Beth Hart: The 13th Floor Interview
Via 13th Floor:
Its been a long, hard road for Beth Hart. Last time the Los Angeles-based vocalist was in New Zealand, she had just spent several weeks in rehab, kicking a devastating drug addiction. That was over a decade ago. Since then she has rebuilt her career with a string of soul-drenched albums, including several with guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa. In 2012 she performed in front of US President Obama at a tribute to blues legend Buddy Guy alongside Jeff Beck. Now, with a new album, Better Than Home, ready for release, Beth Hart returns to New Zealand for a show at Auckland’s Powerstation on Friday, March 27th. The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Beth Hart after getting a preview of her new album. Listen here as Beth talks openly about her past and passionately about her new music:
Or read a transcription of the interview with Beth Hart here:
MD: I think the last time I spoke to you was when you were here in New Zealand back in 2003. We were up at Radio New Zealand, it was quite a while ago.
BH: Oh yeah that was a long time ago, but I sure did love being there. We’re so excited to come back to New Zealand, it’s been such a long time and it’s just so pretty there. When I was there and I talked to you I was living in Auckland for 6 weeks at a little apartment with my husband. So we got to spend a lot of time in New Zealand there.
MD: It’s been a while. A lot has gone under the bridge since then I assume. So we should do some catching up.
BH: Oh yeah, a lot of records since I last talked to you.
MD: Right and I think when I spoke to you in 2003, one of the reasons you had been in New Zealand was you were kind of getting yourself out of all sorts of things and you were getting yourself back together and you had mentioned to me how New Zealand was very receptive to kind of accepting you, whereas you were having trouble with some other places in the world doing the same thing. I was wondering how hard it was or what kind of things you had to go through to kind of rebuild your reputation since then?
BH: Well it was very, very hard, predictably so. I mean, I kind of screwed everything up then and I got real messed up with drugs and I just had a lot of problems. But when I finally got myself going in the right direction I made theLeave The Light On record. I got a deal in The States with a small label and I did a bit of touring around but they didn’t really promote it, didn’t really do much and then I got to go to New Zealand and that was really lovely and then following New Zealand was Holland, then Denmark. But instead of branching out back into The States and going to Australia and back into all of Europe and some South America, none of that happened for a while. It was a couple of good years, I wanna say. It was 3, 4, maybe 5 years of just playing in Holland, Denmark. At the end of our 5 year mark, we started to sell a little bit in Norway and Germany and then I made a record called, I made several records during that time. Obviously I had Leave The Light On and 37 Days, I did a record calledLive At Paradiso on DVD. But then I made a record called My California and that record for some reason just broke England wide open and then I got to work with Joe Bonamassa and that really opened up France and then I made a record called Bang Bang Boom Boom and then the next thing I knew The States opened up, all of Europe opened up, Russia opened up for the first time, Eastern Europe, Australia opened up. Then I did this thing called the Kennedy Center Honors here in The States and it was a televised event and I only sang one song but after doing that song, that really changed things for me here in The United States. So I would say all in all, to really get it going again took about 8 or 9 years.
BH: And then it finally started moving again. I’m not a big star or anything like that. I’m not big on radio or anything like that but I’ve got great touring audience and the band is fantastic and we’re having a ball, we really are. We’re having such a good time and I’m so thankful that I hung in there and I got myself healthy and I’m also so thankful that I’ve had such good people along the way, great label, my husband is the greatest man in the world and I’m still with David Wolff now for 21 years now, he’s been managing me.
BH: So I’ve been very, very lucky, very lucky.
MD: I’m kind of curious how you got hooked up with Joe Bonamassa. I used to live in Rochester New York and he used to come through there in the 80s when he was like 12 years old playing as this child prodigy and of course now he’s doing his own thing and he was just here in Auckland last year. But how did the two of you end up collaborating together?
BH: He was playing a song of mine of off a record I did called 37 Days and he had a radio show, so every Sunday he’d play it. Well I happened to be in London, I was doing a show and he came down, but I didn’t see him while I was at the show, just my husband did backstage and he said to my husband I would like to do an album with Beth. Well I was thrilled to hear that but I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket because I know people get busy, people say they want to get together but things get busy and suddenly that idea kind of fades away. Well anyway, just a couple of months later, I happened to be in Holland at a hotel and he was there in the bar and we started talking and he said hey man, he goes I really want to make that record with you and I said I’d love to do it so what are you thinking and he said I really want to make a souls record and I said what do you mean when you say souls, like are you including all the Americana genres like Jazz and Blues and obvious real Soul stuff and he said yes and I was like oh that sounds so incredible and so we made our first of what would be 2 records that we made together now and he is just extraordinary and very easy to work with, super easy.
MD: Okay. You mentioned the Kennedy Center performance in front of Obama. From what I understand that led to you working with the folks who produced your most recent record (Better Than Home) that’s just about ready to come out, is that right?
BH: That’s right. Rob Mathes is the musical director of Kennedy Center Honors and Michael Stevens is the director and at that night after the show Michael Stevens pulled me aside along with his father and he said we really are wanting to do something with you and then they talked to my manager David. I wasn’t really keen on doing it because I was really into making records with Kevin Shirley, I had made 2 with Joe and then I made an original record with Kevin and I just love Kevin Shirley’s production so much. So it took a huge effort on my husband and my managers part to really convince me to give it a shot and I don’t like change, I really don’t. It’s not that I don’t like trying new things but when I feel like something’s working, I do not like to change. I’m really happy that I did, it was a very difficult record to write and the producers really challenged me to be very vulnerable and go into lots of different perspectives and how I have perceived my past and life today. Some it was fun and kind of quirky and funny like Might As Well Smile.
BH: And some of it was really loving and unconditional like We’re Still Living In The City and St. Teresa, some of it was really, really heavy like Tell ‘Em To Hold On.
MD: The one that really stuck out to me cause I’ve heard the album and Tell Her You Belong To Me just kind of has this epic quality about it but intensely personal as well. Maybe you can tell me how that one came about?
BH: Yeah that was a wonderful but also very vulnerable experience in writing that. I started writing that song about 2 years ago. Usually when I write it might take me a few hours, maybe a day, but with that one, every now and then, I do have to spend time and I think the reason why is musically the music is pretty easy but when it comes to writing a lyric, the bar was set so high by my mother when I was a young girl because she grew up, she was born in 1932 so all the music she grew up listening to was all lyric based in the 40s and the 50s. I mean it was all about a great lyric.
BH: It had to be.
BH: So she really set the bar high for me when it came to lyrics. So when I got on the topic of Tell Her You Belong To Me, I knew exactly what I was talking about but I needed to be willing to really tell the story and the story was about my dad when he, you know, he left us for another woman when I was a little girl, he left my mom and the rest of the kids and it was painful, it was really hard. He was a very charismatic and funny and amazing and wild man and everyone was just so in love with him and overnight he was like I’m gone, I found another woman, I found another life and I’m gone. When he was gone, he was gone for good and I didn’t have any relationship with him until I got to my 20s and when he left I was like 6, 7. So it was the greatest heartbreak to this day that I’ve ever known other than going through drug addiction which broke my heart probably a little more, but that with my dad was horrible. So that’s what that song is about, it’s going back to that time and being a little girl and wanting him to tell that new wife that she is not his, he belongs to a family that missed him, that loves him. So that was the time to write that song for those kind of obvious reasons.
MD: You mentioned in the lyric there’s reference to Dark Side Of The Street which of course is a classic 60s Soul song and you really kind of capture that vibe in that song. Did you listen to a lot of that stuff when you were growing up?
BH: I listened all that stuff growing up. Plus Punk Rock, plus Heavy Metal, plus Country music and I mean old real Country not Pop Country.
BH: And I really loved all the genres but when I stumbled onto the Soul genre especially with Etta James. Do you remember the movie The Commitments?
MD: Oh yeah.
BH: I love that movie, I went and saw it as a kid and I just thought all the songs were so great and I loved all that Soul stuff, but it’s a true story. I remember riding my bicycle and I had to cross 3 cities to get to where my dad was living with his wife and I came with my bicycle and I hid across the street in the dark and I watched him through the screen door, there was a screen door and a glass door right behind it and just watched him in the house with his wife. So that line had to have been there and it totally relates to that song and it’s funny you bring it up because when I was writing it I thought is anyone going to call me out and think that I stole this line from that soul song .
MD: There’s a difference between stealing and paying tribute I think. So I think you’re okay.
BH: So funny, I love it.
MD: Another one that sounds like you’re grabbing something from say a classic 60s song but in a different manner is The Mood That I’m In. It’s got this kind of bouncy feel to it but it still has this classic kind of Soul sound to it.
BH: Thank you.
MD: And what kind of inspired that one?
BH: You know, I wrote that song about 6 years ago now and I was just messing around on the piano one day, I probably at the time, though I can’t remember now, probably at the time had been listening to some Soul songs and it just kind of inspired it and it’s just a song about wanting to put your foot down and be with somebody, you know, you’re in the mood and they are the one you’re in the mood for and just making it a sweet, love song, but sexy and a little bit naughty. Yeah so this song has been around for a while, I just never put it on a record till now.
MD: Was there quite a bit of discussion between you and the producers as to how to capture this vibe that you’ve got, this kind of classic Soul sound. Did they want to try make it sound more contemporary or were you guys all on the same page with that?
BH: No we weren’t on the same page. I wanted to make a very Bluesy, Soulful/Jazz record. What they believed was, they thought it would be a good challenge for me to go back to a little bit more Singer/Songwriter like LA Song,Leave The Light On, stuff that’s a little straighter.
BH: And a little more Singer/Songwriter based and boy I didn’t want to do it. But after doing it because you think that sometimes when people challenge you, just cause you don’t want to do something doesn’t mean it might not be a good idea if you are to do it anyway and they were so focused on this. I already know me, how stubborn I am, no one can make me do what I don’t want to do, but I did open up my mind and I said well let me just give it a shot and more interestingly, let me give it a shot and see why I’m so adamant about not doing it cause’ there’s got to be some physiological reason. What I found was, when I do singer/songwriter writing, it is much more vulnerable than I have to be. So it’s more painful and that’s why I didn’t want to do it. And when I came back to the producers with I figured it out, now I know why. It was so funny because they’re both so smart and so in-touch that they said we already knew that, we just didn’t want to tell you, you had to figure it out yourself, you’re stubborn, so we thought that you’d just figure it out yourself. But I liked how at the end of the day, instead of it all being songs that are like Mechanical Heart orBetter Than Home which are very Singer/Songwriter, it’s a nice blend. You got a little bit of touch of Jazz in We’re Still Living In The City and in As Long As I Have A Songand a little tinge of Country in St. Teresa and then the full out Soul of Tell Her You Belong To Me. I was very pleased because I thought initially it might end up becoming just all Singer/Songwriter and I’ve only done that to date on one album and that was My California, the entire record is a Singer/Songwriter record, the most cohesive record I’ve ever made and I regretted doing it. But I must say that doing it was an incredible cathartic experience and it was hard to do. I did have a co-writer though on that record. I worked with a good friend of mine who is a wonderful writer, Rune Westberg and he was the writer with me on My California album.
BH: But this record, I didn’t have anyone to lean on. I didn’t have a buddy that I could share in my stuff with. It was all on my shoulders for the writing so it was hard, it was really, really hard and I don’t want to make another record like this for a little while, I need to take a break.
MD: Right. What is it like for you when you perform them live? I mean you’re kind of reliving those songs again aren’t you?
BH: You know what’s funny man, and I swear this to you, but it’s kind of like, when you’re writing it’s like when you first go to therapy and it sucks, it’s painful, you don’t want to have to try and tell the truth, you don’t want to have to bring up all that stuff, you don’t want to talk about it and a lot of people bow out and they say screw therapy and they just leave. But I’m a big believer in therapy. So what I do is, yeah it’s painful at first whenever you really jump back and you’re seeing your therapist a lot but then after you talk about that stuff and you get it out, you realise that those ghosts aren’t going to bite you on the ass, they’re just ghosts, they’re just a smoke in the air, they’re not going to hurt you. That’s how I feel about some of the heavier pieces on this record, I’ve been doing them in rehearsal for the last two weeks with my band because we’re getting ready for the road coming up here in a couple of days.
BH: And I got to tell you. I just feel so much love and gratitude for these songs and my band and I feel inspired and happy. I don’t feel sad when I sing St. Teresa, I feel hope and I don’t feel sad when I sing Tell Her You Belong To Me because I survived it, It wasn’t like it killed me, it broke my heart but I survived it and a heart can mend. So it’s like there’s hope all over it.
MD: So you’re going to be here in Auckland performing in about a month or so. You’ve mentioned the rehearsal. What kind of band are you bringing to town with you cause’ we haven’t seen you in a while, don’t know really what to expect.
BH: I know, it’s been so long. Well believe it or not I’m still with Jon Nichols who I’ve been with since I was 27 and I’m 43 now. Jon is still my guitar player after all these years, he’s so fabulous. But I will be bringing a guitar player also named PJ Barth who’s been with me just for a couple of years and a bass player named Bob Marinelli who’s been with me just for maybe a year and a half now and a wonderful new drummer…I was broken hearted recently when my drummer Bill Ransom he wasn’t able to go out on these tours, he’s having some personal stuff. So I was so broken hearted that I couldn’t bring him out…but then my band found this great drummer and I was so busy I didn’t have time to audition him but I trust my band and they said this guy is ridiculous. So anyway, I’ve been doing these rehearsals with him and he is amazing, he’s learned 54 songs, 54 songs.
MD: That’s pretty incredible.
BH: Isn’t that great.
MD: Yup. So we’re going to hear stuff from throughout your career, I assume a little bit of everything?
BH: Oh yeah. Got to be responsible and do that for sure because I can’t assume that people have all the records as much as I’d love them to, but that’s just not reality. So I make sure I try to get in a couple of songs of off each record at least so that, that way someone in the audience that only have 1 or 2 albums, they’re going to hear maybe 4, 5 songs that they know and then hopefully get turned on to some other stuff.
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