L.A.-born-and-bred Beth Hart is an accomplished singer/songwriter with one of the most amazing voices on the airwaves today. Thirty-something Hart — whose “L.A. Song (Out Of This Town)” made her a cause celebre in 1999 — is an extremely down-to-earth, sexy woman with a longshoreman’s tongue, a very intelligent woman whose introvert-extrovert duality is obvious on and off stage. Beth Hart is also an alcoholic who has dallied more than a few times with drugs, a musician who, ironically, once portrayed onstage a singer famous for her alcoholism — Janis Joplin.
Hart’s own biography reads like a script for a strangely familiar movie. Somewhat of a musical prodigy (piano at age 4), she attended Los Angeles’ High School for the Performing Arts. Twelve Star Search wins somehow didn’t yield a record contract; she then delved into the thriving South Central LA club circuit on her own, before forming the Beth Hart Band in the early ’90s. Signed to Atlantic, the hard rock outfit toured with Lollapalooza, and opened for the Scorpions on a lengthy European jaunt. The Beth Hart Band released two discs, Immortal (1996) and Screamin’ For My Supper (1999), the latter containing the hit “L.A. Song.”
True to stereotype, the group then experienced an internal flameout. Hart, at the peak of career, simultaneously saw her private and professional life crumble around her as she descended into a boozy hell of her own making.
However, the script called for a return to the stage, a second chance, if you will. And Beth Hart has taken advantage of that second chance to record what quite possibly is the best female-vocalist album of 2003-’04, Leave The Light On (Koch Records). With tracks produced by studio aces Danny Saber (Stones, U2, Strummer, Bowie), Michael Bradford (Madonna, Uncle Kracker, Run-D.M.C.) and Oliver Leiber (the Corrs, Paula Abdul), Leave The Light On is a passionate, powerful disc with the punch of a Holyfield uppercut. Rising above her comparatively timid peers, Hart has stripped away 35 years of imitation, and gone straight to the source; Light On blends mid-Sixties R&B with early-’70s, Taupin-esque piano-songwriting. And then, of course, there’s that voice… a voice that can caress you one moment, and slap your face the next.
Light On is the type of gutsy, self-revealing album that, unfortunately, someone has to go through some sort of crisis in order to create. Like many people that have taken a trip to Hades and lived to tell about it, Hart will tell you all about it, and not mince words in doing so.
Before we tackle anything else, I have to know how you got so popular in New Zealand, of all places.
It was the one area where, in terms of “crossover,” “L.A. Song” went all the way – it went to number one and stuck there for awhile. That territory knows me, knows my music. When I got all messed up with the drugs and stuff, Atlantic dropped out, but Warner stayed behind me in New Zealand. They said, “Go clean yourself up, get yourself together, and give us a call. We’d be happy to get behind your record. They did old-fashioned style promotion. They slowly made things happen, put out “Lifts You Up,” had me do radio, had me playing around. I went there four times this year.
I don’t want to make this the focus of the story, but we have to address your problems with drugs and alcohol — the battle was the catalyst for the CD. Is this something that you’ve always flirted with, and when you became successful, things got out of control?
You nailed it. I think I’ve always had a problem, ever since the first time I drank, as a kid. I would drink to get drunk, throw up, and pass out. That’s the way it was with drinking and drugs. But I was always periodic about it; it was never consistent. I had a focus, I knew what I wanted to do and I knew it would take a hell of a lot of work and luck. I started out in music really young; I had something to keep me busy. But, on my days that I felt overwhelmingly insecure, I went to the place I knew that worked — to get drunk or get high.
That worked for me for a long time, but it stopped working when I went over the top, with the success of “LA Song.” Success scared me to death, and I dealt with fear all of my life with drugs and alcohol. But, instead of making me feel better this time, it wiped me out. I was drinking every day, unbelievable amounts of alcohol. I felt guily, I had all these things — a good family, a career in music — and I was pissin’ it away. It was a vicious circle. I didn’t know how to get out it, and I didn’t even know if I wanted to get out of it.
There’s the whole musician-drugs-alcohol stereotype — Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison… the list goes on and on. You’d think that musicians would have gotten the hint by now.
Unfortunately, the disease of addiction has no logic behind it whatsoever. It has nothing to do with how schooled you are, or how much advice you get from your family or friends or fellow artists who have been through it. You have to go through it yourself, and be brought to your knees and realize that you’re powerless over it.
I went to one day of AA when I was 13. I saw enough, and thought, ‘I will never let that happen to me.’ And I was periodic about it, I would go a year without touching alcohol. And then I would go on sprees with drugs, booze, whatever.
Obviously, you learned a long time ago to deal with the Janis Joplin comparisons.
First, I noticed that you seem to channel her voice and spirit several times on this album. Then I read that you played Janis in a musical.
I played in her in this amazing little show — Love, Janis. It’s a musical that’s been running for about 10 years. I got a call from the director, Randy Myler, and the Joplins. I went to Laura Joplin — Janis’ sister — house to audition for it years ago, when I was about 26.
I didn’t think I would get the part, but I did [Hart played both Janis and Laura Joplin at various times during her tenure with the show]. I had prayed that I wouldn’t get the part, because it was such a hard show to do. It’s a three-hour show with 18 songs every night, plus you have to be an actor. I’m not an actor, and I’m not an actor. You have to hold a bottle of Southern Comfort — my favorite booze — and joints and stuff on stage. It was crazy.
The musical is sad – the script is from her letters, all real dialogue. I got to learn about her — she was a really ballsy lady on the outside, but had no security inside. She got the shit beat out of her just because the way she looked. And living in Port Arthur, Texas, that must have been like jail for her. I realized how much courage she had to do what she did. About this time is when I started drinking like crazy. Right after I finished Screamin’ For My Supper, I did this show in Cleveland for three months. I was drinking after the show every night, I was becoming the part.
After I got clean, I got a call from Randy to do it again in San Diego, and that was really weird, carrying that fake bottle of Southern Comfort around. This time, I had a different perspective — I had just gotten through all the shit I had to do to get sober, and then I was playing a woman who died. It was too close to home. I did it for two months in San Diego, and for a month and a half in New York; then I said, “I can’t do it anymore.” It was too hard… she died onstage every night.
When did you become fascinated with Janis?
I was never fascinated with her. I wasn’t a fan of hers growing up, because no one turned me on to her. It was when I started singing that it started. People would say all the time, “You remind me of Janis.”
I was a huge fan of Bette Midler, and I watched The Rose and all this cabaret stuff she did in New York over and over. Bette is so great, and about the funniest person I’ve ever heard. I remember I went and rented some videos of Janis, and I noticed some similarities between her and Bette. But Janis sort of scared me, there was something about her that me uncomfortable. Later on, I saw why, when I saw what she went through.
Were the songs on your previous albums as personal as on this record?
I don’t think so. I think there are songs on Immortal and Supper that hint around at it, if you listen. But, on this record, it’s laid right out there. How could it not be? Especially now… I’ve never been on the road to recovery before now, never realized that I could not do it by myself.
Just how personal is “Leave The Light On?”
Very personal. It was the last song to be written for this record. That one came when I thought the record was done. We were getting ready to mix; we’d already released “Lifts You Up” as the first single, and had done a video. I started writing “Leave the Light On.”
You know when you go around to radio stations and they ask you to play whatever song you’re pushing at the time, and then they’ll ask you to play another one? I played “Light On,” and they’d ask, where is that song? I’d say, “It isn’t anywhere, I’m writing it and I really like it right now.” And they would say, You need to record this song and get it to us.’
I called Oliver Lieber, who produced “L.A. Song” for me. He listened to the song — and loved it — but he thought it needed more work. He offered to help out, and I was honored to work with him. We finished it up in a few days, and took it to New Zealand.
The remarkable thing about this album is that the musicianship matches the power of singing – “Bottle of Jesus” is a good example. How involved were you in arranging the material? I know that a song can become a completely different thing from start to finish.
It really can be. As a musician, I am a firm believer in doing a lot of recording. We recorded at least 30 songs for this record, some of them twice or three times to get it right. It’s hard to get it right, there are so many variables — arrangement, the choice of instruments and musicians, what kind of effects the producer is using, and the mix.
I think it so much harder to relay emotion in a record than playing the music live, and it was really hard in this case. I certainly cannot take the credit for it, either. Oliver Leibert and Michael Bradford worked their asses off; Danny Saber did an amazing job on “Lay Your Hands On Me.” The arrangement for that song is completely different than what I had in mind, so all credit goes to him.
I’ve begun to think of that one as your “Portishead song.”
It isn’t totally different? What’s so funny is that is exactly what Danny said before he recorded it. He said, “Beth, you do a lot of traditonal things with your voice, and this time, I’d like to try something different.” And he accomplished that, and a half.
Were you ever a fan of Nina Simone?
Oh, I’m a Nina Simone fan. But I’ve never owned her records…I take that back, I had one that melted in my car out in Palm Springs. I especially like her version of “Here Comes the Sun,” it was always one of my favorite Beatles songs and I loved the way she sang it. She was real stony. But my favorite, favorite singer of all time is Etta James. I love her.
I asked you about Nina because of that strange similarity that you share, the combination of sexiness and spirituality. I guess a lot of the great blues and r&b singers had that trait, now that I think of it.
Now, the Etta that I know is… well, I was never turned on to her polished stuff, I never liked that shit. That’s not her heart [singing]. The best, though, is The Early Show Vol. 1: Blues in the Night (Fantasy, 1986). It’s a live recording in a small club with people like Shuggie Otis and “Cleanhead” Vinson. Great players. It’s really, really gritty with so much soul. I’d never heard anything like it before, I’ve studied that day and night.
I imagine that you have realized that there are women out there listening to your lyrics, with their troubles on their minds. That’s a lot of power to wield; it must be strange to deal with.
Yeah, it is. What you’re talking about is what had me running scared. Those thoughts of “I’m not good enough, I’ve not smart enough” for this — this bullshit that was going through my head. But I’ve come to realize that I’m a human being, that I will make mistakes, but I’m going to win.
Young people will listen to musicians when they will not listen to anyone else.
Yes…there’s something about music that makes youth grab on to it for dear life, isn’t there? I remember being a teenager and bringing my ghetto blaster with me everywhere. Those songs made me feel safe.
Security is so important, isn’t it?
Damn right, it is.
Beth Hart: http://www.bethhart.com