An Interview with Beth Hart at Rock City Nottingham
13 May 2015, Beth Hart is set to perform at Rock City, Nottingham for her last show of her scheduled UK dates. I was lucky enough to catch up with her backstage in the dressing room to chat about music, family and life on the road.
So, how are you? Are you feeling good for tonight?
Beth: Great. I’m feeling good for tonight. I started getting a little bit exhausted these last couple of weeks. I’ve been out on the road for a long time, I mean we’ve been out for three and a half months so I’m a little fried. *laughs*
How have the shows been in the UK so far?
Beth: Unbelievable! They’ve been really amazing. I used to have a hard time when I came into the UK, I just felt like I didn’t know how to properly connect with the audience, so I’ve always felt really intimidated and for some reason on this tour. I don’t know if it’s because of this latest record but it’s just the connection is there and it’s been so wonderful. I love it, I love playing here now.
That’s great, do you think you’ll start to come back here more often?
Beth: Oh yeah, absolutely. Whether I was intimidated or not, we’ll play if people want to come see the show.
Whilst you’ve been here, have you been visiting any sights as well as just attending your gigs?
Beth: You know if I’m doing Promo, I get a chance to do it a little bit more but because of the schedule, no not really.
So ‘Better than Home’ is your new album and this is obviously the main focus of the tour but what I really want to know is, what does ‘Better than Home’ mean to you?
Beth: Well, the song ‘Better than Home’ has got a lot of levels to it. On the surface level, for the audience to understand and not have them come up to me and be like ‘oh my god what the fuck is this song about?’. On the surface level I use the metaphor of going on the road as the source of what’s better than home, so I’m happier on the road than I am at home. To a degree that really is true, especially these last couple of years and I don’t really know why that is but for me personally, it goes to a deeper level of childhood. When I was a little girl my family was extremely close, loving and really happy and then overnight things just became a nightmare and instead of them becoming a nightmare and getting better, they became a nightmare and just kept getting worse. It was hard for everyone and when you’re young, you know, and you’re sensitive, it’s kind of traumatic so I would dream all the time about having my family again and having it beautiful again and that never quite happened in childhood. However what did happen was, I ended up creating my own family. One was being blessed to get married to, Scott, who’s the most amazing man in the world, but to have the crew that I have and the people that I have that I get to work with and make music with to deal with on the road, is my family now and it’s amazing. Funnily enough in creating that new family and being a part of the creation of that new family, ironically what happened was my old family ended up working out their shit and now we’re connected again, so it’s better than what my dreams were of home as a kid. Its two families now, it’s good.
That’s great that you have everyone together again, awesome. So that’s the song, and the album as a whole, what does it mean to you?
Beth: It was the most difficult album by far to write and I think that’s for a couple of reasons. One is I’ve always used song writing as a means to get through my internal struggles, fears, pain whatever and on this album what was going on previous was I did a blues soul/cover record with Joe Bonamassa and singing those songs, not having to write them, singing those songs in that style of music was really freeing for me. You know I’ve been doing this for a long time and here I am at that time in my life, late thirties, we’re doing a fantastic album of fantastic songs and I was really surprised that I really sank into it and got it. So by doing this it inspired me to go into a different direction as a writer. Usually all my life, my writing has first and foremost been based on the lyric, I write the music but I mean the music comes fast and the lyric is what I hone in on and focus on. With the work with Joe, I was like, I’m free, I can try and do Jazz music, Blues music and the lyric doesn’t have to be so fucking heavy or so fucking confessional, it can be more about love. But where I get my challenge is, working on new chord progressions and different things to those I’ve ever done before on piano so that was really exciting. I didn’t have to think about the heaviness of a lyric, so here I am finally free and I’m like, ‘yeah I’m into this thing’ and then my manager and my husband and my fucking label approach me and they say ‘you’ve got to get away from this Blues thing, what are you doing? There’s no future in it for you, that’s not who you are. You make some Blues music and Soul music and have fun with it and maybe some people will really enjoy it and you guys have done that already with Joe’. Also I made a record on my own called ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom’ but they said ‘please get back to the stories’ and I was like ‘fuck you, I don’t want to do that. I don‘t want to be so heavy laden with that I don’t want to have to feel that stuff’ I just want to have fun and just relax a little bit.
Exactly, you need to do what’s good for you and what makes you feel good.
Beth: But being that I’m mentally ill, I have the upside into being able to question my gut. You know how there’s that forever? You hear that saying ‘whatever you do in life follow your gut, follow your gut instinct’ and I think that is generally true unless you have mental illness or some sense of trauma because your gut instinct will take you to places that will make you hide. So if you follow that, you’ll go and you’ll hide, so here I am going I don’t want to fucking go back and really write heavy songs or confessional songs, I don’t want to look at myself, I just want to keep doing this Jazz thing, this Blues thing that’s fun and then I said you know what these people you have around you probably know better than you, you are mentally ill and you’re probably getting in your own way. So I forced myself to start going back and looking at life and my perspective on life, family, friends, childhood, early adulthood and looked at things about death, God, where are we going and does it matter, really I just started going back to that place and it was freaking me out, it was really hard. So being the stubborn bitch that I am, I kept turning in material to the producers that was like ‘check out this Jazz song, this Blues song, let’s put this on the record’ and they were like ‘no, no, no, you know what we’re expecting of you, you know that we know you can do this, come on’. What was interesting at the end of the day of Hell in doing this was that there really were a bulk of songs that came that weren’t just from struggle but they were from a place of struggle with great hope and I don’t think that I could say from any albums in my past that I’ve had that. Usually it’s just been straight up struggle or humour or it’s been a celebration of love or life where as this album has got the struggle but for the first time a huge amount of hope. I think because of that, it’s a fantastic new direction for me to possibly continue in and be challenged by. Who knows, maybe it will even help the parts of me that feel damaged that no amount of medicine or therapy will ever heal, but maybe through the music it can heal. Not only do I think ‘Better than Home’ is a hopeful album, I’ve got a possibility of healing going in this direction, even though its fucking hard and it hurts.
How do you hope this album will inspire others who haven’t already had the privilege of hearing it?
Beth: I never know how anything might affect another of course but I also know that I’m not an alien and my feelings about life and how I’m affected by them, it’s not like I’m standing alone. So I feel like if I’m writing or recording something that is moving me, I assume that because I’m not an alien it’s going to do similar things like that for some others. I think that’s always the hope, I mean I can’t speak for others but I think other artists no matter what type of medium they are using, whether it be from painting to acting to dancing, song writing or anything like that I believe the desire is to get to the truth and I think it’s really hard to tell the truth. It’s only natural that when you grow up you learn to build layers and walls to protect yourself from your own mind and your own feelings and that’s fine but it may end up protecting you from being hurt by the world but what ends up happening also is it keeps you from being loved and connected, like working backwards as an artist you’re trying to peel back those layers and get to the truth, so that way you can bring about an ability to feel again and connect again and hope that through the connection the fear of death isn’t so fucking ‘oh my god’ it’s like ‘no, we’re alive now and we survive together’ and I’m thankful.
So, you’ve toured this album on various dates in the UK already, which song from the new album are you finding your favourite to play live at the minute?
Beth: Oh god, you know I really love them all so much but one of my favourites is ‘As long as I have a Song’ and it’s my first time at taking a crack at my experience of song writing and what it means to me, so I love that song.
What about previous songs you’ve written? I know you have so many that you can’t play them all on one tour.
Beth: Fucking sucks man, you know what I do though, and every fucking show is a new show so it’s a whole new set list. I mean some songs will stay consistent, what I try and do is take a few songs from each album I have made and that will be stuff that I know audiences want to hear and I’ll have that be but at the next show I’ll switch them up and go to a couple of different songs from different records. Some things may stay consistent depending on what country I’m in, so for the UK, I try and play songs that I got airplay on but obviously that I didn’t get airplay on in Holland or play different things that maybe I did get there. If ever I’m in a Country where I got no airplay, I’ll do my investigation and figure out through the internet what people want to hear from that area because after all, as much as we want to play and enjoy our set, there’s nothing more enjoyable than playing a set you know your audience is going to be happy with and I think that is important but I don’t always follow my set lists. I mean you want to give people what they want to hear but I’m getting older and there’s more records so I’m like holy shit what do we do.
Do you have any cool stories from the Tour so far, anything you want to share with us?
Beth: This is something that you might think is really redundant but for me when I first started out on the tour I had a brand new drummer and I’m really anal about things being played a certain way, not just knowing the song but feeling the song, it’s two totally different things. So my drummer was making me fucking crazy because he didn’t know the material and I had him learn over 50 songs. So here we are on stage and instead of me relaxing and letting the songs and the band tell the story, which is really my job as a singer not to showboat, over sing or do any of that fucking bullshit but let the band and the songs speak for themselves, I was overcompensating by over singing. So about a month went by and I started losing my voice and I was like ‘holy fuck’ my ego was getting in my own way and it was ruining my health, so then it was like I was forced to back way off vocally but when I did that my set list changed and I took all the Blues and Rocking shit we were doing and I brought it way, way down and all of my singer/songwriter shit, I brought up in the set and the funny thing was I thinking at the beginning of the tour if I hit it hard and I scream, the audience is going to love that. When my body and voice could no longer do that, I had to shift it and my audience were like ‘so glad you’re giving us love’. Isn’t that funny man, it’s like my thinking was totally off. In doing something I had to do to survive on the road it ended up being the thing that I had to do to make them happier, isn’t that sweet.
I guess that’s a good thing that you’re able to turn something that you originally thought was a negative into a positive. As a performer, being on the road and touring is part of the package. How do you tend to juggle your home life with music and how do you find YOU time?
Beth: Well I really don’t have home time because I’m not there long enough but what I do is when I need to start writing for an upcoming record I will force my manager to give me at least two and a half months off, maybe three months off and then what happens for me is when I get home the first 3 to 5 days I’m happy, I get to see my dogs, cook for my husband and take care of some stuff like go to the dermatologist, doctor’s appointments and get my laundry cleaned but then I go into a deep depression and the bummer about being in a depression is obvious that you’re in a fucking depression but the upside is I become a writing maniac. I spend all my time writing and when they say okay it’s time, we’re gearing up for a show then I have to force myself to get back, work out and start physically training for the next thing, then I pop out of the depression and it’s time to go. My life really is on the road but it works well because like I said my whole crew is my family and then I’m with the love of my life, my husband.
Looking back at some of your previous experiences and opportunities, you’ve been fortunate enough to play with big names like Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Beck and Slash. I’m curious, who else have you always dreamed of playing with?
Beth: There’s a couple of people. I adore Tom Waits, I’ve always wanted to write with him and do something live with him, he’s definitely one of my heroes. I’m also a huge fan of Leonard Cohen, I just think he’s like the top of the top when it comes to writing, his whole sound and everything that he does. I’m kind of like a crazy fan so it would be very hard for me if I saw someone that I idolized. I would never walk up to them and say ‘hello’ ever. I would probably faint, so it’s kind of like I want to but then I would definitely faint.
Sometimes, do you find yourself being your own worst judge when it comes to your work process?
Beth: Yes absolutely. I tend to be extremely down on myself and I want to rip my own head off. So for instance on this record ‘Better than Home’ the song ‘Mechanical Heart’ on the 6th day of recording I snuck away from my husband and the band and I got so drunk I ended up in the street passed out and the ambulance had to come and take me to the hospital because I just drank myself into a terrible place and it was because I thought I was doing a shitty job. Then more drama, a couple of months go by, I’m at home and I receive the rough mixes, so the record is not finished and I hated it so much that I cut my arms all up and I had to go back to the hospital for three days. It’s that kind of shit that I do, if I don’t think I’m rising to the occasion or being honest enough or fucking getting out of my own way then I hurt myself but that’s typical from my illness, it’s not like any news you know it’s just that I really want to live to be old and I don’t want to fucking scare my husband and family all the time with my illness but it’s just part of it and I know that so if I give myself a few chicken scratches and go to the hospital for a few days that’s not a big deal but as long as I don’t take it further than that. It’s something that creeps me out Bipolar, so I just self-harm. It could be worse man, it could be fucking worse.
It is a part of you and I think that you do well to deal with it, this is why I feel like people can look up to you and your music can really help people as a coping mechanism.
When writing an album, only so many of the songs make the cut, what happens to the rest?
Beth: So you know what happens to the rest and I have this little funny philosophy that when a song has its own energy, as much as I want it to make it to that record, if it doesn’t it means that the song and the energy behind it which I call God or the Angels say it’s not ready to come out into the world yet. I usually record 16 to 18 songs per each record. Back in the old days you could put 12 to 15 songs on a record no problem, nowadays unless you’re a pop act, it’s kind of smart to not put more than 10. It’s hard because you want the little baby to make it to the record you know but then I have to say this is not about what I think or want. I have to trust if it’s meant to find it’s home it will so that’s okay too, maybe it was just a cool working progress song that I love but maybe it’s never meant to go out to the people.
So you never just think about throwing a song away?
Beth: I kind of don’t believe in throwing away, the only time I believe in throwing away is when, because what I do is I always write the music first, then the chord changes and then the melody follows and then the lyric follows. So if I’m writing the music and I don’t feel like its really connecting inside, then I’ll know there’s no reason to really put a lyric on it, it’s a waste and I’ll throw it. ‘Tell her you Belong to Me’ a song on the latest record, it took me a year and a half to write that fucking song but what was going on was I’d written the music very quickly and I loved it, the melody the chord changes but I couldn’t find the lyric and I was thinking what the fuck is going on and then I realised that the song was about my father and I didn’t want to feel those feelings as a little girl when he abandoned and left the family. Also I was scared because I did so much therapy and I’m 43, ‘what if I’m still as fucked up as I was then about my father?’ Then I was like ‘okay, you’ve got to just write it anyway’ it took great courage but it also took such a long time. Finally when I finished it, I was so happy, not because I thought it was a great song but I had no anger in me towards my father, no real hurt but instead I had all this power where I said ‘no matter what the fuck you do mother fucker, I’m going to love you even if it drives you up the wall, nothing will break my love for you, not even you, not even me can get in the way of that love’. Then I thought ‘oh my god’ I grew up and I found forgiveness which I was able to turn into conditional love. This was a good release and it made me want to dedicate the record to my Dad, so I did.
Despite everything you’ve been through in the past and the struggles you’ve had to overcome, how does it make you feel knowing you’re able to beat these demons that get thrown at you?
Beth: Well one thing I realised very importantly along the way, is that music alone was not enough to help me grow, heal and recover. What I had to put first was my spirituality, my connection with God or whatever you want to call it. I know what I call it but it doesn’t matter however, having that spiritual connection with something higher and more powerful and with the most amazing unconditional love, so that no matter what I do, did or what I feel is horrible about myself, I can have faith that something amazing out there loves me just as I am and what a load off that becomes. The thing that had to be next was saying out loud that it was okay for me to have good people in my life. When I was younger I would only choose to have you in my life if you were fucking hell on wheels, drunk man, abusive man, friends that were on fucking drugs, people just fucking crazy because that’s what I felt like I deserved and what I felt I was also. At some point I had to go ‘Beth, no matter how shit you think you are, there is something else that thinks you’re pretty awesome, so start choosing people to be in your life who are pretty awesome’. Loving, kind, healthy and learn from them so that became two. Three became that I had to get on medication for my illness cos I had self-medicated with drugs for so many years. So I got on fucking medication for my illness and then after that the music took a turn. At first I couldn’t write because I wasn’t accessing that crazy part of my brain anymore, I was medicated so I was like holy shit ‘I can’t write anymore’ and my doctor kept saying you will be able to write, you just need to have patience and get rid of your ego and trust that you will find a different way into your brain that will access all those feelings that you used to access without being so dangerous. Then that started to happen so I don’t know man, if I’m honest with you I feel like whatever struggles I’ve had in my life have all been gifts, great gifts and to be totally fucking honest with you, I think I’ve had it on fucking easy street. I mean I fucking come from a free country, I’ve got food, education, money for good doctors, people who are good to me. So what I am bipolar and have alcoholism, it’s not like there’s not an answer for it.
When you’re writing, do you find it equally as effortless to produce the songs like ‘Leave the Light On’ which are ballads in comparison to your faster tracks such as 2012’s ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom’?
Beth: No, I think it’s much harder to write the heavier. I’m like a big kid, you know I don’t want to take responsibility, so when I face my stuff which I have to in order to grow and get through it right but the only way I get through it is to come to realise that it takes more than me forgiving others but it also takes me actually finding what my responsibility is in it. ‘What did I do to contribute to that?’ But I don’t want to have to do that, I want to stay a big kid and say ‘fuck all y’all man, you’re treating me so bad’. I want to stay in that place, I get to hide and stay under the covers but that’s no way to live. So that stuff is definitely way harder. ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom’, that was fun because we didn’t know what it meant but we’re going to have fun and write this song and it was a co-write too. I wrote with others, so this record written all alone, I had to take more responsibility, I think that’s why I cut myself up. I couldn’t blame it on anyone if it was shit, I couldn’t say ‘well I wrote with this co-writer and I’m really talented but he wasn’t so it’s shit’ but I couldn’t do that you know.
When I first heard the album ‘Better than Home’ I was blown away. I thought that your approach worked really well. Your new song ‘Trouble’ struck a chord with me for being really gritty and raw and it just oozed so much cool. It seems so effortless for you to have feeling within a song, do you feel like you can let go just as much when you’re on stage as you can when you’re recording an album?
Beth: If my illness hasn’t kicked up I can become completely free, the way I look at the audience is the same way that I look at my band, it all becomes one group that is like a swirling storm but it’s like a perfect storm, it’s beautiful and loving and it doesn’t hurt anything it’s just this beautiful circling of energy and when that happens I just know I’m in a good place. However when my illness has kicked up its kind of like going into hell out there because I know it’s my job to tell them stories, have good energy and do a show for them but when I’m fucked up it’s just like inside I feel like the audience hate it, they hate me and the music and they’re disappointed they came, why did they waste the money and they’re just trying to be nice to me by standing there and watching when all they really want to do is walk out the door and that sucks. That happened the other night.
Do you feel like that happens because you’re having to bring up all those memories and feelings again that come with the songs?
Beth: No not at all, I think it’s a completely chemical imbalance of the brain, I really do. Anything can set it off. If I have a cold and I’m taking a lot of cold medicine that can fuck with my brain chemistry, if I have too much caffeine, it can fuck with my brain chemistry even though I take my medication every morning and night. God forbid if I drink I’m very fucked up for a long time, you know a couple of weeks so it’s so important to not put anything into my body that can shift the chemistry.
Make sure you do look after yourself Beth, it’s very important!
So, I have one final question, seeing live recordings and performances of you from previously, you so easily own the stage and can captivate an audience so well. Are you as confident off stage as you are on?
Beth: Oh no, I think I have much more confidence on stage unless I’m ‘psycho sicko’ that day. That’s not because I think I’m the shit, I think it’s more just because I’m happy. I’m with my best friends, playing music, got the lights, the audience and it’s the childhood dream, seeing the world playing for audiences, making music and it’s happening, it’s such a wonderful place to be and it’s like thank you God for giving me my dream and may I not do anything to ruin it or get in the way because I did once. In my late twenties I ruined my career, I was so sick and I ruined everything, it all stopped, so now I just have such a sense of gratefulness to still be alive but to now be working again, I’m so, so grateful.