Anyone who witnessed one of Grammy-nominated, singer-songwriter Beth Hart’s Bluesfest shows in 2014 or 2015, will know how much of a vocal storm she can ignite. Hart is one of those artists, who once you’ve experienced her live, you’ll never forget. Armed with a new album Fire On The Floor, which features some incredibly passionate vocal performances, her 2017 Bluesfest exclusive sets promise to be even wilder. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with the LA based vocal powerhouse to chat about her new album and her upcoming visit to Bluesfest.
You cover a variety of styles on the new album. What made you open the album with the jazz track, Jazzman?
I just think it’s really positive and fun. I thought it would be a perfect way to open it. You know, it’s about this girl seeking out something better for her life, something she can be passionate about – she goes out into the woods and she stumbles across this shack and it’s filled with people having a great time – and it’s this whole new world. She discovers this new music and I thought it would just be something fun and positive to open the record with.
When you wrote the tracks Love Is A Lie and Fire on the Floor, which are very powerful vocal performances on the record … was the vocal passion and power embedded at the writing stage or did that come at a later stage with further development, demos, and studio time?
Well, I don’t do development or demos or really any studio time. So when we go in and we make a record it’s very simple. I turn the songs that I write which I record onto a recording device just off of my piano or if I write it on guitar base it’s off the base of a guitar and then I send it into the producer. And then he will have me lay it down to a click so that way we have a proper arrangement – and then he sends it to the bands.
So then when it’s time to record the record – you know we just start with a song that day and we play it through 2 or 3 or 4 times, more if the producer needs us to – and then when he thinks we have it, then we move onto the next song.
So there are no rehearsals or anything like that. This whole album was made in three days and yeah – so that’s it.
In terms of the vocal, when I’m writing it, obviously I know how I’m going to sing it because I’m writing it. But yeah, up until that point – I’m only singing it with myself. So once I’m with the band, it’s going to sound quite different, which is very exciting to me. That way it sounds in that moment we’re recording it. I’m sure the vocal might shift up a bit because I’ll be reacting to the bass, or to the piano, or to the drums, or to the guitar player – or everybody simultaneously.
What’s the most passionate blues vocal track you’ve ever heard?
That’s a really, really tough question because there are so many by so many wonderful artists. One of the ones I think of right now is Otis Redding – I’ve Been Loving You Too Long and I remember the first time I heard that I just – you know – I think even now when I hear it – it makes me cry.
He just has so much feeling, he’s so passionate – it just sounds so friggin’ honest. I just loved Otis – he was just the bomb man.
What do you know about recording now that you didn’t when you released your first album?
One of the things I know now is that it’s not that important. I think when I was younger everything you know – everything that was done was a depiction of who I was as a person or had some massive importance. And now I don’t look at it that way at all – I think that – every moment you are alive is important – but when it comes to making a record for God’s Sakes – I mean if I make a bad record no-one is going to die – including me. And so I don’t look at it like that so much anymore. Now when it comes to making an album – now it’s all about the songwriting. If I feel strongly about the song – and I have to feel strongly about it before I would ever turn it into the producer – that’s really it for me.
So once we record the track, and I’m in there with the band – after we record I don’t ever come into the console room and listen back to my vocal or anything – I don’t do that at all – instead I go outside and have a cigarette. I trust that the producer will let me know if we got it or not. If he doesn’t think we got it – then we’ll go back in and we’ll take a take again.
I think I do that because I’ll get to wrapped up in it– I’ll start judging myself and be really hard on myself. So I just really trust the producer – and do my best when I’m in the room, but as soon as my performance is done – get the hell out of there.
I read that before you even finished the last album you were already wanting to record what became the ‘Fire On The Floor’ album. Do you have similar feelings about getting stuck into the next one?
With Better Than Home, we’d finished recording in the studio but we hadn’t really finished our mixing – and I was going through a horrible time because one of the two producers was dying of cancer and it was just freaking me the hell out – it really was.
So I asked the head of my label if I could go ahead and make another record right away. And at first- he was like Oh my God – what’s wrong – is Better Than Home not a good record? And I said Well I mean I don’t know how it’s going to come out – we haven’t mixed or anything yet but it was lovely being with Rob Mathes & Michael Stevens in New York and I think that we all did a really wonderful job, but I feel I need to go make another record right now or I fear I won’t go make another record again because this experience was so tragic with Michael.
And Michael did die – so oh boy, so yeah – so Ed (van Zijl – head of Mascot Label Group) said I could go back in the studio – and I worked with Oliver Leiber this time on Fire On The Floor – and like I said you know – it was only 3 days’ recording – so it was so light and easy and quick and fun and it really was a wonderful gift that Ed gave me- allowing me to go in and make this record. Oliver Leiber did such a great job producing it and all the musicians – so phenomenal – so I’m just really thankful for it and really thankful for the experience.
Tell me about your writing space at home where the piano resides? Is it the place where most of your musical ideas comes from? Does the room provide an environment which inspires you?
Oh yes. It’s its own little house really… So we have a three level house – and the middle level has a balcony so I go out and take the stairs down to the yard. And underneath is its own little house that has a bathroom and living room and kitchen and small bedroom. And it’s all glass windows – and that whole space is the piano area with my bass and guitars and all that up on the walls.
It’s also where I do my paintings and all that kind of stuff – so it’s just a full area of nothing but art and angels and paintings and wonderful quotes from Van Gogh and just different artists that I’ve loved – they’re all up on the walls and yeah – that’s the space where I go to pray, to confess to financiers, to cry, to scream – to laugh. It’s a wonderful place, I’m so blessed to have such a space to work in. It makes me so happy.
When are you most likely to write a song? Late at night? Early morning or just when it strikes?
All three really. I would say yes to all three of those. I will wake up in the morning and have an idea and then I’ll go work the rest of the day and then if I don’t finish it that day I’ll come back every day until I do. But when I do work I work the entire day and night. So there is no breaks – I might maybe take a break to take a tea or go to the bathroom or have a cigarette. But otherwise it’s 100% songwriting.
What keyboard are you using on stage at moment? What do you like about its sound?
I use a Yamaha. I use the older models of Yamaha because those are just the ones I like. I haven’t gotten any of the last couple of year’s ones. But I just like it to sound as much like a real piano as possible – and I don’t like it too warm.
It’s got to be thin enough to where it cuts through the band so I can hear it. And that’s one of the things I do love about Yamahas is they are a little bit of a thinner sound. Whereas a Bösendorfer is much fatter, a Kawai is fatter – a Baldwin I think has both – but a Yamaha definitely has a higher end – both on a piano and a keyboard. But there’s all types of great keyboards, I mean, there really are. But that’s just what I like.
What’s your favourite guitar? Any sentimental story on how you acquired it?
Well my first guitar is sentimental – it was given to me by my sister Susan – it’s actually a classical guitar – that was the first type of guitar I was interested in playing – was classical guitar.
I loved coming into some of the little French restaurants and seeing the wonderful musicians and all the classical guitars and all that they could do with it – it was so phenomenal. But I was never blessed with that sort of talent to be able to do that – but it’s still sentimental to me and I love it.
But I use Hummingbird Acoustics. I have some different endorsements from different companies – but it doesn’t really matter – it’s not like I’m a great guitar player or anything – I just like to write on it and I like the feeling of it in my hands- there’s a comfort to it.
You’re coming back to Bluesfest in 2017. What kind of things come to mind when you think of previous Bluesfests?
Well I just love backstage. That’s like my favourite part. It’s the backstage where all the musicians and all the people who I love and I’m big fans of – I get to see them. And there’s no closed-off rooms – it’s like all open. You can’t see in people’s rooms, but there’s no ceiling on it, so if anyone’s practicing or anything – you can hear everybody – and it’s just really nice.
I love the big tents and getting to play on those nice big stages and when all the people come it’s just so lovely. Such lovely people. And also you know that part of the country really reminds me a little bit of where I come from too – you know the weather – so it kind of reminds me a little of being home.
How much of the new album do you hope to include in your Bluesfest set?
Well every night is a different show. I write a new set list every show. So it really depends on the mood, and the way I feel that day when I get to the venue. That’s kind of how I will judge where to go. Sometimes I hit it out of the ballpark, and sometimes I don’t – but I kinda like that challenge. I also like the painful humility that comes when things don’t go my way. I hate it in the moment it’s happening, but it’s just so healthy that I notice later when I get a nice little kick in the ass and I fall on my face. There’s just something quite lovely about that.
Tell me about the band that you will be bringing out next year? Who have you got playing with you?
I’ve got Bill Ransom on the drums. He’s from Cleveland, Ohio. He started playing with me when I was 27 and then he left in the middle of a tour when I was 28 because I was a major drug addict and he didn’t want to stand by and watch me die.
And then like I don’t know – 12 years or something, a long time went by and he sent me a message and said ‘hey if you’re ever looking for a drummer’ and then he’s been back out now playing with me for the past 4 years -and he’s just fab-u-fucking-lous – he is great.
And then I’ve got Bob Marinelli on bass who is originally from Detroit but lives in Nashville these days – and he is just a wonderful musician and a wonderful friend. He has also been playing with me for I think a little over four years.
And then Jon Nicholls on guitar. I’ve been with Jon since I was 27 – we’ve been playing together a long time. Jon Nicholls is out of Los Angeles like me and he’s just wonderful – a wonderful musician and a very very humble, mellow – like so mellow – human being. It’s wonderful – coz I’m so high strung and we really complement each other.
Do you have any bucket list projects you’d like to get to one day that maybe we wouldn’t expect from you?
You know – I want to do more painting. I love painting, I always have. But I’d really like a chance to do some nice studying and seeing what could come of that. And I’m really into gardening. But because I’m away so much I’m only really able to plant like fruit trees and flowers and different types of succulents and things like that. I don’t really have a chance to plant vegetables or herbs because I’m not at home long enough to do the tending that they need. So we have a gardener who comes every couple weeks – but that’s not enough to if you’re having vegetables and stuff like that. So yeah, I would like to have a bigger garden.
What about dream collaborations? Who would you most like to work with?
Well yeah – I really wanted to do something, anything with Leonard Cohen. I just couldn’t believe that he passed away. But I’m so grateful that he got to live as long as he did and I’m grateful that he got to make some wonderful music and know how much it touched the world and inspired artists to work to be more honest and dig deep you know. He was pretty much as deep as they get I think. What a beautiful writer – beautiful voice, beautiful man and I thought he was sexy and super-attractive all the way to the end – he just was. Loved him.
Another bucket list would be doing something with Tom Waits – I love Tom Waits. Tom Waits is the shit man. I would love to work with him.
Fire on the Floor is out now
Bluesfest. April 13-17, 2017.
Beth appears on the 15th and 17th