Beth Hart Explores Her Inner Sanctum (INTERVIEW)

It is the voice that hits you. Right on the tip of the heart, springing into motion the chill bumps that run the length of your arm and up your neck. It is haunting, it is painful, it is mesmerizing. No one quite sounds like Beth Hart in this day and age. And now the Grammy-nominated storyteller is once again blowing her feelings into the atmosphere and casting a spell one song at a time.

It’s been four years since Hart’s last solo album, the vivacious Bang Bang Boom Boom; a year since her last collaboration with guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa, the Live In Amsterdam. So the music world is definitely ripe for a new set of songs from the lady who in 2014 was nominated for Female Artist Of The Year by the Blues Music Awards. Calling it Better Than Home, Hart is exploring her inner sanctum with a slightly different lens on the microscope. With all the songs her own solo-written compositions, Hart retains what fans have come to know as her pureness of honesty. She gives homage to both her mother and her husband while producers Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens encouraged her to go deeper into her well of emotions than she has gone before. And it worked, with Hart producing one of her best group of recordings to date. Beautiful and endearingly touching, the songs run the gamut of her life, her blessings, her hopes and her dreams in such a way, you will find yourself placing your hand over your heart more than once.

Born and bred in California, Hart also has a cool knack for connecting with some of rock’s best guitar players – Bonamassa, Beck, Slash – and knows how to bring Buddy Guy to tears. Currently on a world tour in Europe, with some May and June American dates in the middle, Hart talked with Glide about the songs inspired by her life on Better Than Home.

We last talked to you when Bang Bang Boom Boom came out. How has life been for you since then?

Things have been good. You know since I last talked to you, I made another record with Joe, we did another cover record together, and that went real good. We got a little Grammy nomination for that. We didn’t win or anything but we did get nominated for Best Blues Record and then we got some cool nominations at the Blues Awards as well. So that was really exciting.

We’ve been doing touring. And then I did this new record, Better Than Home, a handful of months ago in New York City. But instead of doing it with Kevin Shirley, who was the producer of Bang Bang Boom Boom as well as the producer of the two cover records I did with Joe, I didn’t work with him on this. I worked with instead Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens. I had met them when I did the Kennedy Center Honors for Buddy Guy. They were the director of the show and then the Musical Director of the show. Then after I did the show, they asked me, “Hey, we’d really be interested in making a record with you. What do you think about that?” And they really challenged me to instead of doing a bluesier soul-styled record, to do more of a singer-songwriter record. And I told them, I said, “I kind of write all over the place, from rock to once in a great while a Jazz song or a gospel song, some bluesy songs, some soul songs and then some storytelling songs.” So they really challenged me for that. So this record, Better Than Home, is definitely more of a singer-songwriter record with influences of some soul and a bit of gospel; but for the most part it’s a very Americana singer-songwriter record.


I noticed that right off the bat and the difference between this one and Bang Bang Boom Boom. It’s beautiful and it honestly touched me more than the last record. There were parts in some of these songs that I actually found myself tearing up.

Oh my God, thank you. And that’s really what the producers wanted. They wanted something that was extremely personal, very lyric-based, and to be honest with you, I really didn’t want to do it because it’s more painful to write that stuff, even if it’s a more joyful song, because it gets so close to home. It’s much more challenging for me and I didn’t want to do it. I was having fun kind of being lighter, and they said, “Please don’t do that to yourself. One of your strongest feats is to be super-confessional in your songwriting. Come up to bat for this one for us.” So I wrote a ton of songs and they listened to everything and really were very careful about the choices being made at the end of the day, the songs that really work. And I think they did a beautiful job. Like they said, I was a handful. I’m pretty stubborn. But I ended up giving them what they really thought would be the best thing for me and I’m really happy we did it.

How many songs did you write all together?

Oh God, it had to be way more than forty-five songs. I wrote so many fricking songs. But I tend to have a lot of songs ready for each record I do anyway. I always have. I was thinking, the more you write, the better chance you’re going to come up with a collection of stuff that is going to work together. Like when I did Bang Bang Boom Boom, I turned in a ton of songs and Kevin Shirley, the producer, really wanted me to go in the soul vein and the rock vein so that’s why we chose what we chose at the end of the day for that record. So because I have so many songs written for each record, they’re not all going to go on that record so they’re going to spill over into the next group of songs for the next record.

Is it normal for someone to tell you, hey, write a song, and you sit down and write about it? Or do you prefer to let it flow from what you’re feeling?

No, no one could ever tell me what kind of song that I should write and then I go and write it. I’m writing all the time when I’m at home. When I’m on the road, I just get ideas and I put it on my iPhone. I turned in a ton of stuff that they didn’t think was right for the record. My singer-songwriter storytelling songs, those were the ones they went for. So in terms of real singer-songwriter storytelling songs, I probably had a total of maybe twenty-five and then the rest was more of the blues or soul or rock stuff.

I see that you wrote all these songs by yourself. Why no collaborations this time?

You know, it just came down to what they chose, really. It wasn’t really a decision. To me, I don’t care if I co-write or if I write alone. If it’s a great song and it makes it to the record then that’s what is supposed to come, you know what I mean. But it just happened to be a coincidence that those were the ones they felt were strongest for the record and they just happened to be the ones I’d written alone.


Did you write this predominately on the piano or an acoustic guitar?

Everything that made it to this record was written on piano except for “St Teresa.” I wrote that on guitar.

What is the biggest difference between writing on one opposed to the other? Does it bring out a different kind of vibe if you write it on piano rather than guitar?

Yeah, definitely. It also stylistically changes. On piano I tend to write either gospel or singer-songwriter songs, sometimes kind of rocking blues songs. But the more heavier rock stuff I will write on bass. That was the kind of music I was doing a lot when I was much younger, which I was playing a lot of bass back then. I’m not a good bass player at all but I use it to write. Then on guitar, I’ll do singer-songwriter or more country kind of songs.

Your voice doesn’t hide emotions. How conscious are you of projecting your voice to match the emotions of the words? Do you even think how your voice is going to be before it comes out?

No, I don’t think about what it will be before it comes out. I also don’t think about the lyrics before it comes out. What I focus on always is, first, the chord changes and then what melody they inspire and then the music and the melody will make me think of a topic. So I need the music to tell me what the hell I’m going to lyrically write about afterwards. So the music always comes first.

Has the uniqueness of your voice ever stopped you from singing certain types of songs or writing songs a certain way?

Yeah, when I was younger, I wanted to do more blues and R&B and soul but my vocabulary as a writer on the piano wasn’t such that I could really do it. Then also, as much as I loved the blues and R&B music and soul music as a kid, I never ever thought that I could sing it good enough. So all my fears and stuff was, well, I’m not even going to go near that even though I love that kind of music. So what I found that I could sing that I felt good about was either hard rock & roll or real singer-songwriter shit. Then as I got older and my tone dropped down, I got a lower, fatter range on my low end, that’s when R&B and more gospel and blues stuff I started to feel like, oh, I can actually sing this and it doesn’t sound horrible.


A lot of people say that writing about joy is more difficult than writing about pain. Do you agree with that?

Absolutely and I think it’s because feeling pain, especially writers, know the best place to go is to go and write about it and figure it out through the writing. You get it out there. Whereas when you’re happy and having fun, it’s not really the place you want to go. You just want to keep having fun. But I think it’s important to write about joy. I also think it’s more difficult to write about joy without sounding kind of lame, without sounding kind of cheesy. And also, oftentimes, it’s easier to write ballads than it is to write uptempos for the same reason. So I think that a lot of writers have that in common when they talk about writing for that reason. A joyful song, an inspirational song, you put that out there in the world but oftentimes when you’re happy, the last thing you’re going to do is play music. You’re just going to continue doing what you’re doing: going to the movies or hanging out with your friends, your life is good. But when the pain is there, it’s sometimes easier to just talk to your instrument about it.

When you’re in a mood, do you find yourself singing or grabbing a guitar or sitting down at the piano?

If I am in any kind of dark place, or in an especially manic place, that’s the time that I’m usually glued to the piano. And usually those places happen when I’m not on the road, cause on the road I’m pretty happy, I’m getting a lot of exercise doing the shows, with my friends, with my husband, you know what I mean. Getting to do what I really love to do. I’m usually in a pretty good place on the road so it’s not like I have this need to get out my feelings because I am getting them out all the time doing the shows. But when I go home and the shows are over, that’s when that feeling inside kind of comes up of holy fuck, what am I going to do, I’m struggling right now, I’ve got to face all my stuff. I don’t get to blanket it with doing shows. So then all my feelings come up and that’s a great time to get it out, put it down.

Is your sister still the soul of most of your songs?

I still write about her. The last time I wrote a song about Sharon was probably “Tell’em To Hold On,” which is on this record, and the time before that was a song called “Sister Heroine,” which was on the My California record. But on “Tell’em To Hold On,” I was thinking about her, thinking about myself and other people I’d met who just seemed to have a hard time with making healthy choices in life and who have a hard time with liking themselves, struggling with a lot of internal shame or frustration with why they can’t do things that seem like other people can do really well.

What was the so-called surprise song on this album, the one that was the last to make it on?

You know what I think was the last song that was written for the record was “Better Than Home.” I think that was the last one. For me, that song was really about when I was little and my family and my memory of early childhood was really, really beautiful and loving. And then my whole family kind of crashed and burned. Everybody was sort of having a lot of drama, a lot of pain, my father left, and I remember I started dreaming, as oftentimes kids do of what their life would be like when they grew up. But then the song as I was writing the lyric to it, it took a change and it took a change to talking about facing the deepest part of your own self and really looking at yourself, looking at who you are, who you want to be, what are your dreams, and what is your courage to chase those dreams, and all that kind of stuff. Then in the song, so maybe the audience would get a clearer perception of what I was talking about, is I use the road as one of the metaphors to describe what is better than home. But really to me, it just kind of stands for getting out of your comfort zone of where you hide away and really experiencing your life on the outside and how that can be better than any dream you ever had of where you come from.

One of the most touching songs was the last one, “Mama, This One’s For You.”

Yeah, I love my mother so much. I’ve written about her a lot. But in that song in particular, I really wanted for her to know that I finally grew up enough to where I could see her and all that she did for me, and how grateful I was for all that she did for me. And I’m so thankful that she was still alive so that I could call her and play her that song and tell her that.

What about the song before that, “As Long As I Have A Song.”

That song I talk about how dark and depressing it is when I can’t write, in the midst of writer’s block, and sometimes when I’m in the midst of writer’s block, even though I’m older and I’ve been doing this a long time, I should have learned this lesson by now, and the lesson is that no matter what kind of writer’s block you have, it always at some point gets unblocked and you’re able to write again. But sometimes when I’m in writer’s block, I forget that lesson and I think, uh oh, that’s it, it’s over, life is shit and I’ll never be able to write again and what the fuck am I going to do now? You know it’s the first time I ever wrote a song about writing songs and how much I love to write songs and how important it is to me and how when I am in writer’s block, the problem for me is it makes me feel like I’ve been abandoned. I’ve got so many abandonment issues around being a kid that it comes up when the writing quiets down and I feel all that abandonment all over again. So it’s really dangerous for me. It’s usually when I want to drink, which is the worst thing in the world I can do. I’m a recovering addict so drinking is off limits no matter what.

I understand that “Mechanical Heart” is about your husband.

Yes it is. He is such a wonderful man and I love him more than anything in the world. And he’s just one of those people that are so tender and sensitive and generous and he comes from a really good home and he just has a really good brain. But oftentimes I feel guilty, I feel ashamed that I can’t give him more of a stable woman, a loving woman, a kind woman. Sometimes I am just such an asshole. So in the song, I promise him that no matter what kind of mental blocks I have, I’m going to keep working at bringing those walls down and try to bring him everything that he deserves.

You’ve been married to him for quite a while now

Yeah, we’re coming up on fourteen years that we’ve been married.

He must like something about you

(laughs) Exactly. But it’s kind of like musician’s amnesia, cause when the writing’s gone, I forget that it will come back so it’s like the same thing with him. It’s like, when I’m feeling like I can’t give him what he deserves, I forget that he’s told me a billion times, “You make me happy. If you didn’t, I wouldn’t still be here.”

You’re touring now. Anything else on your agenda?

After I did the Better Than Home record, because I had so many songs and because the experience of doing this record was really hard for me, I decided to make a record right away again. So I made another album and that will be coming out sometime next year. And the reason behind it was I needed to make another record right away to just heal from making Better Than Home. I also needed to make it with different people. But also I thought it would be better to stay on the road and tour, tour, tour, tour and instead of coming off to make another record, to keep going and start promoting the next record when we’re getting ready to put that out as well. And I think it was a smart decision to make. I’m looking forward to just basically staying on the road and I don’t have to think about writing. I can just think about having fun with my friends and working and trying to make a good living and keep it going.

If this album was so personal to you, how many of the songs are you putting into your set list?

Well, because it’s not a very uptempo record, I will play like “The Mood That I’m In,” “Trouble,” which are two of the uptempos on the record. I guess you could consider “Might As Well Smile” as a mid-uptempo. So I’ll play those three, not always necessarily in the same show. I like to space them out between a couple of shows. Then I usually choose a couple of ballads from the record, like “St Teresa,” “Mechanical Heart” or another night I will do “Tell’em To Hold On” and “Tell Her You Belong To Me,” that kind of thing. I kind of mix it up along with stuff from the old records. So that is how I’ve kind of been doing it. But you know, each show is a different show, cause I get bored too easy and my attention span is not that great, so I have to change up a show each night. Like the other night we did two shows. The first show compared to the second show, we only did one song the same the next night. So out of eighteen songs, whoever came to those two shows got two totally different shows, except for one song we played both nights, which was “Bang Bang Boom Boom.” And that’s it.

Who are some of your favorite modern day songwriters?

I adored Amy Winehouse. I thought that she was just such a fabulous songwriter, so unique and special and different. I really like the stuff that Florence & The Machine came up with. I really like Florence Welch and the way she writes her lyrics, her melodies are great, her voice is fantastic and unique and special. I really like her. I haven’t really listened to her latest record much but I have listened to the very first record. But I just love some of that songwriting. It’s really smart and still emotional and really cool. I also like Aloe Blacc. I don’t have any records after his first record but that whole fricking record is so fricking great. He is such a special artist, so good. The Lumineers, I think there is some great songwriting there. The Black Keys, great songwriting there.

Why do you think you have such great chemistry with some of these great guitar players – like Joe Bonamassa and Slash and Beck?  How come you can work with them so well?

I have no idea. It’s truly a weird thing. It started with Jeff and then Slash saw me at a Jeff show and then Joe Bonamassa asked me to work with him after listening to a song I did on one of my records that he was playing at a radio show. Then when I sang for Buddy Guy at the Kennedy Center Honors, this producer then approached me later and said, “Would you do a song on this record?” So it’s just been strange, connecting with these guitar players. They have been so nice to me and it’s been nothing but good experiences really.

And you have Charley Drayton playing drums on your album.

Yeah, isn’t that wonderful how lucky we got to get him to play on that record. He is so wonderful and you know he was supposed to be the drummer for the Bang Bang Boom Boom record but his wife [Divinyls singer Chrissy Amphlett] got so sick he couldn’t do it. Then later on that same year when I did the Kennedy Center, he was the drummer for me on that. So that was the first time I actually got to play music with him and he also was the producer of Fiona Apple’s record, The Idler Wheel. So I got to bend his ear all night long talking to him about how he made that record and he sat up with me for hours and told me how they did that record. It was so cool.

What song on the new album do you think represents you at this point in your life as a songwriter?

I think that “St Teresa” is one of the best songs I’ve ever written, melodically and lyrically. It really nails what I think is my greatest fear and as my greatest wish at the same time and that is despite all the things about me that I think are no good, my prayer is that there’s one person or one thing that will love me unconditionally anyway. And I think that’s one of the make-ups of my personality. In other words, no matter how many wonderful people I have in my life, no matter how much therapy I do, we are who we are and we have our scars. And I think that since I was a little girl that will be the thing that I always struggle with, is just having that desire for someone to love me despite all my weakness. Whether that weakness is real or imagined, it doesn’t matter. It’s just in my DNA. And I think that song just really describes that feeling. Then also the song “Tell Her You Belong To Me,” which I wrote for my father. I think that song really describes musically and vocally where I am musically. But lyrically, I think it nails my feelings on my father but “St Teresa” really nails where I am as a writer right now.

Do you feel grown up? Do you feel like you’re not that little girl anymore?

Oh God, I feel like that young girl like it just happened yesterday. And that’s okay, it’s okay. I think that’s natural in life. We grow and we progress, we’re able to overcome certain things without a doubt and that’s a miracle of life, and being alive is a miracle in itself. But for me, there was stuff that happened that those ghosts are just never going to go away. It’s just the way that it is. And maybe that is a good thing, maybe it gives me something to write about for the rest of my life. I don’t know but I know that I’ve worked so hard on being able to let that stuff go. And what I’m starting to figure out now is that it’s not even about letting it go but instead having acceptance for it and being able to be okay with having certain ghosts which are just going to be with you for the rest of your life.

Top photo by Greg Watermann

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