean that. I mean if it’s also my story I can do it. If it’s not my story, I cannot do it, as much as I would like to. Believe me, I’ve tried to. If I can’t feel it and I don’t know it, there’s no way I can sell it.
With that song, though, I love that song. I still do. It’s so great.
Let’s move off topic for a moment. How old were you when you got your first tattoo?
It was later in life. I think I was 27, 28, something like that.
Is there a story behind it?
I met a guy. Actually, my manager discovered this guy, he’s completely facially covered with tattoos. His whole body as well. A gorgeous guy like James Dean but covered with tattoos.
My manager called me, we were about to make the “LA Song (Out Of This Town)” video, and he said, “I found the guy for the video.” Anyway, I met with the guy … and he was a tattoo artist. So all of my tattoos that year came from John.
What could you tell someone, say a 16 or 17 year old at home playing scales on a piano who wants to do what you do. Can you give him or her any advice?
I think the most important thing I would want to stress to them is that you have to want to do this for free. You can’t go into this business and think about becoming a star or think about making a lot of money. There are people just as talented as you if not way more talented that never got a record deal. It just never came together for them. I think it’s so important that if you’re going to do this, you got to do this just because you absolutely love it and you would do it for free all day long.
It’s such a crap shoot. It doesn’t mean that you’re any less talented or less worthy just because you don’t make the money or don’t become successful. I always say someone like Van Gogh is one of my touchstones because, I think, he was one of the most amazing impressionists of all time. His artwork is so filled with childhood enthusiasm and love and hope and everything. There’s this beautiful thing about all of his work. And he never got any respect – none, zero.
But it doesn’t lessen the fact that he was fantastic at what he did. I think that’s so important for people to know when they get into this business. You got to do it because you really love it. And don’t expect anything. Don’t let that make you feel disheartened. You just do it because you love it a lot.
“It’s seemingly pretty easy for me to come up with the music. But the lyrics, the bar is set so high, so I get on this rampage about it.”
Upcoming U.S. shows for Beth Hart include Austin, Texas, at Stubbs’ Barb-B-Q / Waller Creek Amphitheatre April 30; Lewisville, Texas, at Hat Tricks Sports Bar May 2; Nashville at 3rd & Lindsley May 4-5; Atlanta at Smith’s Olde Bar May 7; Alexandria, Va., at Birchmere May 9; Philadelphia at The Blockley May 11 and New York’s City Winerey May 13, 16 & 17.
Hart will appear with Joe Bonnamassa in Bergen, Norway, at Bergenhus Festning June 22; London’s Hampton Court Palace Festival June 24; Merksem, Belgium, at Lotto Arnea June 26; and Amsterdam at Royal Carre Theatre June 29 & 30.
In addition to her dates with Bonnamassa, Hart will spend much of the summer touring Europe. For more information, please visit BethHart.com.