With her ninth solo studio album released, Beth Hart can confidently claim to be on fire right now. Fitting really,
given that the title of that ninth album is Fire on the Floor and is arguably her freest, most emotionally unhindered release to date.
Her previous recording, Better Than Home, came out in 2015 to much acclaim and established Hart once more as a solo artist, following on as it did from two consecutive studio cover collaborations and one live album with blues guitar legend Joe Bonamassa. Prior to 2015, My California had stood as the Los Angeles born and raised singer’s seventh solo album.
Yet rather than being liberating, recording Better Than Home was something of a bitter sweet experience, with Mike Stevens, one of the album’s producers, dying from cancer and a whole host of other issues. “Recording that album was without doubt one of the most horrifically traumatic experiences I have ever had making a record,” Beth says from Holland over the phone. Her husband’s phone at that, as she’s just inadvertently cut off on her own mobile another journalist although fortunately, she says, at the end of their interview.
“We had 18 months of pre-production meetings, running through so many songs and being so anal it was driving me crazy. Then, amidst all this, one of my two producers, Michael Stevens – the other being Rob Mathes – was tragically diagnosed with stomach cancer and subsequently and very sadly lost his life shortly after the album was released. By the time the actual recording of the album was over, though, it was enmeshed in these feelings of tragedy and pain for everybody involved.
“I got so lucky in having Oliver Lieber as my producer for this latest record. We’d worked together years and years before, on my first album with Atlantic. That was pretty much a hard rock record, although I gotta say I still think they pretty much sapped it out and watered it down. Ultimately it was an album that didn’t go anywhere but Atlantic gave me one more shot anyway.
“By then though the band I’d worked with on Immortal had pretty much fallen apart and, to be honest, I didn’t really like the direction Oliver wanted to take me in. What he had in mind for me was really pop and the last thing I wanted to record was something even close to what the likes of Madonna was putting out.
“So I called the label and told them I really wanted to produce Screamin’ For My Supper myself. That’s how cocky I am sometimes, but the label refused and the upshot was that I ended up recording only two songs with Oliver – Delicious Surprise and LA Song – then Tal Herzberg and I did the rest of the album.
“So a few years go by and I’d recorded the title track for Leave The Light On with Oliver in 2003. That was it. Then we come to 2014 and I get down to recording Better Than Home.
“I’d come home from New York City before the album had even been mixed and called Provogue Records and I said: ‘Look, man, I need some money to make another record, like now.’ They were really shocked and asked what the problem with Better Than Home is that I hated it so much. I had to explain that I didn’t hate it, that I loved it and had great hopes for it.
“The thing was though that making Better Than Home had been so trying it had put me back into the psyche ward twice: once when I was recording and once more as soon as I got home. So I begged with Provogue to let me make another album, more or less to get the experience of recording Better Than Home out of my system. They agreed.
“It was then I called Oliver and asked him if he was willing to make a record with me. I asked if he could put together a band and whether we could record it live in the studio so that it’d be raw. He said sure, but only if I didn’t become the same kind of control freak I’d been on Immortal. I had to be a team player this time: open minded.
“That suited me fine. I just wanted it to be a chilled out thing without us going mad on over producing and over layering and over dubbing tracks beyond all recognition. I didn’t want it to be too polished. He promised that this wouldn’t be a problem and was absolutely one hundred per cent true to his word.
“He got together a fantastic band that included Michael Landau and Waddy Wachtel on guitars, Brian Allen on bass, Rick Marotta on drums, Jim Cox on piano, Dean Parks on acoustic guitar and Ivan Neville on the Hammond B3 and organ and it just clicked. Another thing was that Oliver was so respectful and receptive to what I had to say in the studio and very loving. There were times he would literally hold my hand. He understood that I’m a control freak because I don’t trust anybody and knew I had to keep repeating those two words to myself – ‘team player, team player, team player!’ – so that they’d stick.
“We managed to record the album in three days and, afterwards, I was straight back on the phone to Provogue thanking them for what is now Fire on the Floor. It’s been a crazy, crazy ride getting it out there – because I guess this album has kind of been around for something close to two years now – but I absolutely love it to bits.”
Okay, so this is Beth Hart. We’re around seven minutes into a fifteen minute interview and not a single question from the list has been asked yet, let alone answered. In fact all I’ve done is mention how great I think Fire on the Floor is. Two of the reasons as to why I think this are that the album comes across as being much freer than anything she has recorded before and, also, that Hart sounds far more comfortable saying what she wants to say.
“Aww, thank you so much,” she drawls in that burned-honey voice of hers. “That’s probably due to the fact that I’d come through something that was pretty traumatic. I’d just been around a young, very talented man in Michael who was going through absolute hell at the age of 48. Yet this was the same man who told me when I turned in songs like Fire on the Floor and Love Gangster and Love Is A Lie that they were basically shit. That this wasn’t the kind of thing he thought I ought to be doing and that I should stick to doing my story songs.
“He wanted what was best for me, don’t get me wrong. He wanted me and the album to be successful and to do that he reminded me often of what a failure I was. He wanted, I think, to really break me down in order to save me from myself somehow.
“Anyway even after an experience like that and other than for his getting so seriously ill, I still wouldn’t change a thing. I absolutely love and adore the man. What he did made me stronger and made me fight harder for what I believe in musically. For that and for making what is a pretty good album while going through everything he was at the time, I will always be grateful.”
It was Oliver Lieber, though, who backed Beth’s wishes. “He embraced everything that had been previously rejected and said: ‘Girl! Let’s do this’ which was just wonderful to hear.”
It is incredibly difficult to pigeon hole Beth Hart. Her lifelong struggles with mental health issues now diagnosed as being bi-polar, her drugs history and her overall refusal to accept just how gifted a musician, singer and songwriter she is, all seeps into the music she chooses to perform. Music which she has already admitted is diverse and non-generic. Why?
“Growing up I was surrounded by all different genres,” she says, fondly. “By the time I was seven I’d already been fully immersed in classical and jazz and the works of singers whose songs told stories. People like Ricky Lee Jones, Carole King, James Taylor, The Eagles and Billy Joel. There was older stuff too by Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald and, of course, Frank Sinatra: all this I was getting from my mom. My special addiction was to classical music, though, which neither of my parents really appreciated that much.
“My father was very good on the clarinet and could play Clair de Lune on the piano, but it wasn’t like I was brought up in a classical music loving family. It was something I discovered for myself. Classical music is just one of the many beautiful things that are so special it can break your heart. Once you notice and feel it properly, it’s a little like being hit by the proverbial ton of bricks. The effect of it is everlasting.”
And although Beth Hart did take opera lessons as a child, it was a musical about a little orphan girl that really let loose the singing talent within. “My mom took me to see Annie when I was around six or seven and I learned every single word of it so’s I could sing it to her at night: Lucky her, right? The thing is though that it would make her laugh and feel so happy, it would do the same for me. Officially that was where it started. As I got older, I still really wanted to be involved in classical music. Whether that was to be as a singer or musician or composer … it didn’t matter. I just wanted it so badly.
“It was my opera coach, Rhonda Dillon, who said to me: ‘Beth, this is not for you, man. You can absolutely do it from a singing perspective, but your personality type means that you are way too controlling to be an opera singer. You’re a little too angry, a little too aggressive and always want to do things your own way. Classical music isn’t free enough to be performed like that because it has to be done properly, the way the composer intended, or how the conductor interprets it.’
“It was Rhonda who encouraged me to go off and improvise and start writing songs to go with my compositions. She really was a wonderful person: very supportive and very insightful.”
Fire on the Floor as well as being a ‘chocolate box filled with unprecedented musical pleasure’, it is also very much a non-collective listening experience that you’d think lends itself purposely to the live arena. For instance, Picture in a Frame juxtaposes Fat Man almost completely in its style thereby, in a live setting, potentially changing the mood of the gig.
“When I’m recording an album it never bothers me what it might sound like in concert. The only problem I have is if there’s a song on an album that we want to include in a set but then have to go about trying to make it sound busier. I really don’t like that. What I prefer to do is go smaller live.
“An album song can have all the layering it needs, although never too much. Because of my voice and the way it projects, the lyric can get lost if it is too busy. The live song needs to be rawer. It has to be even less complicated. I want to give the audience a second or two to contemplate and enjoy a moment’s beautiful silence once in a while. It makes the changes in a song all the more precious, I think.”
Beth is hitting the road again in November with seven gigs lined up across the UK, with more to come afterwards across Europe. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing Beth Hart live in concert, there are a few opportunities to do so. Through her 2005 Live at Paradiso album or through her collaborative live outing recorded in Amsterdam with Joe Bonamassa in 2014, which includes tracks from their two covers albums Don’t Explain and Seesaw.
Alternatively, be like the millions who watched her help bring in 2016 on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny TV show, not only on the night but also via YouTube. “Oh my God that was really cool and, really, a little weird at the same time,” she laughs suddenly.
“I was playing with an absolute hero of mine in Jeff Beck and he is just a workhorse. To watch him even prepare made me feel inadequate … made me feel single minded in how much harder I have to work, I’m telling you!
“The other thing that made it so special was that Jools is probably the most down to earth person I have ever met in my life. He’s also incredibly talented and what you find is that the more talented the person, the more down to earth they are. He’s just a lovely, lovely guy and I genuinely didn’t know he was going to play with us on Tell her You Belong To Me. That, for me, was an absolute thrill.”
Also appearing on the New Years Eve celebration, which has become something of an iconic show over the years, were Sir Tom Jones, Jess Glynne, James Bay, Rhiannon Giddens, Paul Weller, KT Tunstall, Pauline Black and Ruby Turner amongst many others. If that’s not eclectic, what is and is just what’s needed for a swinging NewYears Eve party. Or so you’d think.
“Every once in a while, I’ll meet a female singer at a TV show or whatever and become a big fan of theirs instantly. Then I’ll go up to them and say how much I enjoyed their performance, assuming that they’ll appreciate the compliment. I mean, seriously, I would. What happened that night, and it’s happened to me a couple of times on other shows too, is that I’ve gone up to a fellow singer and said how amazing they’ve been. Instead of being in any way grateful though, they’ve just looked me up and down like something they’ve trodden in then walked away without saying a word.
“Okay so you can catch someone sometimes on a really, really bad day, but that’s just rude, right? This is a great business to be involved in most of the time and I’m really fortunate to be where I am today. Sometimes though, it can be pretty shitty too.”
The only way to get over such slights is to get back to doing what you do best and doing it live. With this in mind, seven UK dates loom in November for Beth Hart which include gigs in Birmingham, Gateshead, Glasgow, Bristol, Bournemouth, Manchester and a debut appearance at London’s Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday November 23rd. Something again you would you think she is looking forward to.
“I’m much, much, much and a-million-times much better at touring now than I was when I was younger,” she says frankly. “As I’ve gotten older I’ve slowly come to realise, just through life, that being yourself is way easier and requires far less energy than trying to put on a front. When I was younger, I felt totally unworthy of everything I had. I was even feeling unworthy being a woman. To survive, I felt I had to dress and act like a man. I felt I had to be aggressive and put out a message not to fuck with me else I was going to put you down. That was the way I approached things both on and off stage.
“Then life has a way of teaching you how to live it. As I hit my late thirties, I started to embrace my femininity more and started wearing heels and dresses and putting on makeup. In doing that, what changed on stage was that I felt able to talk – actually talk – to the audience between songs, rather than bellow and cuss at them. It’s been a nice thing to see and it’s so much easier to be yourself. I’ll always be insecure … I know and accept that. There’s nothing I can do with my brain chemistry other than control it through further chemistry, but that which has been prescribed. It is kind of cool, though, to see that I am no longer afraid to show myself for who I am.”
The gig at The Royal Festival Hall – as are almost all the other gigs on the tour – is a sell out, which underlines the popularity of the woman who was once a girl that sang show tunes for her mom. “What this business teaches you is to never take anything for granted or yourself too seriously. If I was younger, I’d look at having sold out The Royal Festival Hall or wherever and say: ‘Yeah man, it’s because I’m a fucking good artist. I deserve to be selling places like this out.’ Now I realise it is all bullshit.
“Music is very much like beauty: it’s in the eye of the beholder. Today, someone might come along to my show and think it’s great and they’re right. They might come along and think it is absolute shit and they’re right. If they come to my show and just don’t care one way or the other, they’re right. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. For me it so important that I no longer take myself as seriously as I once did and just continue to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts.”
Beth Hart’s new album “Fire On The Floor” is released by Provogue/Mascot Label Group on October 14th.
Beth Hart tours the UK in November. Tickets are available from the 24 Hour Box Office: 0844 871 8819 orwww.alt-tickets.co.uk/beth-hart-tickets.
November 2016 UK Tour dates as follows:
Birmingham Symphony Hall Friday 11 November
Gateshead Sage Sunday 13 November
Glasgow O2 Academy Monday 14 November
Bristol Colston Hall Thursday 17 November
Bournemouth Solent Hall Saturday 19 November
Manchester Bridgewater Hall Monday 21 November
London Royal Festival Hall Wednesday 23 November