A FEW MINUTES WITH… Beth Hart
By Don Wilcock
Beth Hart plays a sold out concert at The Egg’s Hart Theatre tonight (Friday, March 4). Her most recent album, Better Than Home, was recorded in five days. It features 11 original songs culled from 45 contenders she wrote, and it was produced by Michael Stevens just after stomach surgery for a cancer that shortly thereafter killed him.
The sheer power, angst, anger, and pain of the artist on these songs are as intense as anything Nina Simone or Billie Holiday ever put out. Beth Hart’s emotions are just as unbridled in her interview. She has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and interviewing her is like trying to write “Gone with the Wind” on a rollercoaster.
Most journalists understand that with the selection of quotations that they cull from an interview like this that they can make an artist look wonderful or really terrible. It’s a tight wire. Most journalists also understand that extreme angst is a powerful tool for the creative muse. I hope that I have done her justice by picking the quotes I have in the interview that follows.
Beth Hart sang Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” to Buddy Guy accompanied by Jeff Beck at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors. Almost two decades ago she played Janis Joplin in the off-Broadway production of “Love, Janis.” Of Billie Holiday she says, “That’s a rough life. Yeah, she was a drug addict. So what? Everybody does what they gotta do to get by.”
Like all three of those artists, Hart shares a musical obsession fueled by an overpowering sense of self-doubt that propels her music in a profound and breathtaking delivery rising like a Phoenix out of lives filled with tragedy and fanned by drug addiction.
“I’m addicted to writing. It doesn’t mean that it’s all good work. It just means I love to write. I get off on it. It’s my place where I get to get close to what I think is God and angels and ghosts and all of it. All of it that’s beyond what’s seen in our world, and I get to go to that place. So, I’m addicted to it.”
Hart’s eighth album, Better Than Home was recorded in five days that included two trips to “the psych ward.” Songs like “Trouble” and “St. Theresa” boil with a level of anger and angst. In the liner notes Hart says, “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.”
“Did I really say that?” she snaps in our interview. I assure her that she did. “Well, one of the things that I love about 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 shit 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.
“Michael [Stevens] really raised the bar and pushed me to 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 such a beautiful project. I think it’s definitely the best, or one of the best, I’ve done. Really, all hats off to Michael.
“One of the things I like with Michael is that 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 biggest hit single.) It’s my truth, or as close as I could get to telling the truth at that point.”
“I’m an insecure artist that goes looking for applause to feel for a few minutes after a show that I’m not shit. That’s very self-involved. I’m very aware of how selfish I am – not that I don’t try to work on it.”
“When I was a kid, my dad left in a bad way and what fucked 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.”
Her sister died of AIDS complications when Hart was 20.
“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, but 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.’ And he said, ‘Because of that, it’s not the right business for you.’”
She recorded her first album Beth Hart and the Ocean of Souls in 1993, had a hit single “L.A. Song (Out of This Town)” in 1999. She’s recorded three albums with Joe Bonamassa, appears on Buddy Guy’s latest CD and laid down her upcoming ninth album right after she recorded Better Than Home.
“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 the first record that I ever made. That was a horrible experience, but Better Than Home was just way too painful.
“I just hated it. But the thing I hated was that 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. So, it’s one thing to hoot and holler and scream, you know, do some rock and roll, have people reject it. It’s like the bad guy in your life. ‘Let me leave. It doesn’t really hurt that bad.’”
She 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.
“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 fuck – 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 things that could ever happen to you. You know what I mean?”
Hart has taken a self-imposed year-long break from writing. “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 has to do.”