Interview: Beth Hart

luke kalamar looks at Beth Hart’s road to redemption…

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In the vast and wondrous world of rock ‘n’ roll, drug use is an incredibly common theme. How many stories have you heard of about your favorite rockers and their insane nights of debauchery? How about that rumor of how Jimi Hendrix would put LSD on his headband before performing? Even though this rampant drug use has lead to some of the most incredible songs of all time, it has also led to the early death of many musicians — some true pioneers of the art.

Los Angeles native Beth Hart almost joined that list herself. Hart started her abuse at an incredibly young age, and it was a significant part of her life throughout the 80s, 90s, and right into the 21st century. She had almost reached that point of no return. Fortunately, she found the inspiration she needed to truly make a recovery and put this part of her life behind her.

Now Hart is back, and thanks to a massive fan base in Europe, is ready to make herself known again throughout the United States. Pop-Break caught up with Hart right before she left to start an eight week European tour to talk about her recovery, her influences, Jeff Beck, and the upcoming North American release of her album Bang Bang Boom Boom.

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Pop-Break: According to your bio, you fell into a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol abuse near the turn of the century. Now, several years later, you’re clean, sober, and riding a massive wave of popularity. What lead to your decision to clean up and change your life around?

Beth Hart: Well, I had messed around with drugs from a really young age, but they had said I was diagnosed bipolar when I was a young, young kid and I’m 41 so this was a long time ago. When I was diagnosed it was an illness that wasn’t accepted as much and people didn’t know a lot about it unless they were gravely ill and had to be hospitalized all the time. My mother didn’t really believe in medication so I think I was kind of self-medicating myself as a kid. But thankfully, I had music soI would be working on my music and was always focused on that. To kind of help my own brain I would have a separate life away from my friends and family where I would kind of sneak off and go party for three days. Kind of disappear, and then I would come back and get back to work or school or whatever I was a part of. That started at a pretty young age, started about 11 or 12 years old. It stayed that way for years and like I said I had never done the medication for bipolar until I got older and really had to.

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I finally got a record deal with Atlantic and when I was 23 I did a record called Immortal. I wasn’t using on that record, but I just did it starving myself so I took up anorexia as another way to numb my imbalanced brain. Then I made a record called Screamin’ for my Supper which would have been the most success I’ve had in my life at that time. A song called “L.A. Song [(Out of This Town)]” did real good for me here. Instead of embracing and enjoying it, it seemed like my illness went out of control, and then I was drinking everyday. So I would go into seizures, the doctors offered that I go on a drug called Klonopin. Being the manipulative addict, like a lot of us are, I kind of pretended like I didn’t know what it was. I knew what it was, it gets you pretty high. A lot of people don’t necessarily get addicted to it because it’s supposed to make you really tired and go to sleep, but with my brain chemistry it made me way better than heroin. Way better than any other drug I had ever tried. It was like, the end all.

So I got on that and started taking really high amounts of it, and it just leveled my whole life. It ruined my relationship with family and friends, I’ve been in the same apartment for 9 years and I got kicked out, my health was terrible I was skin and bones, and Atlantic said “We’re not gonna sit by and watch you die. You’re out of here, we’re sorry, we’re gonna drop ya.” Now I think if I had been more successful with them, maybe they wouldn’t have dropped me. Maybe they would have said, “Hey go get cleaned up and come back someday and put out another record.” I only had a small song that was doing well but it wasn’t like I had this big huge career going and I was a superstar, so they let me go. I didn’t know where to go and I didn’t really care, I hit that kind of bottom that you just don’t even care to come back. You want to die but you’re too chicken shit to take yourself out, so you just wait around for something that might. That’s honestly where I was.

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I refused to go to rehab so I decided to try and kick it at my husband’s house only because I couldn’t get doctors to give me the prescription any more. They figured out I was using a bunch of different names to get it. I couldn’t get it unless I went into Mexico and that was just too hard. I was like, “Okay I’ll try to do without.” I started having seizures and stuff. My husband, at the time was just my boyfriend, he laid himself down on top of me when I was having a seizure and I was totally hoping I would die. When Scott laid down on top of me and he started crying, something totally shifted inside and I realized, “Whoa this is an amazing person that I have in my life and he loves me. If he’s amazing and he’s crying over me being sick, that means there must be something good inside of me.” It was then that I began the shift and the next day I went into rehab.

But it was a long way back for me because I still refused to take medication for bipolar disorder. They kept telling me in several different rehabs I went through, “What are doing? Yeah you’re an addict but you got an illness you gotta take something for it.” I married Scott and that was the last week I ever took Klonopin, so that’s been almost 13 years since I’ve ever touched that drug. I knew I never would but there were other drugs I would lean on like alcohol or speed. I knew I had to get home from that stuff too, and all the doctors kept saying, “You gotta take meds that will help you so much.” I’m like, “No I just need to be totally sober.” I immersed myself in the program and I got sober for a lot of years, totally clean on no medication for bipolar. Then I had a terrible mental breakdown about 6 years ago, worse than ever before, and that’s when I started taking the meds for bipolar. My life has gotten amazing since. It started with sobriety, but it took more than that to really get me in a place of having normal ups and downs instead of having dangerous ones.

PB: Since your sobriety you’ve been doing a lot, and recently you performed at the Kennedy Center Honors with legendary guitarist Jeff Beck. You’ve also played with Slash and Joe Bonamassa. How have these artists contributed to your consistently growing success?

BH: These guys have been amazing. I mean, they’ve become amazing friends. All three of those guys are so humble, first of all, and all three of them constantly are working on their craft. They’re constantly working at being better artists and writing better music and playing better. They surround themselves with people that will help them to grow and challenge them. There’s so much humility in all three of those guys, but they’re all such team players and they’re all such hard workers. I’ve been so fortunate for them to even consider having me be a part of anything in their lives. I’ve gotten to learn, and it’s helped my career obviously, and it’s been so great knowing those guys. Those three are gems.

PB: Since it happened so recently, I wanted to see if you could describe for me the Kennedy center honors experience. What was that like?

BH: It was so amazing. I did a little TV show in England called [Later…with] Jools Holland and Jeff was there. He said, “I think I’m going to be in touch with you in the next couple weeks keep your ear out.” A couple weeks go by and I’m still on the road, and he says, “I’m doing the Kennedy Center Honors, do you want to come and do it.” I kind of knew about the Kennedy Center Honors and wasn’t truly aware of it, but anything I can do with Jeff I would jump at. I said, “Yeah, yeah.” He goes, “Yeah I told you I’m playing for Buddy Guy, honoring Buddy Guy.” That entire year I had gotten to open up for Buddy in Norway and it was so astounding to see this man, the way he played the guitar and the way he sang. Buddy Guy is a master! None of these guys would be playing like that if it wasn’t for Buddy.

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So when Jeff said, “Hey you want to do this” I was like “Yeah! Yeah!” I worked really hard on the song, I knew I wanted to do “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Jeff was down with that and the Kennedy Center thought it was a cool song to do too because Buddy loved Etta James so much. That was one of her key songs. We thought that would be a really respectful thing to do and that would make him happy. I had done the song already with Joe Bonamassa on a record called Don’t Explain, so I just sent that version over to the Kennedy Center for the amazing band they have there. Jeff and I got together to work it out, and then we met up out there in DC. Thankfully to God I wasn’t nervous! On the day of the show, we got to go to the White House and shake hands with Obama and his beautiful wife. Then we did the show, and it was great. I just walked out there, looked up, saw [Buddy Guy] up there and just tried to sing it to him. I got to stand next to the greatest guitar player I think that’s ever lived, Mr. Jeff Beck, and it was such an honor. I loved every second.

PB: I saw that your musical origin is in Los Angeles, but a lot of your comeback came through the U.K. and Europe. Why do you think that happened there as opposed to the United States?

BH: Honestly, I have to take responsibility for this, and that is I had screwed things up so badly with all my being crazy and the drugs and all that, that I think I pretty much scared every connection I had here in the States away. They’re like, “Don’t work with her she’s out of her mind and a drug addict. Let her go.” I went ahead when I started to get well again, and I called my manager and said, “I really would like to make a record.” My beautiful ex-label guy over there in Atlantic gave me some money and said “I know you’re not with the label anymore but I want to help you out.” I went ahead and made a record called Leave the Light On on my own and I signed a deal with Koch [Records] who was an independent here in the States. They really just threw it out, we did a small tour. Nothing really happened. There wasn’t any real “gung-ho-ness” for the record, but there was in Europe.

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It was small and it started in Holland. In Holland, it was a huge response. We showed up there and the Paradiso got sold out, and that’s wild that’s like a 2,500 theater. It was sold out just like that. We played there and we decided to come right back and do a DVD called Live at the Paradiso, and we filmed it there. That started things rolling for me, but it was all in Holland. Then it segued into Denmark, and it just went over like gangbusters. Over night my career started happening there. I had a big song on the radio. Then it segued into Norway, then into Germany, and slowly but surely now it’s gone into Switzerland and Sweden and France and England, into Italy. It’s taken a lot of years and a lot of work, but I finally got a great label to represent me for all of Europe and that had a big to do with it too. You’re now being represented in a proper way.

All I can say is Europe has been so amazing, but I got the opportunity there with record companies and we just put everything we had into building it there. It’s too hard to try to build there and here [in the United States] on the kind of budget I was on. Now finally the label that I’m with for Europe has now started a label here in the States and that why I’m getting a chance now to release this record to the States and actually do a real tour. I haven’t done a real tour in the United States in 10 years.

PB: You have a sound that is very similar to the late and great Janis Joplin, so what influence, if any, did she have on the creation of your sound?

BH: When I was coming up in the clubs in my early teens, people would say her name a lot. I was listening to a lot of Aretha [Franklin] and Etta [James], and that was my thing. I listened to a lot of rock and roll too, I was listening to a lot of Kurt Cobain, especially a lot of Soundgarden, and that was really where I was pulling my stuff from. But they kept saying “Janis! Janis! Janis!” So I went and I got some videos on her that I rented from Blockbuster. I put them in and I saw her performing live. I thought she was amazing! I got a record of her, not the stuff she did with Big Brother but I got the stuff she did with her funk band like “Try” and “Cry Baby,” and I thought she was just so different from any female I had heard. All the singers I listened to were black singers that were coming out of that rock ‘n’ roll, soul, and blues blend, but she was a different breed. I listened to her quite a bit, but that wasn’t until I was around 19 or 20 years old that I really did turn onto her. I love her, she was a great artist, and any time someone says something like that to me that I’m sounding like her, it makes me feel really proud. I loved her!

PB: April 2nd marks the release of your 7th studio album Bang Bang Boom Boom. What about this album makes it unique from your previous releases?

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BH: Musically, I got to a place where I needed to challenge myself. It happened at the end of a record I did called My California. When I did the record My California, it was a very singer/songwriter-based record, and I’ve never done one that was as focused as that. My other records were pretty eclectic, a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, some pop stuff, and some singer/songwriter stuff. My California wasn’t that way at all. It was very singer/songwriter, very lyric based. When it was done, I was done. I felt like I didn’t have anything else to say. I felt really proud of the record, but I knew I wouldn’t be making another record like that and I didn’t know where to go. I was still touring, but I wasn’t gonna just make a record so the record company could put a one out. I just think that’s a waste. If you don’t feel it, don’t make a record. Joe Bonamassa came into my life and when we did that covers record Don’t Explain, it was during the recording of that record that I caught myself thinking, “I’m loving doing this kind of music! Why don’t I try an attempt to challenge myself and see if I can go down the routes of it?” Especially some of the jazzier stuff, big band stuff, some of the Billie Holiday stuff. Take some of the gospel, rock gospel stuff, and work on some of that. Not really thinking to make a record, just for me as an artist to work and broaden myself, challenge myself and do something else.

I started off with the song “Swing My Thing Back Around,” which was really influenced by Joe Turner and Fiona Apple, who I’m a big fan of. Then the song “Baddest Blues” was heavily influenced the song “Strange Fruit,” the Billie Holiday Version, but also the song “Don’t Explain” from Billie Holiday. I’m embarking in that and working through that. When I’m writing alone, I always work on the music for quite a while, unless it just happens to come quickly, but there’s a lot of thought put into that. The lyrics are always inspired by what the music is, so that’s what really happened differently on this record. It was going into those other genres where as a writer I’ve never really embarked on before.

I noticed something midway through writing this record was that it shifted my lyrical focus. I was writing a lot about love, and I’ve never done that before. I don’t think I ever felt like I deserved to write about something I didn’t know. I knew that other people had given me love but I never felt like I learned how to love others. Being with my husband now almost 12 years, I’ve learned so much from him. I felt like, you know that old saying, “A writer writes what he knows and shouldn’t write anything else. It’s probably a bad idea.” I just noticed that I was writing about that and it made me feel so good to feel like not only musically was I being stretched but lyrically I was being stretched. It was very exciting and it still is.

PB: The producer of Bang Bang Boom Boom, Kevin Shirley, also worked with Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Joe Bonamassa in the past. You’ve already collaborated with one of those artists. Any plans or hopes to collaborate with the other two, or at least one of their members?

BH: No, I’ve never been offered to do anything with them. Of course if they even just picked up the phone to buzz one time I would track down that number and call them back and say, “What ever you’re thinking of doing I’ll do it with you!” But I’ve never been approached by them to do anything like that. The interesting thing is if it wasn’t for the old manager of Led Zeppelin, my old record company guy who gave me a little money to make Leave the Light On suggested that I meet with Jimmy Page because Page was thinking about doing a new thing and he was looking for a singer. A personal thing happened with his life and it didn’t work out, but that same manager had worked and knew Jeff Beck very well. So that’s how I got connected in with Jeff. The reason why I got connected with Slash is he saw me playing with Jeff here at the House of Blues in Hollywood. It’s funny how all those connections went right into a circle there.

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PB: With your growing popularity in the States, where do you hope to go from here?

BH: Well I’m just really thankful that I’m gonna get to tour here. I haven’t done a real tour except for some spot dates, and like I said 10 years. That’s where I’m at in my life; I try not to project too far in the future. I really try to embrace whatever is happening know and trying to make the most of that. When I say make the most of it, I don’t just mean work on it. I mean really enjoy it. I think I’m going to enjoy doing the press in the States. It’s going to be interesting to see if I can make some friends with the press again and get some relationships going. Then actually getting out to do the shows and meet with people that are coming to the shows to see the music and seeing what they’re reactions are going to be and how Bang Bang Boom Boom is gonna go over for them. That’s a really exciting thing for me; it’s been so many years. That’s really what I’m focusing on, enjoying any and all these opportunities that are happening now.

PB: So we can definitely expect a tour for Bang Bang Boom Boom?

BH: Right now we’re starting in May for the United States tour. Internationally, I released the record Bang Bang Boom Boom a few months ago in Europe and I’ve already done a tour there. It’ll be jumping back and forth.