Beth Hart Interview

November 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

Here's the unexpurgated extended version of the interview with Beth Hart from this month's magazine:

Platinum-selling singer Beth Hart was in London to promote Don't Explain, her album of soul covers with Joe Bonamassa. She spoke to Moray Stuart of Blues In Britain about that, her career so far and her forthcoming UK shows in November. Photo by Al Stuart.

Was it a surprise when Joe Bonamassa called you to say, ‘Let's go and do this'?

A huge surprise! I didn’t really care what it was we were going to do, I was just really excited to work with him. I was so flattered that he would call me to do that, and then to give me such leeway: I mean, truly, what a gentleman! I received such respect from him and Kevin Shirley [producer on Don't Explain] and the whole band. What amazing guys, there was so much respect it was like it was my band. I got to go in and do my thing and there was no dictating how it should go; no-one did that to anybody. It was like Kevin put us all together in a studio and said, 'Go!' We just played down each song maybe three, four times and he’d say, 'OK, that’s done, let's move on to the next one' and it went as simple as that; it was so nice.

Were the songs for the album chosen jointly?

When we were deciding on the songs, Joe said, 'Just make the list you want, because you're going to sing this stuff' which was great! He and Kevin gave me a list of songs that they had in mind too, some things that I'd never heard before that were just so good, some things that I didn’t much like. I felt uncomfortable saying so but eventually I had to say, 'I don’t hear the song in this, I don’t get it' and even then it was 'No problem, do what you want to do!'

Sounds like working with Joe was a good experience?

It’s funny, even in a sound check he just taps the mic to see it's on and says, 'Let's go'; he just wants to play, as you can see from his schedule! I think he just enjoys it and loves it so much that he can work himself like that, it's incredible. My experience with him was that he doesn’t need to hold the spotlight at all. In fact we just did a show with him in L.A. the other night; we asked him to sit in for a couple and he ended up doing something like eight songs and he was a joy! He's over in the corner and I'm trying to get him out into the centre of the stage to get some spotlight and he’s 'I'm cool over here' so he's a sweetie!

I like the mix of styles on the album, from the bluesy Ray Charles number Sinner’s Prayer to the smooth jazz of Your Heart Is As Black As Night by Melody Gardot.

That is a great song! Do you know her story? It's extraordinary: she had no musical background then she had a major car accident that damaged her throat so she could no longer speak. Part of her therapy to teach her to speak again was to teach her to sing first, and she discovered that she had this killer voice, and the ability to write and play! That was a song I'd never heard before; Kevin Shirley sent me it and when I heard it I instantly wanted to sing it; both she and the song are incredible. It reminds me of growing up, when my mother turned me on to a lot of jazz music; I thought, 'My mom is going to love this, I’ve got to do this song!'

Was that the kind of music you grew up listening to?

I grew up with a lot of different music, totally different styles, and that’s one of them. It makes me think of early childhood, and my mother and her respect for the lyrics of songs. All the music of that period was so focussed on a great lyric; it seems to be at the forefront of the thinking behind those songs and you can really hear it in that music, just fantastic lyrics.

I've read that at one point you were very much into Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and other heavier bands, does that influence your style too?

Oh God, yeah, and Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, anything like that.

Is that the kind of thing you listen to when you're 'off-duty'?

Sometimes: I go through phases. I’ll have my James Taylor and Carole King phases and Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash phases, and classical too: Rachmaninov and Beethoven, I’m a huge, huge fan of them (but I hate Mozart, I just can’t take that!). I listen to all kinds of things, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Etta James.... And also the music my mother turned me on to: Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington especially, my mother adored her, and Billie Holiday.

You generally sing your own material, was it strange to do covers or refreshing or what?

A combination really. It was very intimidating knowing I was going to attempt things by Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Ray Charles, I was thinking, 'I don’t know if I can do this'; on the other hand incredibly exciting! It was Aretha and Etta of whom my best friend in my teens said, 'If you really want to learn how to sing this is what you listen to.' He gave me a copy of Blues In The Night - The Early Show, a live recording of Etta James, so when Joe said, 'Let’s do some soul covers' I thought I had to do a couple of songs from that. Even though I’d been listening to it all my life, this time I listened to it from a different place; I thought if I’m ever going to pull this off I’ve got to find my own personal story attached to these songs, otherwise it’s going to end up being a bad copy. So doing that eased off on some of my fears. I still got hives though! I never broke out in hives before in my life, and driving home with Scott after the first day I couldn't stop itching and I looked and there's these big red marks: I thought, 'God I’ve really got to get this together, this is ridiculous!'

Will all the material for the upcoming shows be from Don't Explain, or will there be some of your own songs?

You know I'm so in love with this record I think it will be the bulk of the material; I never do that normally, but I’m so proud of it, and I hope people will dig onto it so hardcore that they want to hear the bulk of it. We’ve even hired a Hammond player! I’ve never hired anyone else outside of my band before so we're really excited. That'll be fresh; 'fresh meat' in the band!

You've said in the past you don't write when things are going well, you only write when things aren't going so great, is that still the case?

Yes, it is; there are those rare exceptions, if something particularly spectacular has happened or I’ve gone through an experience that will inspire me, but usually it's darker! It's kind of unfortunate because I would like to have records with a lyric that would skew a little more towards being happier sometimes; but I seem to be always talking about things that are pretty sad. Even when getting inspired by people having gone through tragic circumstances, coming through the other side and winning, I'm writing it from the perspective of the tragic circumstance. Sometimes I do wonder 'Is this a bummer for people?' I don’t know if that'll ever change... Probably not!

Your most recent solo album My California doesn't sound too downbeat? The tunes are full of California sunshine appropriately enough?

Yeah it's very light! I've never done a record like that before, that was the one and only! That record is the only one I've done as a co-write with one person for the whole album (with the exception of one solo-written song). I have done co-writes before but it’s usually been about half and half. Rune Westberg, the producer and co-writer, had said he'd really like it if I did one record where I didn't scream at him but just told him stories! Part of me was like, ‘You're an asshole!’ But another part of me thought that it might be an interesting thing to try, a challenging experience, which it was! At the end of the day I’m really happy with the songs, but I don’t know if it's ADHD but I get bored really quickly with something if it’s too linear, if it stays in one tone or colour too long, which I feel it kind of did on that record... But the songs! I had a really great time writing those songs with him.

Well you do get to scream at him a couple of times on Happiness...any day now.

And on Everybody’s Sober!

You've got a great vocal range, from 'screaming' down to a smoky whisper on things like the title track of Don't Explain: Is it nice to get away from the 'raucous rock chick' and 'Janis Joplinesque' labels that get thrown your way a lot?

When we're doing the rock and roll thing, actually doing it, it feels good to hit it hard vocally: I don’t know why that is but I know it's like a release that happens and I feel like I'm getting a load off. Maybe psychologically I feel like I'm proving something, like I'm strong enough to combat what ever is in my head, but it is nice to just chill the frick out and bring it all the way down. That's one of the things that we like as a band: the dynamic in a live show of riding that wave, and I know that keeps us from getting that dull feeling of just going through the motions; we don't get that because we’ve got that wave to ride.

You were in Starsearch back in 1993, are you glad you did that?

Oh yes! It hurt my career at the time in terms of getting a record deal because it was considered a very uncool thing to do; unlike American Idol and things like that today, it was, 'You don’t do that if you want a real career!' you know? But I had the time of my life doing that show, it was so much fun: I was out in Florida for the first time in my life and I was there for like a month recording it, and I kept winning which boosted my confidence.

You won the overall Female singer category?

Yeah, and I got to do my own material as well as covers of Aretha and Janis; it was wonderful. I fell in love with doing television then too, I found that people in TV are very focussed, and pretty kind; I guess they don’t have the time to be assholes to people or have attitudes. It’s all 'be cool, get the work done.' I felt secure in that environment so it was fun!

Was it a result of Starsearch that the Beth Hart and The Ocean Of Souls record came about?

Oh man, what a nightmare that was, oh God! I was excited to be making the record but it was just horrible! I had a combination manager/producer/co-writer at the time; I’d met him when I was 15 and he had a little studio in LA, a great guy, fun guy, and we became best friends. It was him who I brought with me to Starsearch, he produced all the tracks. When we got back, he had some rich friends (he had a pretty famous actress girlfriend) so he got someone to fund us to make the record. I remember after we’d been in the studio recording I'd be on the phone with his girlfriend [mock crying voice] 'He’s ruining the record, it’s hooooorrible'; plus I really couldn't sing either, but I thought the production was so wrong, I was just miserable with it. So that was kind of a bummer beginning to the recording industry, you know?

Looking back at some of the Starsearch alumni, a lot of those people went on to become huge; Beyonce, Britney, Christina Aguilera, Alanis Morissette. Winners now seem to sink without a trace?

I think a lot of them were still just kids when they were doing that; that’s different. I think when you're a kid and you do something like that, you can then grow into what you are as an adult and people don’t really care so much about it. The only adults whose careers weren't hurt by that were the comics; Roseanne Barr and Sinbad, they were on and it seemed to do a lot of good for them. Alanis too was a bit older when she did that, she’d already had a real 'pop' career in Canada before she came over for Starsearch with Glen Ballard, and they spent a lot of their time making demos which they sent to Maverick records saying they were ready to do a record. Somebody at Maverick said, 'This record’s already done' and they put that out as Jagged Little Pill, which holds the record for biggest debut solo artist: unbelievable, with just demos! How smart though was the person at Maverick!

Do you feel the way talent shows now dominate the industry has a bad impact?

I think it's great for the mainstream, launching talents that may or may not have long careers, whether or not people say, 'Oh that’s not real music' Who cares? It is what it is! It is a different business today in that it's even harder to get something out there, the labels have taken such a hit financially. Previously they'd sign pop acts that would make so much money for the label that they could fund the acts that took two, three albums to grow and develop, but once they did they'd have twenty, twenty-five year careers: so you'd get this mix of the stuff that would suit the 12 year olds and take care of the label's finances, and then you'd have all the stuff that would get the critical respect. That's gone now. So to me, I think whatever it takes; if you're doing this, and you love it, and you're trying to get into it, if talent shows are an avenue you want to take, go for it! Get it out there!

When we spoke to Warren Haynes he lamented the bygone era of artists like Aretha and Etta, do you think a lot of music now lacks the immediacy of the approach to recording they had?

I think it’s a shame when someone takes six months to make a record and there's a lot of cut-and-paste; you’re not going to get music that reflects real life, because real life isn't cut-and-paste and perfect, thank God! Although I think some people can accomplish an album that is effective and emotional and sincere when you do take your time; you listen to some Mutt Lange records and those records are pretty brilliant, and his records can take like five years to make. Rick Rubin has been known to take a bit of time making a record too, so I think it can be done. It’s like anything, it depends on the hands that it's in, and if it's respectfully made. I think that you've got no shot if you don't start with a great song: if you start with something that is really a moving piece then it’s kind of hard to mess it up. For me, analogue, playing live to tape, making it a real experience thats happening now and capturing it - you can't beat that. I like it when I'm listening to a song and I can tell that in the guitar solo the guy has totally missed a note or the singer is a bit flat or sharp. I end up liking those bits better than any other part of the song, because it reflects my feelings and my life: it's not perfect.

[Beth’s regular guitarist, Jon Nichols joins us in reception]

You’ll have your usual full band with you in November, [Jon on guitar, Tom Lilly bass and Todd Wolf drums]; as Jon is here I just wanted to ask how he was looking forward to 'stepping into Joe’s shoes' for the Don't Explain tracks?

Well, obviously I don’t expect to reproduce Joe's solos! So I’ll be learning the songs but I’ll be doing my own thing, I'm not sitting here saying I’m going to top Joe!

Beth, you were here in May for 5 shows, how did that go?

It went well; our best show was probably here in London but the other places we got to go to I'd never been to in my life so that was really cool.

I see you've added a third gig at The Brook in Southampton to the November shows already announced [at London’s Dingwalls and Derby’s Flowerpot]?

Yeah, we're doing four in total; the other is at The Assembly [in Leamington Spa]. We do two shows then have two days off and then another two. We knew there were four possibilities but I wasn't sure I could do them all as I was kind of wanting to chill out a little bit, but then last night I rethought it and said, 'Hey, the more we can do the better.'

Do you find that UK promoters and venues are more reticent to put on acts like yourself than they are in Europe? You're huge across Northern Europe, and have lots of dates lined up there, so I wondered if getting the shows here was harder work?

Well it certainly has taken a lot longer! The whole thing kind of started for me in Holland; it was wonderful because we got to work on a bigger scale, so we really chased it down. It was a smart approach my manager took too, because he said to break an area you can't just come in once a year, unless you have a real radio-friendly type of music. He thought the only way was to really saturate the market and keep coming back, and keep coming back a lot! So we spent a lot of time first in Holland and then Denmark and Norway, so we've just been working, working, working. Germany has kind of opened up for us, although we haven't broken the market there at all yet. And here in England we're still trying to build as well, we're kind of taking one country at a time! Don't Explain seems to be opening up new audiences for me, partly I guess because of Joe Bonamassa ,and we're getting good reaction to the single, so it's looking good!

You don't play a lot of US shows though these days? Is that a result of concentrating on Europe?

Well I had a really great thing going in the US many years ago, but I had a severe drug problem to the point where I couldn't work, and I pissed off the labels. Word spreads around like wildfire and people of course don't want to take a chance on you. It was probably a good thing too that that all happened, because I'm not sure I'd have made it if I’d kept going. So that really ended everything for me and I thought it was all over, so when the Holland thing happened it was like a whole second chance so I took it and just kept chasing it over here. But in the last two years I've said to David [Wolff, her manager] 'Look I'll bite the bullet and just go and do some spot-dates throughout the States and I’ll eat it on the finances side'; I can’t just ignore the States any more. Surprisingly enough whenever we have booked a show it has sold out, not 2,500 seaters or anything, but 500 - 800 seaters, so we're 'doing it'. Still, it is just spot dates, but a real tour of the US? I haven't got to do that for years and years, and who knows? Maybe I will again, maybe I won't.

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Comments (2)


  1. Maria Franklin says:

    Great stuff, I loved the interview. I was only introduced to the music of Beth Hart recently and I don’t mind telling you that I was blown away by both her music and her voice. I’ve purchased 3 of solo albums and also purchased “Don’t Explain” as I love Joe Bonamassa. I also love her honesty and sincerity both in lyrics and interview. Keep up the good work Beth and I hope to get to one of your concerts in the future.

  2. Joan Riley says:

    I have been a fan of Beth’s since her Star Search days & am in awe of her talent. I have seen Beth in concert 3 times in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA. Awesome!
    Great interview, Beth! Thank you for all your beautiful music.
    Your CDs are the only ones I purchase. I don’t do downloads. I have to have your CD in my hot little hands. Congratulations on your success, Beth. You are most deserving. I am anxiously awaiting your return.

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