Interview by Greg Phillips. Photos by Jason Rosewarne from Bluesfest 2017
A conversation with Beth Hart elicits a rollercoaster of emotions. Strap yourself in to laugh, gasp and experience all the feelings in between as she barely takes a breath in telling me about her new album War In My Mind. Beth is clearly excited about the new record and rightly so, it’s an epic journey, an intimate dialogue between her amazing voice and piano for the most part. When it’s not that, it’s fun and it’s sassy and it’s an infectious groove. She’s brutally honest and passionate about life and if you’ve ever seen her perform live, you’ll know that it all comes out on stage, baring her soul nightly and leaving nothing behind. You only have to listen to the lyrics of tracks on any one of her albums to know that Beth has had her ups and downs, struggling with mental illness for much of her life and she lays it all down in song. Nothing is a greater example of this than the title track of her new album War In My Mind.
And it’s ugly when I try • So I’m trying all the time • In my mind • Where it builds • And it climbs
And this is more than I can handle • Shadow box another piece of sky • While I make love to the war in my mind
However, getting towards the end of War In My Mind’s epic trek, you get the feeling that Beth is currently in a comfortable zone, coming to terms with her place in the world, her age and her career accomplishments. She’s thankful and tells us so.
Thank you for the sunshine • Thank you for the light • Thank you for the moonshine • Thank you for the night
Thank you for the big climb • Thank you for the fall • Thank you for my life • Thank you for it all
There’s so much to like about Beth and finally she seems to be allowing herself to view Beth Hart the artist through the eyes of her supporters and fans, as opposed to her very few detractors. It’s always a pleasure to chat with Beth and this time was no exception.
Beth, last time I spoke to you after the release of your Fire on the Floor album, you told me you wanted to spend more time studying, painting and gardening. How is that going for you?
Well the vocal studying has been great, I love it. That has been really great and I have been learning a lot. I have been going crazy with gardening, so now in the front yard and backyard I have so many fruit trees, so many different flowers and I have amended all the soils and I studied horticulture so crazy and got so into it, a total drug addict but with gardening. I was going until 3 in the morning, so Scott puts up these spotlights so I can work till really late. It’s been so healing and so fun. To have something other than music that I can get really passionate about, plus you get all that exercise and sunshine and it’s so good.
There are 12 songs on your new album War In My Mind, did you have many others that you were working with?
Oh yeah, every record I do I turn in at least 30 to 50 songs. The reason is that I am always writing anyway because it makes me feel better and it is challenging. Not everything can be used for an album so there is always a ton of stuff leftover for the next record. That is one of the things I love about always working with a different producer because one producer will turn down these songs but the next one might say, ‘What, he’s crazy we’ve got to do these songs’. It has helped me to learn that if somebody doesn’t like something, never assume that it is crap, it’s just not for them and maybe it will be for another producer. I love them all so I don’t care which ones they choose. I learned a long time ago that if someone you are working with is excited about something, don’t get in the way of that, just let them get the best that they can from what they are into instead of trying to force them to do something.
Why is the song War In My Mind the title track?
Well it is the title track because my husband really wanted it to be the title track. Originally the title of the album was going to be Sister Dear because that’s the reason I got the producer in the first place. I was at a dinner party and I had just written Sister Dear that week and I played Sister Dear, War in my Mind and Woman Down at the party. I was excited because those three songs had just been finished. Rob Cavallo (producer) was at the party and he came up to me. It was his house and I was aware of that but my best friend Erica’s sister is married to him … I wasn’t there for that I was there for Erica. Anyway, Rob came up to me and said I think Sister Dear is an even better than a song you wrote, Mom, This One’s For You off a record called Better than Home. He said I want to record that if you’re cool with it and I’d also like to record Woman Down and Rub Me For Luck, I also played that at the party. So that is how the whole record started and I was going to call it Sister Dear. My husband said no you are crazy, you have to call it War In My Mind, especially after the last few years you have been really open about your mental illness struggles and you gotta call it that because it sums it up. I love my husband and I think he’s got really great instincts so I said ok. we’ll call it War In My Mind.
The thing that sticks out about this album to me is that it’s not just a great Beth Hart album but I can imagine a lot of other artists singing these songs, they are just wonderfully constructed beautiful songs with great lyrics. Do you feel in yourself that you are becoming a better songwriter with each new album?
I sure hope so and thank you so much for saying that. To me the whole point of making art in the first place is that you are just seeking the truth, you are seeking comfort and learning and growing and trying to figure out your relationships with your parents and yourself and with love, with god and life and with death. All of it and just trying to find a way to help guide you through it all, so I am hoping that as I get older I am not getting stupider or more lost! I am hoping that as I am getting older, I am realising that part of being found is being ok with being lost and knowing that is just a part of life. As I get older I realise that I really know nothing and how beautiful and freeing that is. So that is what I am hoping and is happening with the songs, not judging them and saying I want it to be this or I want it to be that … not having any intentions but just going with what comes and trusting that. I want to give a little prop up to Fiona Apple because I remember watching her in an interview and she is one of my favourite singer, songwriters and piano players ever … I remember her saying that when I write, I just don’t think about it and I never judge it. Whatever comes out, comes out and that is it. I am too anal to just go, ok that’s it, it’s good enough .. I am way, way too anal so I will work things out but I don’t doubt as much as I used to. I don’t make it so much about me as I make it about … what does the song want to do? What is it maybe lacking musically here? Asking the song what it wants instead of trying to force it to be something I want it to be. I think that by practicing that, it has helped to free me up a lot and just let it be what it is. In other words, be willing to write a lot of pieces of crap and trust that one day maybe you will take that piece of crap and turn it into something nice. Like the song Try A Little Harder, I wrote that song back when I was 21. I never put a lyric on the verses and I only had a chorus and never had that bridge. Then I would always use it as a warm up before I would play the piano in the studio. I was in there with Rob working on this record and working on old music from Try A Little Harder and he goes, what the frick is that? I said it’s nothing, it’s not done or anything, just some piano stuff. He said, that’s great you need to work on that. It was great because it made me think of my dad and made me think of how my dad used to be a gambler and how much I love playing cards, I am really into card playing. So I got to pretend I was my dad at the baccarat table in Vegas and it just wrote itself. I wanted to do something like Stevie Wonder on those bridges, the musical blending of chords is very Stevie Wonder.
Yes, that song Try A Little Harder has a swagger to it which I love …
Yeah, it’s fun. It’s happy and fun, a lot of confidence, cocky. It’s nice to have a song like that once in a while. I smile when I sing it.
And Sugar Shack almost has a disco vibe to it!
I tell you man, I wrote that years ago with a great writer named James House, he lives out in Nashville but he’s not a Nashville guy, thank god! I write with him now and then. We wrote a song Caught Out In The Rain years ago together but it was never really finished but I loved it and I turned it into producers. I turned it into Kevin Shirley for Bang Bang and I turned it in for Better Than Home, I turned it in for Fire On the Floor but all the producers, passed, passed, passed. Then I turned it into Rob and he said I know what is missing and he just did this trigger that goes dddddddd, that he had the keyboard player play. There’s a synth guy, Jamie that he works with who is amazing. So just from that ddddddd, I wrote a whole new chorus section. When we did that, that’s when Rob came in as a co-writer on that, so it’s a co-write between Rob and James and I. I love it so much that now I want to make like an edgy, dance record like that. Taking early 80s club dance and mixing it with a Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails kind of vibe right? I think that would be so fun. We just did the music video for it last night!
Apart from 3 or 4 tracks, the piano and your voice are highlighted on this album, not a lot of other instrumentation and if there is, it’s kinda in the background. Was the album always going to be that way?
It just turned out that way. Not a lot of people like the way I play piano, it has always been been that way since the beginning of my career. They don’t like my vibrato and they don’t like my piano playing and that’s cool. They hurt my feelings a lot but I finally got over it, it’s not for everybody, I get it. With this record, since I got the gig with Rob anyway, from playing at that party at his house on piano, I even said to him, dude you might want to hire a really good piano player to play this stuff because I can’t play to a click. I can’t play to a click track, I hate them. It sounds like I am playing to a frickin computer and I can’t do it. I can either play live with the band in the studio or let me play alone and then build the band around it. He was reluctant at first for me not to play to the click but he was adamant about me playing the piano.
Anyway we went in and I played a few things to click like Let It Grow and Rub Me For Luck to click. I’d already done some demos for some other songs so he just let the band play to those demoes that I had already done. For the next round I was just thinking how do I get this guy to let me play without a click at all? Anyway I came up with a total female manipulation, I show up and I’m ready to go and I said, hey man is it ok since I am such a nervous person, can I go in and just lay down 12 songs in a row back to back on the piano and then I will go to the other piano and do the same thing and you just take whatever is the best of that and build the tracks. He goes absolutely and I couldn’t believe it … it was so easy. I was preparing how I was going to say it for weeks, rehearsing like an actor and thinking how am I going to pull this off and he was so sweet. So that’s what we did and how we got War In My Mind and all those other songs. The only song I played live with the band was Without Words In The Way and I remember feeling really good because here I was doing kind of a jazz based song with Vinnie Colaiuta playing drums and I was playing it live with him. I remember thinking to myself … with a like a big FU finger to all those people who said I couldn’t play piano because I was thinking you can’t be that bad if you’re playing with Vinnie Colaiuta live in the studio on a jazz song! I was thrilled and it was one of the highlights for me of the whole thing. Also it is the first record I have ever made that I have listened to every day, all day for six weeks while on the road. We had mastered the day before I went on a six week tour. In the past I would never listen to a record more than three times after mixing, mastering stage … never.
When can we expect to see you back in Australia?
Oh God, I don’t know. I think Scotty talked about next year but I am not sure. I’m not sure but we do try to get there every year. You are so lucky that you get to live there.
What are you most proud of?
I don’t know if proud is really the word. I guess I would choose grateful more as a word. I am really grateful that at my age, I am still getting to do it, getting to make records and getting to tour. That was my dream as a kid. I didn’t have a dream of big halls or being a big superstar. I had a dream of being able to do it and make a living until I died. That means writing, making records and performing and I just wanted to do that till I was a really old lady and then kick the bucket, so I am just glad I am still getting to do it. If I had to say proud I would say I feel like I have come a long way as a writer and I think I have grown as a singer ‘cos I have always hated my voice so much. I didn’t start liking the sound of it until I did that first record with Joe (Bonamassa) and I was already in my latter 30s. My low end had kicked in and I didn’t have that super high thin voice anymore. I think I’m kind of proud about that. I feel like I have had growth.
War In My Mind is out September 27th, 2019