By Poppy Tohill
Ahead of her incredible show at Auckland's Powerstation late last month, I had the absolute pleasure of catching up with the undeniably inspirational, talented and one and only, Beth Hart.
Joining me on the phone from Thailand, where she was in the middle of a well deserved vacation following a busy touring schedule throughout the States and album promo throughout Europe, Hart was more than happy to chat about her upcoming album ‘Better Than Home,'which is due to be released on April 10.
Talking with Beth, her infectious passion and enthusiasm for life, love and music just bubbles out of her, even through the phone. However it hasn't always been all smiles and laughter for Beth who spent many years struggling with and overcoming a drug and alcohol abuse problem, alongside a bi-polar disorder.
"By the time I hit my late twenties I had been using alcohol and drugs as a way to self medicate for many many years, but seemingly I got away with it, probably because I was what you call a periodic," Hart explained. "I would go many months without anything and then I'd have a binge for a few days, before many more months of nothing, followed by another binge. So I could still somewhat function, but as I reached my late twenties and my bi-polar reached its height due to having a successful record which involved constant touring, working very hard and not getting the sleep I needed, it sent the illness into full blow," she declared.
"At this time I was not medicated so I had gotten down to 98 pounds which is literally skin and bone. I was losing my hair, on a lot of drugs and was absolutely ashamed and hated myself. I didn't trust anyone in the world and I had really lost my will to live. I would pray that god would take my life and that I would be set free into a better place, but thank god he did not answer that prayer and instead he sent into my life my husband Scott," Hart continued. "He literally loved me until I started to believe that there was something about myself to love. I saw the way he looked at the world, how he loved people and how he smiled everyday. In the beginning this was very annoying as I was jealous. I didn't understand how he could look at the world with such beautiful eyes, but they say you surround yourself with something and it starts to wear off and that's one of the things that happened to me," Hart exclaimed. "Scott's joy and his love for life began to rub off on me thankfully and so this began to change what my will was to live and then I began to fight back from addiction and mental illness. I began having some faith in life and trusted that there is no blame on the roller coaster ride. It is what it is and in a way it's unfair at times," Hart admits. "But I always bring up the word ‘judging' because once I stopped shaming myself I began to get free and that's how I feel today. Who knows how I'll feel tomorrow, I could be back in the crap pot, but as for now, I'm free," she honestly concluded.
Now if you're at all familiar with the music and previous records of Beth Hart, you will know that in the past they have focused more so on these challenging hardships she's endured, but that's not the case with this new record Hart went on to tell me.
"'Better Than Home' is an album that is a departure for me as a writer from past work," she explained. "The lyric narrative of this record is basedaround positivity, faithfulness, loving and the overall positive perspective on life, so there's a lot of hope in it," she continued. "I talk about different family members, my husband, god, my relationship to songwriting and dealing with bi-polar disorder, but all in a positive way by looking at the good side of these things and what you can do to lift yourself up and that really is different for me. Because in my past records I tend to use the formant of writing more as a place for healing from pain and I talk a lot about demons and past stuff," she declared.
"Oh, way harder, like crazy hard!" Hart revealed when asked if this transition into writing and focusing on the positivity was harder than concentrating on her painful past. "I didn't think I was going to be able to make it through, it was very painful," she admits. "I know it sounds strange because you would think to write something so positive would be so wonderful and exciting, but it wasn't at all. It was difficult and challenging and I had two incredible producers Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens really holding my hand and encouraging me to continue forward," she acknowledged.
"I guess I can only think of two reasons as to why it was so uncomfortable," Hart continued. "One of them is that it was a different thing and sometimes doing something different can be scary, but I also think that when you are in a joyful place there's somewhere to fall, but when you're down, you're already down so there's no fear of falling, because you already have. But in the joy it's like, ‘oh my god, at any second I'm going to lose this, holy crap, what am I going to do?" she remarked.
Either way, whether drawing inspiration from her challenging past or more stable present, there's no doubt that Hart's music, a form of storytelling in itself connects with many people whatever their life situations.
"Yes, but sometimes I think it's for very selfish reasons," Hart responded, when asked if she considers the aspect of storytelling throughout her music very important. "Because when I'm writing and trying to understand it once it's done, I have this great desire to get it to people and when I do I hope they will help me to feel that I'm not crazy," she confessed. "So if they react to a song it makes me feel like I'm not alone and that they also feel that way, which is a relief and great feeling to receive from others," Hart honestly proclaimed.
"When I was a kid, I knew what a great home was and then it broke apart and I was thinking one day I'm going to have this feeling of home again," Beth states during the extraordinary album trailer of ‘Better Than Home.' Bringing this video up in conversation Hart filled me in on how exactly she came to find and know just what a great and even better home was once again.
"It was really really hard," Hart admits. "Dealing with bi-polar my brain chemistry shifts quite a lot, even now that I'm on the medication, which I don't think I'd be alive without," she truthfully added. "Getting my brain chemistry balanced has been very important to me, even though now it still shifts off the charts here and there, it is so much better than what it was, so that in itself had a major difference to change how I was able to perceive myself and others," Hart remarked.
"Before I was on the medicine I had so much rage towards myself and others so I couldn't get past anything, I was stuck. The music would certainly help but it wouldn't do the whole trick and therapy was the same. It wasn't until I added the medication and started really praying and getting into a place of meditation and relaxing myself that through the years I suddenly started becoming aware of how wonderful it was to be alive. Then instead of just looking at the difficulties I also started looking at all the blessings," she stated. "They say time has a way of healing wounds, but our ghosts certainly never go away, they're always sitting around waiting to jump in and scare the crap out of us again, but for me, I feel like at this time in my life they are at bay and I'm very thankful for that."
Having been extremely lucky enough to receive a copy of ‘Better Than Home' ahead of its release, I informed Beth that the emotionally powerful ballad ‘Tell Her You Belong To Me' is my favourite. "Oh yes, that's my favourite too!" she happily responded. "It was definitely the most challenging song to write, so it makes me feel proud that I was able to finish it," Hart informed me. "It actually took a year and a half to write, which I think is absolutely ridiculous, to write a five and a half minute song!" she laughed.
"But it was about my father and I think I was afraid to revisit some of that stuff from when I was a kid. But I did and the beautiful thing which makes me feel so proud of it, is that when I was finished with the song I came to the realisation that there is no anger and no blame in me for my father, there's only unconditional love and a conviction to never let him go from my life or my heart. There's no blame and judgement in our lives, because that doesn't get us anywhere but pain and instead we look at each other with great compassion and understanding that we're just human beings trying to do the very best we can which can be very very hard to do sometimes. But when I came into that awareness, I had all the love I ever had for him as a kid, come right back into my life and thankfully today he is back in my life," Hart openly stated. "I adore my father and this album is dedicated to him. I don't think I will ever tell him that ‘Tell Her You Belong To Me' is about him because it might make him feel sad. That's only because I don't think he's ever been able to work out his own guilt, but by telling him that the record is dedicated to him I think that will make him feel very good."
"Oh my god, it's been so good!" Beth excitedly replied when asked what the reception towards the new songs and album has been like so far, throughout her recent US tour. "When we started the tour in the States I didn't want to play anything off the record and my band was like, ‘what are you doing? Play stuff from the new record!' but I didn't want anyone to judge it. It's like I'm protecting these songs, but then finally we starting doing a little bit here and a little bit there and everyone responded in a very compassionate and loving way, so now I'm playing the whole record like crazy, you can't get me to stop!" she chuckled.
"I think the last time I was in New Zealand I was 30 years old and I'm 43 now, so it's been 13 years!" Beth responded, when asked about her trip to New Zealand. "So I'm looking forward to coming back, big time!" she excitedly chimed.
On the topic of touring, Beth went on to tell me about her work, both recording and touring with the likes ofBuddy Guy, Jeff Beck & Slash. "All ofthem were so lovely and I learned things differently from each one. The common denominator and one thing that I learned between them all though is that they have huge respect for everyone they work with. There is no dictator in them and they inspire people by allowing them to be themselves and chanting them on for their own gift," Hart explained. "I saw this with Buddy, Jeff, Slash and with the great Joe Bonamassa and this was something that taught me how important it is when you're working with other artists to, instead of tell them what you want, you chant them on for what their own special voice is. All of them treat people this way and it's very respectful and lovely," she honestly acknowledged.
Considering Hart has been in the music industry for over 20 years herself, you figure she would have witnessed and experienced a lot of changes throughout the industry during this time. With one of the biggest changes over the past ten years, of course being the advancement of technology and social media, asking about this Beth went on to inform me why she believes it is "the best thing that's ever happened."
"I love it so much, because you get to learn directly from the people what they want, what they need, what they're looking for, what inspires them and what they don't like," she explained. "People are also very very honest on the internet because they have anonymity. Instead of being fed by the record company, the television or by the magazines what the worlds' view is, it's a fantastic way for us to get the worlds view directly from the people and I think this is very powerful. I also think it will be what makes great change in the world," Hart added.
As the interview drew to an end, Beth cheerful and thankful left me with a great piece of advice for any young, up and coming artists getting into the industry.
"I would say to them, make your goal be solely about the work and never about the accolade, the money, or the ‘fame. If the fame, money or accolade comes to you then that can be a great gift too as there is power in that where you can make a big difference in the world for the better, if you chose. But otherwise, stick to the work and do not ever allow someone's reaction to what you do, make for what your character is. Don't let it make you decide what your work is worth. It is important to know that all the work is done with love coming from your heart and that it's the best you can do and that really has to be enough."