May 16, 2013
By Vinny Cecolini
Beth Hart: The Rockin' Rebirth
JAM Interviews Singer Songerwriter On Her New Release, Bang Bang Boom Boom
Blessed with a powerful, soulful voice that has drawn comparisons to the voices of Etta James, Nina Simone and Phoebe Snow, Beth Hart exploded onto the international music scene with her 1996 major label debut, Immortal. Although she continued to record and tour throughout Europe, drug and alcohol abuse paired with an undiagnosed bi-polar disorder brought her States-side momentum to a grinding halt. Now, with her personal demons in check, her medical issues under control and the support of her road manager / husband Scott Guetzkow, Hart has not only recorded her best album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, but she will soon embark on her first U.S. tour in more than a decade.
Hart's professional triumphs have also mirrored her personal ones as well. The 41-year old singer has become an in-demand guest vocalist. She has performed with Slash, collaborated on multiple albums with blues-rock great Joe Bonamassa, and joined Jeff Beck multiple times on stage. Beck first asked Hart to join him late last year at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Buddy Guy. Beck recently asked Hart to appear with him at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival at NYC's Madison Square Garden. And her whirlwind year is just now getting started.
JAM: Is the album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, and your first world tour in a decade, your way of saying, "welcome to Beth Hart, part two?"
Beth Hart - You're damn straight it is. For years, I've wanted to do things in the U.S., but I was terrified. Performing in Europe was like landing on a different planet. When I was first starting out (during the mid-‘90s), things went well. While touring in support of my second record with Atlantic (1999's Screamin' for my Supper), I completely lost my marbles. Although I got my act together, I felt that if I returned to the States, I'd fail. In my head, I also felt unwanted. I was so ashamed of myself, I felt like I didn't deserve success. I didn't feel that way while performing in Europe. It was good for me. I was able to heal.
JAM: When did the urge to return stateside start gnawing at you?
After a few years, I started wishing I could tour the States again, but I no longer had a record deal. A couple of years ago, I got an opportunity to record for Europe's Mascot Records, who eventually opened a label in America. The buzz I'm currently receiving is absolutely incredible. I no longer worry about freaking out.
JAM: What would you find terrifying today?
History repeats itself. I've had so many wonderful experiences, but with some of the difficult experiences I've had, I've come close to dying. No matter how much therapy you receive, no matter how much you work on your sobriety, ‘losing it' always lingers in the back of your mind. I have a disease and who knows what could go down at any time? I will always have some reservations. Hitting 40 marked a big turning point for me. It's when I said, "Fuck it. So what if I have reservations. This is life. Just because you hurt or you freak out, it's not worth giving up on life or hiding."
JAM: When did you realize you had a God-given instrument - your powerful voice?
When I was young, about the age of four, music fascinated me. I was not interested in singing. I just loved the piano and listening to classical music, nothing with vocals; no opera. A few years later, I got into classical singers. I was inspired to become a singer after my mother took me to see the musical Annie. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. My mother bought the soundtrack on cassette and I learned all of the songs. Each night I'd sing to her. I never thought much of myself as a singer; I just loved the attention I'd get from my mom. She would laugh and have a great time watching me. That was also my introduction to performing. Her supportive reaction prepared me for the stage.
JAM: Are you most comfortable while performing on stage?
Maybe there is a part of me that is. But if I was to choose just one place where I am most comfortable, it would be when it's just me and my husband; when the two of us are just chilling out together. When it comes to music, however, it's so much fun going up on that stage; even if I'm performing in front of people who don't know me and I'm trying to win them over. Performing is always a challenge and music is such a great thing to be a part of. Even if I have a show that I think went really shitty, I still will have had a good time.
JAM: That builds confidence.
It depends. Sometimes, I get in my own head and start thinking, "This audience hates us. They think I'm shit. They wish they never bought a ticket." I just start totally tripping out in my head. After the show, my band will tell me it was a great show, and that anything else I thought was just in my crazy head.
JAM: Take me back to the day, when as a little girl, you stumbled upon a church service featuring a Gospel group.
You're referring to the Bang Bang Boom Boom song "Spirit of God." I was five or six and, though I was playing the piano, I had yet to become a singer. At this club my family belonged to, I'd often sneak upstairs to play this piano. One day, while I was headed up there, I heard commotion. So, I peeked through the door and saw this big Baptist choir. It was the first time I'd seen black people. I had also never seen a church where people expressed themselves. It was filled with dancing, singing and sweating. It was a massively radical experience. The preacher was so kind. He looked over and saw me in the door, asked me to come in, then let me sit in with the choir. I didn't know what I was doing; I just knew I liked dancing with them while they sang. For the first time, I felt music and God become one. I had heard hymns, but that never really did it for me. To see people singing with such passionate, powerful voices, being so free in the way they moved their bodies and the way they expressed their emotions, it was one of my most beautiful experiences. From then on, I began to pray every day. It moves me to even think about it even now.
JAM: How important is it for you to perform music outside of blues and rock?
Ever since I recorded my first album, people would say that my music needed to be more cohesive. I heard that for years, but I never quite understood what they meant. Did they want me to do the same song over and over, just in different keys? Then I picked up Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine and I finally understood. Each song sounded different, but they were linked together. Listening to it, I realized I wouldn't want her to suddenly do a blues song or a hard rock song. I also realized that, as an artist, it's not something I can do. Going down one path doesn't excite me. And that might be because there are so many musical genres that I love.
JAM: Rock and other musical genres emerged from the blues.
Thank you. I have said that to my husband, but no one has ever said that back to me. Gospel, jazz, blues and rock all started here in the U.S. and evolved from one another.
JAM: In addition to radio, artists are looking to commercial and network television to promote their music. Wouldn't you agree that a number of Bang Bang Boom Boom's tracks would fit nicely on primetime shows?
Absolutely! I was really fortunate a few months ago when the cable show Californiacation used "My California" and "L.A. Song" on one of their shows. You can make good money from those programs.
JAM: People can also rediscover you that way as well as they start looking for information about the songs.
By whichever means you can get yourself and your music out there, do it.
JAM: Producer Kevin Shirley is known for his work with Iron Maiden, Dream Theater and Black Star Riders. What did he bring to the table when you recorded your album?
Joe Bonamassa came down to a tiny little show I was doing in London. A few months later, we just happened to be staying at the same hotel. Joe said, "I'd really like to do a soul record with you." He said, "Just pick out anything you want and let's go for it." That record (2011's Don't Explain) was producer by Kevin Shirley. I thought that was the very first time we had met him, but he reminded me that we had breakfast some years before to discuss producing one of my records, but it did not work out.
JAM: Funny how things come full circle.
The thing I love and adored about working with Kevin is that he always has everything ready. He tells you to step into the studio and let's all go. It's like doing a show, but he's recording it. We take three or four passes through each song and then he does his magic at the end. It took four days to record Don't Explain and six days to record Bang Bang Book Boom. That's great for me because I tend to get insecure and nervous. If I do it just three or four times, I won't start over analyzing things. Kevin makes me feel secure, but he's not a brown-noser. If there is something he doesn't like, he'll say, "Let's try something else." He does it in a very sweet way, because he knows we're all little children who want to make our papa proud. He's the dad looking over everything. He also has amazing arrangement ideas that seem to fly out off the top of his head.
JAM: How has working with such legendary talents as Jeff Beck, Slash and Joe Bonamassa influenced you?
Jeff, Slash and Joe are all mellow, relaxed and enthusiastic, but not in a nervous way. I'm hyper and can seem nervous. So they calmed me down and made me feel safe. They are so confident in what they do, and they are confident in the people they choose to work with. There is no saying, "Do this or do that." Therefore, I am not only working with people I look up to, but also people that respect me and are happy I'm there. It is an easy and enjoyable process. Getting to sit back and watch them work; how imperative that they're always with their instruments and working at their craft is humbling. It's also good to know that, though they're so good, they still have to practice. They're working at it all of the time.