Beth Hart is a well-known Blues singer and songwriter from Los Angeles, CA. She has been nominated for a Grammy award for her album, Seesaw, and was also nominated for a Blues Music Award for “Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist”. Her recent album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, was released last year to critical acclaim. Women In Rock spoke with her before her performance at the Birchmeer in Alexandria, VA.
Women In Rock: Go back to a moment when you were four years old. You got up in the middle of the night, went downstairs and played on your family piano. Talk about how you realized a moment of revelation, how it felt and how it’s with you even to this day.
Beth Hart: I had this amazing family, and overnight it just went to shit. My father was having a lot of problems and they were going their separate ways. I remember around that age that I lost my family and didn’t know what we were all gonna do. On the TV that day was a piano commercial, and in the background, they played Moonlight Sonata. I didn’t know who it was, but I just knew in that moment that there was someone else who must know what it was like to be in the dark. There was no light, but they had a memory of what the light was. And that memory would be what would show them through, even if they couldn’t see a fucking thing. And that song gave me so much hope, and it made me feel not alone. So that night I just tried to get up and hear that song again in the middle of the night. I wanted to hear that thing again.
WIR: You also play guitar, piano and cello.
BH: Yea, and a little bass. I play everything, still, except for the cello. It’s kind of ironic because the cello was really my favorite instrument. The piano is my baby, but I worked really hard on cello for a lot of years but I never had the gift for it. I never had the proper bowing or any of that happening. But I still have it in my piano room and I look at it every day and wish I had the talent for it.
WIR: Did you teach yourself piano or take lessons?
BH: No, it was really kind of like an outlaw situation because my mom and dad immediately put me into piano lessons with this awesome lady named Mrs. Davis. She had long, black hair and was a brilliant painter. Every day she would take me down to her art studio and show me all of her paintings and tell me about art and great artists and how she was influenced. Then she would take me back up and she would always play this song on the piano and then send me home to work on it myself. My [musical] ear was really good at that age, and for some reason I could just figure it out. So I would be figuring out the material, and as the years went on and the material got harder I couldn’t remember all that extra shit, you know? And one day, she asked me what was going on with that, and said, “You don’t know how to read [music], do you?” And I said, “No I don’t.” So she said I was outta there, she got so pissed. So that was it. I kinda screwed up Mrs. Davis there.
WIR: I wonder what she’s thinking now. You self-released you first album, Beth Hart and the Ocean of Souls. You couldn’t get a label and you were just starting out. How did you get that together?
BH: Yea, what a horrible record. I started playing in clubs doing my own music at 15, but the problem was that in Hollywood it was all “pay to play”. I couldn’t fill up a friggin’ place and I certainly didn’t have the cash to play. Then I heard about what was going on down in South Central. There, you could hit 2-3 clubs a night and they had this thing where you could give your sheet music to the band. That’s what my best friend, Ron, and I would do. We went to all these mic nights and give them our sheet music. If the audience liked you they would line up and give you a couple of bucks as you were singing your tunes, so then maybe you could even win the contest at the end of the night. But if they didn’t like you they would boo your ass and kick you out of the club. It was a total “hard knocks” way to learn how to perform. So then I auditioned for Star Search. I knew how to do the show because I had done that South Central stuff. It was weird, like it had been a setup to get me some money for it. I was so happy about that. Back in the day, this wasn’t a popular show like today’s shows. It was on at midnight on Sunday nights away from the major networks. It had already been around for ten years when I did it. In that way it was great, cuz it couldn’t really tarnish me, but when it came to the industry I think there was some funk going on there.
We made an independent record, and I found out after that record that my manager at the time was lying to me, saying that I was getting offers for record deals. He would tell them he represented me and that unless he was put in the contract as the producer then I could not sign. Everybody has their own different little agendas, but he was really good to me in a lot of other ways, and I learned a lot from him. I was with him for seven years. I fucking loved him. Then I got with David, my current manager, and we’ve been together now for 20 years. So we made that record, and I hated it. I was very ashamed of it. We never really put it out. He did that many years later when I was working in Europe. We didn’t have a distribution company, so I would just sell it out on the streets or in the clubs where I was playing. Everything was original, and some of the stuff on there I did on Star Search. We made a deal with the producer that I had to be able to do my own music, and if I wanted to cover a song it would be my choice. So it didn’t have to be the way they did it on Star Search, where they would have you do a song then have a producer do the backing track. But I could bring my own producer and choose my own material and my own clothes. So there was none of that stylizing for TV thing.
WIR: Then you did Immortal and Screamin’ for My Supper. That was your breakout album.
BH: Well, Immortal only did well for me in Africa and on the east coast here in the states. Maybe a little bit in Canada, too. The label told me that it was a piece of shit record and that it would never go anywhere, but they were gonna put me out on the road to tour, nevertheless. Now that record was such a fucking hard rock record, but three producers got in on it and tamed it down. We were a band, but I got signed as a solo artist. You should have heard what that music was like before it got watered down. I wasn’t really that proud of it. Then Screamin’ for My Supper happened and I took over. I basically told Atlantic [Records] that I’d rather be dropped than to put me with any more producers who were gonna try to make me into something else like what was happening on the radio. My manager thought I was a fool. He said that by the time I turned 30 I wouldn’t be able to get any deals. But you know, you’re so into yourself at 26 that you think you’re gonna be able to do this no matter what. I’m so glad I did that cuz I was so proud of that record and it was something I worked really hard on.
Unfortunately, at that time in my life, I was always self-medicating for mental illness, but my illness got so bad that no matter how much I self-medicated I just couldn’t bear getting through the day. Part of mental illness is what triggers it—any kind of success or idea of success, euphoria, excitement, time zone changes… I was so sick, losing my hair, and weighed about 92 pounds. I had a lot of good doctors then. But I’ve been really blessed in my life with a lot of love and a lot of support. The biggest challenge for me is loving myself. If Atlantic hadn’t dropped me, I think I would have died. I don’t think I would have gotten better. But losing something that I’ve worked on my whole life—the record deal, the tour—was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to face my shit. I got bailed out of jail once by a girl named Jeannie, my brother’s ex-girlfriend. I had once written a song for her called, “Get Your Shit Together”. I was always looking down on her cuz she was such a wreck. When she walked me out of jail she looked me up and down and said, “What the fuck happened to you?” I lost my shit. That was a wake-up call. So between that and the Atlantic situation, I decided to cancel all my prescriptions. That was almost 14 years ago. Thank God the drugs are out of my life.
WIR: You wrote “Baddest Blues” about your mother.
BH: And Billie Holiday, yes. I’m obsessed with my mom. She’s the most interesting and unique female I’ve ever met and she’s obsessed with Billie Holiday. One of the things I love about that song so much is that I incorporate Jazz on the verse, the pre-chorus is Zeppelin, and the chorus is more of a pop rock thing. The lyrics are all about that struggle we choose. You choose that which abuses you. It kinda makes sense, psychologically. If we’re with an asshole in a relationship and they leave us, it doesn’t hurt as bad as being in a relationship with someone who’s fucking awesome. That could kill you. So you choose that hard-core someone, cuz you know when they abandon you it’s not gonna be so bad. That song talks about the aftermath of abandonment and how you choose relationships later on in your life.
WIR: The Kennedy Center Honors in December, 2012 was a big highlight for you.
BH: Yea. And I wasn’t even nervous. Jeff Beck is an old friend of mine, and he had come down to see a late night show that I had done in England. After the show, he said he had this thing coming up in a couple of weeks. He was doing the Kennedy Center Honors and asked if I wanted to do something. I told Jeff I’d want to do “I’d Rather Go Blind”. He wasn’t really sure about the song. He wanted something more rock-like. But the director called and said he thought it would be perfect. I worked really hard and tried to be as prepared as I could be. I even hired a stylist to help me out with clothes cuz I’m not so good with clothes. When my husband and I arrived we got to say hello to a lot of cool people there. But the highlight of the night for me wasn’t doing the performance. It was the State Department dinner the night before. I walked in and met Hillary Clinton. That blew my fucking mind. I loved the experience so much. At the performance the next day, it was like God gave me a free pass to be really relaxed. I didn’t feel less than or better than anybody else. I was just part of the human race and had a lot of gratitude to be alive. Nothing else mattered. My husband, Scott, and my manager, David, were so nervous right before I went on. Usually they’re the ones comforting me! The cherry on the cake was Yo-Yo Ma. He comes out of an elevator, puts his arms around me and rocks me back and forth for about 30 seconds. It was the best experience, that whole weekend.
WIR: You have a forthcoming solo album and a world tour scheduled for next year. Do you still spend a lot of time overseas?
BH: That’s my bread and butter. When I thought my career was over after Screamin’ for My Supper, I had nowhere to go. The beautiful Jason Flom, who was heading Atlantic at that time, threw me a freebie and gave me a hundred grand to go and record Leave the Light On. No strings attached. He’s an awesome human being and he totally understands recovery. He has love for people who are struggling addicts. So we had a Number 2 with Leave the Light On in New Zealand. Didn’t get to tour, but we did the press and one TV spot. Then we booked The Paradiso in Holland and it sold out. It was so exciting that we decided to make a live DVD of our show there. We booked it again two months later and we filmed Live at The Paradiso. That, to me, out of anything I’ve ever done, was the best. It shows so much gratitude and joy for what we do. It was such a great experience. It was even above Kennedy Center. Things were turning around.
WIR: How do you feel women musicians are viewed today?
BH: I think they’re viewed as amazing. I know it’s a man’s world in terms of how the world is run and all that. Women have been coming up for a long time. Men have strengths that we don’t have and we have strengths they don’t have. There’s a beautiful blend between the two. But in music, I don’t think it’s ever been a man’s world. I think it all comes down to how you feel inside, you know. Maybe I’ll do one show dressed up like a guy, though. It might be fun.
WIR: What words do you have for aspiring female musicians?
BH: Don’t do this for fame or money. Do this because you really love it. The greatest success you can ever experience in this business is waking up in the morning and being really excited to get to work. It’s not always gonna treat you good, and there’s gonna be a lot of rejection, but do it because you can’t NOT do it. But don’t do it so your mom might call you up one day and say she’s really proud of you for being nominated for something. What keeps me going is that I don’t have that kind of magical career I thought of as a kid—a rock star with a ton of money. None of that ever happened for me, but I never quit. Never fucking quit. And that is something I can take all the way with me. When I’m 90 and I look back, I don’t have to say “what if”.