“I think a really cool way to find those things is spend time alone. Like, be your own best friend. Take yourself for walks, take yourself to the movies and just spend time with yourself. Then I think that your heart can kind of start getting through that brain that’s rolling around and racing around and quiet it down. And the brain might go “Uh-oh, don’t try that because you might get embarrassed” or “Don’t try that because you might lose your job” or “Don’t try that because you might not have this, you might not have that” and then I think the more time you spend with yourself it’s kind of like that meditation. You kind of let the heart override the brain. And then the next thing you know you’re like “Whoa, I’m so glad that I’m doing this because I’m so much happier”.
Viv: Our guest this week on Art of the Song is Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Beth Hart. Beth is a chart-topping hit maker, collaborator with guitar legend Joe Bonamassa, and performing to sold out audiences across the US and Europe. In spite of her success, Beth is dealing with demons that have pursued her whole life. The tragic death of her sister, and her own battle with drugs, alcohol, and bad relationships and a diagnosis with bipolar disorder.
John: Perhaps it has been coming to terms with these challenges that has elevated her music to a new level. Beth Hart’s recent release “Better Than Home” is by many accounts her best work to date. It goes to the depth of her soul, revealing past pain, family issues, and personal demons, as well as her coming to grips with them and using that knowledge to find the real beauty in her life.
Viv: We are so excited and thrilled to be able to welcome Beth Hart to Art of the Song today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Beth: Absolutely. My pleasure. Good to be here.
Viv: Beth, I’m just going to dive right in on the deep end. You sing and write and play like you have nothing to lose. This record is just staggering. The record that I’m talking about is your new release “Better Than Home”. We’d love to kick it off with where you’re from and how you got started in music.
Beth: I’m born and raised in Los Angeles, California. I got started in music at the age of four after hearing a wonderful song, still to this day my favorite song, “Moonlight Sonata”, composed by Beethoven. It inspired me so much as a little girl, I remember it like it was yesterday. I started to cry when I heard it. At that time, my parents had started going through a split up and so that song gave me such a feeling that someone else knew what it was like to feel so much love and then to be feeling like losing it. So, the search for home again. That’s what it represented for me. So, I went to the piano and it was kind of like going to church. It was like going before God. That’s what it felt like as a little girl. It was like “Who do I talk to that I know is going to love me no matter what?” To this day, the piano still represents that to me. It’s everything to me. I can’t get enough of it.
Viv: Can we ever? I don’t think there’s enough in the world.
Beth: I know, right?
Viv: That’s really cool that it started when you were four because really listening to the album, it has this deeply spiritual and deeply reverent calling out and this passion. Hardly enough words.
Beth: Thank you.
Viv: Tell us about the journey. There certainly have been some highs and some lows and some surprises. How did you start professionally? How did that happen?
Beth: Well, I started doing piano recitals at four and I really aspired to be a classical pianist and a classical singer. I trained with opera singing as well. I also got started on cello as a young girl. That was my whole life. Classical music was everything to me. But I think being a kid with early bipolar disorder, also with early addiction starting at age 11, my disciplined focus on the classical stopped being there, especially when I came across jazz music, blues music, and hard rock music. That all happened simultaneously. From my brother, it was the rock and the punk. Also, reggae music. I loved reggae music. My mother, I got the jazz and I got the blues from. Both of them would play me all this incredible music and it seemed like a fantastic place to really exercise those demons. The rock ‘n roll with the anger and the jazz and the blues…. the jazz to me represented the feminine and the slyness and the intelligence and the blues represented, hey, man, I may be no-good, but I’m not going anywhere. It was such a great place of conviction and rebellion. So, these styles inspired me a lot. I was doing a lot of songwriting. I hadn’t yet added lyrics to my music, but I was doing a lot of writing as a really young girl. Then, I auditioned for a high school of performing arts. I did major for classical singing and cello, but my heart wasn’t even in it by the time I went to the school. It was really in this other direction. So, I didn’t last long at the school and at 15/16 years old, I started out in Hollywood as well as in South Central Los Angeles. I got myself two different managers. My first manager was Seymour Heller, who was the sole manager of Liberace throughout his career. Then my second manager was Geoffrey Tozer who I was with for seven years. I just did a ton of writing, a ton of recording with Geoffrey Tozer, who also was a producer. I got myself out there. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do this no matter what. I didn’t necessarily think of fame or money. I more so thought about what a blessing from God to be given something that, no matter what my struggles were, would give me such a sense of joy and overwhelming happiness and help. I felt so much help when I would play music from my soul. So, I knew that by showing gratitude to God that I would no matter what play, even if it meant on the street. Which I did do for a summer. I played on the street in Santa Monica. So that was the beginning. It was a total conviction that no matter what happened that I would do it to the end of my life. It was exciting. Not as exciting as it is now. It’s more exciting than it’s ever been for me now.
Viv: What makes the difference? Why is it so exciting now?
Beth: I think one of the beauties about getting older is you start to recognize things differently. One of the greatest things I’ve begun to recognize as I get older is that there really is no reason to judge others or myself so harshly. That we’re really all trying to do the best that we can. With that freedom, now if I go on stage and I mess up or I do an interview and I look like a dork or I write a terrible song, it’s like “It’s ok!” It’s just like you’re doing your thing and sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. That’s one of the things I love. So, it’s so much more freeing now and I can just kind of go with the flow of it now. I love that.
Viv: It’s great. Wow, that’s really cool. There’s a song that I was just listening to it in the car and I blurted out “Oh My God!” I think I said something a little more that I can’t say on public radio. It’s “Mechanical Heart”. The first line of that song “I have a mechanical heart”. I just… Can you talk about that song a little bit? That just blew me away. Because it’s a love song. Just this acknowledgement that I hear in how you talk so openly about your foibles and the epic fails and the resilience and the love. So, can we frame that around the song, “I Have a Mechanical Heart”.
Beth: Absolutely. “Mechanical Heart” is for my husband Scott which, from the beginning, especially in the beginning, I was just a wreck. I mean, I’m still a little bit of a wreck, but that’s just part of the gig. But, in the beginning, whoa. Lots of rehabs. Lots of psych wards. Scott was trying to save me from myself. He started out as my drum tech. I didn’t even like him. I was intimidated by him. Here’s this good-looking guy, he’s got to be a major heartbreaker, screw this guy. Then, after working with him I saw, oh my god, this guy is amazing. We just kind of got together. I was so, so sick. Even when we got married. I started to a little bit come out of it, but I wasn’t yet medicated for bipolar. I was just brand-new learning how to be sober. So here he is. This amazing man who is so gentle, so patient, and throughout our marriage together, we’ve been married now for almost 15 years. We’ve been together for 16 years. I’m not an easy person to live with. This is a really, really serious statement here. He just, boy, he’s into it. He hangs in there with it. He’s so kind. So, this song is my way of saying, look, I know that I don’t have the abilities that you have to love and be so patient and so kind all the time, but man, no matter what, I’m not going to stop trying to bring that to you no matter what. Even though I’m psycho, I can still bring you a little bit of heaven. It’s a funny story, the day after I married Scott in Vegas, we drove back, and I was really depressed. I went and talked to somebody and I said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe what I just did. I married this great guy. I’m going to put him through hell.” This person said the nicest thing ever to me that really blessed my marriage I felt like. He said, “You know what? If you don’t know how to love him in the way that you think he deserves, watch how he loves you and then give that back to him.” I just thought that was awesome. That really set the tone for what I felt that I could do. I could really watch him. So that’s really what this song is about. It’s an obvious confessional to my husband, but it’s a promise that no matter what I’ll never stop trying to catch up to you and give you everything that you deserve.
Viv: Wow, that’s amazing. What an incredible wise friend. And what a brilliant song and what a gift to be able to express that. I have to confess that I turned to John once very early in our relationship and just said, “I don’t know how to do this.” And he said, “It’s ok. I do.”
Beth: Aww, see! I love that.
John: I’d had a few cracks at it before we got together.
Beth: Yeah, so you were ready!
Beth: Isn’t that something? I love that.
John: We’re about to celebrate our 10th anniversary this month.
Beth: That’s great you guys! Yay!
Viv: Thank you, Beth.
Viv: John, has a question.
John: Let’s dig into it a little bit more here. You mentioned the bipolar disorder and you mentioned the addiction. This is something that we’re familiar with too. How did music help you in recovery?
Beth: I think that music has always helped me, starting with my parent’s divorce, my sister getting sick, addiction, bipolar disorder, insecurities, inferiority complexes, all kinds of things. Because I think music, for me, it comes directly from God and all beautiful angels and all the ghosts of people who have passed on that have come into the light and have great awareness, then they give us these amazing visits. So, to me, that’s the portal to the highest love. The highest unconditional. So, when I’m writing or when I’m just sitting at the piano or playing a song. Like, last night, I was sitting, and I was playing a wonderful song from Otis Redding “I’ve Been Loving You”. You know the song. (Singing) “I’ve been loving you, too long…” I was playing that at the piano, and I was just feeling this presence of, it doesn’t matter what I think, I’m alright. No matter what I think, I’m alright. I’m taken care of. Something awesome has got my back and it’s called unconditional love. If I lean on that, no matter what, whatever the good day, the bad day is, I’m alright, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. I really feel that whenever I go to the piano. I really do. It’s just the coolest thing. Then, if you get to be with your band, or you get to play with other people, like my girlfriend Erica, she was a drummer as a 7 and 8-year-old and she gave it up, so we started a side band. I went over to her house the other day and we’re wearing these crazy outfits and we’re just having the best time and she’s playing her drums and I’m playing the piano and we’re laughing so hard and we’re just having the best time in the world. It’s just total freedom. She’s like, “Well, are you sure you want to do a little show with me? I don’t really know what I’m doing!” I’m like, “Who cares?” No one’s going to die! If anything, they’re going to laugh. They’re going to have a great time. One of the things I always say to my band that I think is really a positive thing is I say; the audience doesn’t care if you play everything perfect or sing everything perfect or look perfect. Who cares about that? I think they just want to see us joyful and happy and grateful to get to do what we’re doing.
Viv: So, the perfectionism that drives so many people who think that they can’t play music or that they shouldn’t be writers because they don’t know how to do it right. Or what if they screw up? So, we should just throw that out and just go for it?
Beth: Totally! Absolutely! In fact, if you like something and you think you suck at it, it’s the best reason to do it! That’s the best reason to do it! It’s kind of like that whole thing they say, face your fear and then, once you do, you’re like, “What was I afraid of?” It’s that same thing! If you like it, do it. Do it. Do it all day long. Go out on the street and do it. Who cares? You’re going to have fun. You’re going to have fun doing it. It’s not about the applause, man, it’s about the feeling inside. And when that good feeling is inside, you’re doing the right thing.
Viv: For some people, it’s hard for them to find it. How would you recommend that somebody just go and find it?
Beth: I think a really cool way to find those things is to kind of spend time alone. Be your own best friend. Take yourself for walks. Take yourself to the movies. Take yourself to lunch. Take yourself, and just spend time with yourself where, instead of getting the outside talks and impressions from family or friends or teachers or your co-workers, you kind of just spend time with yourself and I think your heart can start getting through that brain that’s rolling around and racing around and quiet it down and let you know, “Hey, you know what? I’d really rather be doing this instead.” And the brain might go, uh-oh! Don’t try that because you might get embarrassed. Or don’t try that because you might lose your job. Or don’t try that because you might not have this. You might not have that. Then I think the more time you spend with yourself it’s kind of like that meditation. You let the heart override the brain. Then, the next thing you know you’re like, “Whoa! I’m so glad that I’m doing this because I’m so much happier.”
Viv: I’m so happy we met you.
Beth: Aww, thank you! You guys are so sweet to me. Thank you.
Viv: What about your songwriting? Do they come like lightning or do you sit down and do it? Or do they come from crazy fun jam sessions with friends who are getting reacquainted with the drums? How do they come about for you?
Beth: It just kind of depends. It’s kind of different. The consistent thing that does happen is I tend to write the music, the chords, then the melody kind of comes along with it and I’m kind of mumble-jumbling with my words in my mouth as I’m playing the chords and the melodies, they kind of start telling me what it’s about. It might the past, the present, the future, anger, sadness, whatever it is, joy, celebration, confusion, searching for the answers…. The music will dictate that to me. sometimes it takes me a really long time to write a lyric. Sometimes, the song will be done in 10-15 minutes. I used to think the fast they were written, the better the songs were. I don’t think that anymore. I just think that it’s a beautiful process and to go with it and you never know. There’s one song on this latest recorded called “Tell Her You Belong To Me”, which is about my father. This song wrote itself very quickly in the music, but when it came to the lyric, it took me over a year. That’s just a long time to write a five-minute lyric. But I realized why it was. That was because I was afraid to face my feelings about my dad when I was a kid because I’d done so much therapy, I didn’t want to see if I still had any residue of anger or resentment because my father is older, and I love my father and we have a relationship now. But, because of this fear, again, I said to myself, “Ok, now you have to do it. You have to face it. You have to write about it.” I was really thankful and happy when I was finished writing it because I did see there was no anger, there was no resentment, there was just total unconditional love for my father. So, long time to make a song, but I think it’s one of the best songs on the record. I just love it.
Viv: There’s a lot about family in your work. It seems like that’s a really deep thread for you.
Beth: Yeah, family and friendships, my relationship to God, my relationship to myself when I’m feeling good and when I’m hating myself. I tend to write a lot about all that. Then, when I do write a love song, sometimes it’s light and fun and sexy and cheeky, but I find that when I do write a love song usually it’s about some level of desperation. Well, the first song I ever wrote for my husband was called “*BEEP* Song” because we had gotten into a fight and I was like, “This guy is a jerk!” But then, later, I wrote him a song called, “I’ll Stay with You” and that was about being sick and, no matter what, you are saying, “Hey, I’m going to dedicate my life to you and help you through no matter what.” Really, I was just putting it into the first person, but I was really telling his words that he was doing for me back to him. Yeah, they’re usually in some time of struggle, my material, but I like to think there’s always a thread of hope and faith in it.
Viv: In the listening, there’s this upswing in the music. It seems to come through viscerally. I don’t know if it’s the chordal structure or what. So, there is that. They don’t feel like ballads of doom. They feel like really intense, important songs, that lead us onto the next level. That are taking us somewhere. That’s such a gift to the world, Beth, thank you.
Beth: Thank you, thank you.
John: So, tell us a little bit about the recording of this album. It’s an awesome band. How did the recording process work for you?
Beth: I got so fortunate to have two really wonderful producers—Michael Stevens who really overlooked the whole project and listened to the songs that I’d turn in and really give his opinions about that. He had a really strong desire for me to come from a place of hope and to come from a place of honesty and openness and very personal. Then, the other producer, Rob Mathes, who is an amazingly spiritual person, a fantastic piano player, who basically played all the piano on this record, which I really didn’t want, but I said to myself, “This is the greatest piano player, maybe in the world, you got to let him do it! Let these songs have the best player.” So, he was amazing. He’s the music producer. Both of them were very stern and strong about me rising to the occasion of being very, very intimate and honest with how I expressed this stuff. I say that to you not because my records of the past didn’t have that, it’s because my last record, “Bang Bang, Boom Boom” prior to that was a very blues-based record, with some jazz, and in terms of those heavy, heavy lyrics, there’s really a lot of writing about love and joy and happiness, but there’s some struggle songs. I think they wanted me to be challenged mainly to get back to more of the singer/songwriter instead of so much blues and jazz. I was really reluctant to do that because I had just stumbled onto really writing more in that direction. I was having fun and I was working with Kevin Shirley, who I met through working with Joe Bonamassa. We made two records together. So, this was my thing. What I realized was, it was just that I was onto this new thing of writing more blues and taking my shots at some jazz stuff and having fun, which I was, what it was is when I write the more singer-songwriter stuff, I have to face myself on a deeper level and that scares me. I’d rather live in denial and just be like, “Everything is great! Let’s just cruise along. Let’s have fun. Let’s scream a few songs out.” I don’t want to always face that stuff. But they were like, “You can do it! We need that from you. We’ve heard you do it in the past like with ‘Light On’ and ‘L.A. Song’ and ‘My California’. We really want you to go there.” So, I did. It was funny because, along the way, I kept sending them some rock songs or jazz songs and I’d be like, “Come on! Let’s do this!” And they’d be like, “No, no no.” So, I’m really glad they did that and they’re amazing men and I love them both dearly.
Viv: What a brilliant group of friends you have.
Beth: I know.
Viv: It’s so important for us as artists when we’re like, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Beth: Right, isn’t that the truth?
Viv: Well, thank them for us, will you?
Beth: I sure will. Absolutely. Their ears are always buzzing. It’s so nice they go on YouTube or they hear an interview and they say, “Wow, you sure do talk about us a lot!” And it’s like, yeah, hello, because without you it wouldn’t happen!
Viv: Brilliant. Well, Beth, is there anything else you’d like to touch on that we maybe haven’t covered that you want audiences to know?
Beth: No, I’m pretty good to go, man! I loved talking to you guys. You made me feel really good.
Viv: Well, likewise.
John: We love it too.
Viv: And we can’t wait to hear you in person in concert, so we’ll keep an eye out on the tour schedule and we’ll look for you. Thank you so much, Beth Hart.
Beth: You’re so welcome. Thank you to you both. Much love to you guys.