Beth Hart’s love affair with music began with Beethoven. That might seem a tad strange to those who only know the Los Angeles-born singer as a stentorian-voiced blues-soul-rock diva, but when she was just four years old young Beth heard Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on a television commercial advertising pianos. It was an epiphany that changed her life forever. “I started to cry and I just felt this incredible feeling of love for music,” she reveals. From that moment onwards – it inspired the youngster to learn the piano – Beth Hart’s life would never be the same and music would play an important role in her development.
Fast-forward to the 1993 and Hart – then still a teenager – was aiming to pursue music as a career and triumphed as a vocalist in a televised US talent show, claiming first prize and a cheque for $100,000. But that instant success only fuelled doubts in her mind about her credibility as a singer and it took three more years of hard work and perseverance to get a record deal. She signed with Atlantic and released the album ‘Immortal’ in 1996, which she describes as ‘aggressive rock.’ Her second Atlantic album yielded a Top 5 US pop smash in the shape of ‘LA Song (Out Of This Town),’ which had come to the attention of the wider public by its inclusion on the soundtrack to the hit TV show, ‘Beverly Hills 90210.’
More recently, though, Beth Hart has veered away from rock and pop and started to explore an avenue of soulful blues music. Last year’s collaboration with blues guitarist, Joe Bonamassa, on the album ‘Don’t Explain’ vividly demonstrated what a supremely soulful vocalist she is. Sounding like a feral cross between Etta James and Janis Joplin, Hart picked up a legion of new fans as a result of that album. Hart’s latest opus, the recently released ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom’ stylistically continues from where ‘Don’t Explain’ left off and also finds the declamatory-voiced singer exploring jazz and soul. In a candid interview – especially in regard to the singer’s ongoing battle with bipolar disorder – Hart chews the fat with SJF’s Charles Waring…
What’s the story behind your new album?
There’s actually a pretty dramatic story, as most stories with me go ’cause I’m a bit over the top. At the end of the ‘My California’ record (her last CD) I was a bit burned out on songwriting. I felt that lyrically I had said everything I had to say and I had a lot of years to say it. And musically, as well, I felt that I had fallen into some too comfortable places for writing. So I’d go to write and it was so boring. I was like: “I’ve already written that: what am I doing?” I was thinking I can’t just write songs, make a record and go out on tour. I can’t do that like that: it’s like cheating. I’ve got to be into it. So I just didn’t know what was going to happen and then the beautiful Joe Bonamassa invited me to do that covers record (‘Don’t Explain’) and you know ever since that record, I discovered that I’ve gone full circle because the music that I’m writing for this record is a new music for me to write but it’s a very old music that I loved as a young person but never had the courage to write. So it was like do or die. I’ve been teaching myself to play the piano all over again. Everything is fresh and new so there’s this big well now to pull from. It’s incredibly challenging and incredibly exciting, so I’m very, very happy that I’ve found a new road myself.
One of the standout tracks is ‘Baddest Blues’ – what inspired it?
That song, in particular, is about my mother and father’s divorce. My mother’s always been so energetic and strong as a person but when they divorced, she was so broken, and she must’ve stayed in bed for two months. When I was very young it was just heartbreaking to see what happened to all of us – we all go through the divorce, and the sad thing was that my dad was so magical and had so much charisma that it was so strange for him to be out of the house. It was like God had left your heart. So that song pulled from that time.
How does the new album compare with what you’ve done before?
I started out doing aggressive rock on my very first record (‘Immortal’) with Atlantic. And then my second record went more to a bit of alternative mixed with singer/songwriter mixed with a bit of soul but I didn’t really dive that far into that; it was a bit more rock but not hard rock as before. Then I had a collapse in my life and so after about two years I got back on my feet and made a kind of recovery record called ‘Leave The Light On.’ That was my first time at having some success in Europe, starting in Holland. Then I went back to rock ‘n’ roll on ’37 Days’ that I made with my band. And then I did a very dark lyric record but softer sound which was ‘My California.’ That was a very intimate record. I went back into psych ward that year and it was a very hard year mentally for me. But that was good because it got me to agree to take medication for good and commit myself to that so, that helped everything in my life so much. But all those lyrics on that particular record were about that life experience in that year so it was definitely heavier lyrically. Whereas this record, I think, is filled with so much more joy. There are songs about hardship but most of it I think is pretty optimistic.
And there’s a lot of focus on love as well.
Yes, I’ve never written so much about love before – that was another new thing drawn from the new well. I just turned 40 this year and after all these years it’s like I have a new place to go, which is like a gift from the sky. It’s so much fun.
Going right back to the beginning, your career began when you won the TV talent show. What was that experience like?
It was an incredible experience. It was my first experience in doing live television and I just loved it. I loved everyone who worked behind-the-scenes on the set and it was great to compete with other artists. I was 19 and had so much energy and ambition and it was like “I’m going to do this thing!” It was a great time, I really enjoyed it.
I believe that there was also a downside to that experience, from what I’ve read about you. Is that true?
Yeah, I remember the night that I won I had this sinking feeling. I was out with my manager/producer and I started crying at the table. He said: “what’s going on? You’ve won $100,000. You should be really happy.” But I just had this really sinking feeling that it was going to be very hard to get my career to go to the next level. I knew that it was considered pretty corny and it took away from my credibility in terms of the public eye. It was pretty well known that talent shows took your credibility away a bit as a singer and I knew that. I also knew that I was going to be up for a bit of a tough time, getting a proper deal, after that.