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For Beth Hart, success is sweeter the second time around

“Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit, yelling for help,” Mahalia Jackson once remarked. And if anyone can relate to that remark, it’s Beth Hart. She was an up-and-coming vocalist before drugs, alcohol and numerous trips to the psych ward derailed her career.

By Mike Greenblatt

“Anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit, yelling for help,” Mahalia Jackson once remarked. And if anyone can relate to that remark, it’s Beth Hart. She was an up-and-coming vocalist before drugs, alcohol and numerous trips to the psych ward derailed her career.

A second act is one of the hardest things to achieve in the music business, but Hart earned hers in fine style at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors, where her show-stealing performance of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” had everyone asking, “Who’s that girl with Jeff Beck?” (If you haven’t seen her performance, you owe it to yourself to view it:

Hart isn’t wasting any of that precious momentum. She launched her first stateside tour in a dozen years (which sold out every single date) and is currently on the road in Europe; she’ll be joining supergroup The Rides on tour soon, too. Hart also released two albums this spring in the U.S.: “Bang Bang Boom Boom” (Mascot Records) in April, and “Seesaw” (J&R Adventures), a collaboration with Joe Bonamassa, in May.

Beth Hart publicity photo by Jeff Katz

Beth Hart has worn a lot of hats in the last 12 months. She raised the roof with her tribute performance to Buddy Guy at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors, put out a solo album and collaborated on a studio album with Joe Bonamassa.

GOLDMINE: I saw the Kennedy Center Honors. You stole the show, girl!
BETH HART: Oh, my God, thank you.

GM: What kind of response have you been getting ever since?
BH: My family’s super proud. My friends who saw it all went, “It’s fu**ing great.” It’s something that made me feel really proud, of course; I mean, getting to sing in tribute to Buddy Guy. He really deserved his honors. It’s amazing. I’ve been such a big fan of his. I opened for him a year-and-a-half ago in Norway. I’d never seen him perform live. To see someone at any age [Guy is 77] have that much energy and conviction onstage, it just blew my mind. And to get to do that with Jeff was so extraordinary. I’m still on a high from it.

GM: Jeff Beck specifically asked you to do that with him?
BH: Yes, he did. I had done a television show with Jools Holland in England. I usually get nervous if I know who’s coming on, so I don’t like to ever know who it is, but I saw Jeff and his wife at the show. A couple weeks later, Jeff called.

GM: It was one of those career-making performances. You’ve had a long road back. Tell me about the first half of your career.
BH: I started at 15 playing around Hollywood, but couldn’t make any money. So a friend of mine turned me on to South Central, where they had a chitlin circuit, like down South. You’d go to different clubs, play and try to win competitions for money. Of course, if they didn’t like you, they booed you and kicked you out of the club. So I did that and learned a lot. It led to a steady job at the La Louisianne club, where I was the only white singer in their history, the only white worker even, including waiters and waitresses. It was great. I was down there with amazing musicians, soulful people, just a whole different scene from Hollywood. I was 19 and loving it. After that, I got an opportunity to do the TV show “Star Search.” I never thought I’d win. I just figured it would be a cool experience and a lot of fun. I made some good money for winning but wasn’t able to get a record deal out of it. I didn’t realize “Star Search” was considered by the labels as something uncool to do if you want to be a real artist, but that’s what I was told. It was a squirrelly situation anyway, because I was on my second manager, and I didn’t know he was telling them that in order to sign me, they had to accept him as the main producer. So I couldn’t get a deal for a couple of years. We were getting turned down left and right, and it was really weighing heavy on my confidence at that point. Then I ran out of the “Star Search” money. I finally got totally frustrated and said, “F**k this business; I just want to make music and try to make a living out of it.” So I went to the Third Street Promenade, where you could play on the street and make good money. I actually did pretty good there for a couple of months, and my third manager — who I have to this day 18 years later — David Wolff, saw me and got me an audition with David Foster and Jason Flom for Atlantic.

GM: You were on a fast track. You had some hits, a string of albums. So, what happened?
BH: Unfortunately, I’ve always dealt with substance abuse, but thought I had it in control. I remember at my first rehab, they told me I was a “periodic,” someone who can work but every month or two, they take off for days to get really high and crazy. That’s when I was diagnosed with mental illness, as well. They told me I was “trying to balance out my brain.”

I told them how I had been diagnosed as a kid, but my mother refused all medication for me. I think that’s probably why I started using [drugs] so young. For my Atlantic debut [“Immortal,” 1996], I promised myself I wouldn’t use, but I wound up suffering from anorexia and bulimia. I let myself get down to nothing — skin and bones. I was proud of that record. But in the label’s eyes, it didn’t go all the way. For my second record, I got to a place, as a writer, where I was getting inside the truth.

It all came out on “Screaming For My Supper” [1999]. I worked so hard on it with such great talented people. Unfortunately, Atlantic made such a big fuss about how big of a star I would be, and I knew I wasn’t ready, so I started just drinking like mad, starving myself and doing whatever drugs I could get my hands on. But they still put me out on the road. I went to see a doctor who offered me three different meds. One was a drug that made you throw up if you drank. I turned that down. Another was a mood stabilizer. I turned that down. The third drug was Klonopin. Klonopin would be the end of my career.

Beth Hart 1999 publicity photo

Most people take it and go to sleep. I think because I was so manic, it worked at making me totally high, like heroin. I had done heroin before and never really cared that much for it. But Klonopin? Oh. My. God. That was the one. It was the end-all and be-all. It wound up ruining everything in my life: my health, my career, my relationship with my parents and my family. It was terrible. Plus, I lost my will to live. I was over. Done. I felt like a f**king big sh*t. Then a man came into my life. He was my drum tech. I didn’t really like him, because I didn’t really like anybody. I was such a junkie. I don’t know what it was, but after a period of working with him for almost a year, I realized he was the most amazing guy. We, uh, got together and fell in love, despite me being at my craziest, going in and out of psych wards and in and out of rehabs that weren’t really helping. But it was the psych wards that were the scariest. My mind was gone. And he f**king just loved me so much. There was something about the way he loved me that made me feel like maybe I did have some worth. Maybe I should try a little harder. Get healthy and see what happens. That’s when I got in the program. They put me on mood stabilizers, but I was so against it. I told them, “No, I’m really just an addict. If I’m sober, I’ll be fine.” So I got sober for a long time. And I was fine. I was doing good. I made a new record [“Leave The Light On,” 2003]. It started selling first in New Zealand, then Holland. I started to tour there. People were so loving. They were so into the music. The press was so good. I was so happy. I was sober, married, working, not freaking out, not thinking “I’m sh*t.” It was a whole brand-new life. I remember going back to those doctors and saying, “See, I told you I wasn’t bipolar; I’m just an addict!” They argued I was just in remission. They said it’s very dangerous, and I needed to go on something. I’m like, “No, no, no.” Six years went by, and I had a complete breakdown. I was 36. I’m 41 now. It was so bad. It was the worst I had ever been, mentally.

GM: And it happened at a time when you were a star in Europe.
BH: Almost. It was still building: Denmark, Norway, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, England and last came France. I was so busy working. I was healthy. I was thanking God every day. Then boom. When it happened to me for the second time, I couldn’t believe it. I remember I was in my hotel room screaming, “What the hell is going on?” I then had to go back into the hospital for my longest stay. And that turned into the most amazing thing, because when I finally came around to believing my diagnosis, I wound up loving the psych ward!

GM: What could you possibly like about being in a psych ward?
BH: I just felt like I was with my people. I was so manic at the time. I got to be with my people and be crazy, and it was OK to be so, because everybody else was. There’s comfort in that. I belonged there. I didn’t have to try so hard to be normal. I could just be myself.

GM: Was there a particular incident that started the second meltdown?
BH: I think there was. I had quit smoking for over a year and had put on a little weight. A girlfriend of mine had told me about a very expensive Chinese doctor, an herbalist in Beverly Hills. He’d give you these herbs that made your body feel amazing. You could lose, like, 10 pounds in a week. So I went to him. But because of my mental condition, any kind of stimulant can send me into a full-blown mania. Like, I can’t have caffeine, I can’t have sugar, I can’t have any of that stuff. But I did, and went straight to Europe for a seven-month tour. I took a ton of his herbs with me. Spent a sh*tload of money. I go over there, and I don’t even make it a month. I completely lost touch with reality. I wound up in a hospital over there but didn’t get admitted because my doctor said, “If you get admitted to a psych ward in Europe, that’s it. You’re on their government law, and they can keep you for years. So don’t do it. Come home. And get admitted here.”

GM: And that’s what you did?
BH: Yeah. I came home and went in.

GM: And how long did that last?
BH: I started at Cedars for 10 days, and then I was transferred to a dual-diagnosis [mental health/drug addiction] facility in Malibu [California], and I didn’t make it there longer than 26 days because they couldn’t get me balanced. I was so sick when I went in. Nothing they gave me was balancing me, so they sent me back to Cedars for about two weeks. And then, in that second week, I suddenly got really scared. I wanted to go home. And they were like, “That’s a good sign!” So they sent me home, but they had me on so many different medications I forgot how to play piano. I couldn’t remember any of my music, and I usually remember hundreds of songs in my head. But I couldn’t remember one! Not one! And it was really scary, because two weeks later I was booked to go back out on the road.

So [my team] was looking for piano players and sheet music for me to read the lyrics on stage. My husband was like, “We can’t do this to her. We can’t work her when she’s still not right.” He was right. Then I found Dr. Davidson, who I’ve been with the last four-and-a-half years. Saw him today, as a matter of fact. He put me on something amazing. It’s a nonaddictive, anti-psychotic mood stabilizer. He just happened to pick the right med for me. And I was able to remember all my music. I gained a lot of weight, though, about 50 pounds, because that’s what anti-psychotics do sometimes. They make you gain a lot of weight. I was cool with that. I was like, “That’s OK! I’ll take the weight!” My marriage got better. Everything got better. I was able to work more. I didn’t have all that rage. It was like getting another second chance. This time, though, I was willing to do whatever I had to do to be well.

GM: Did you use your harrowing experiences in the writing of “Bang Bang Boom Boom?”
BH: Yeah. Lots of songs came from all that. I noticed that once I finished writing, how much positivity there was, as opposed to some of my earlier records, which had a lot of pain and, uh, hatred, really, and a lot of self-disappointment. I used to write a lot about that. On this record, there’s still a bit of that, but mainly it’s about God and love and excitement and changing your attitude. I feel like I’ve made it to another place in my soul. A lot of healing has taken place.

GM: It’s also about your incredible vocals. You evoke Rickie Lee Jones, Howling Wolf, Amy Winehouse and Phoebe Snow while still being Beth Hart. Some of this is so mysterious and sultry. Other tracks are brassy big band. To come back from what you endured is a testament to your strength.
BH: I feel so f**king lucky, y’know? My family is so close to me. They’re so supportive. I’m also lucky just to be able to afford the medication. I have to be on Hepatitis C treatment, because I contracted Hep-C through my drug stuff. The medication itself makes you really sick. It’s like chemotherapy. And you have to stay on it for six months to a year. And once I got my head meds, I wanted to take it, though, to get rid of my Hep-C … and I did! It worked for me. I feel like I danced with the devil and was rescued by angels.

Beth Hart Bang Bang Boom Boom

GM: You touch on a good point to have escaped the clutches of dancing with Mr. D. We’re naturally drawn to tragic vocalists or vocalists who rage on despite immeasurable odds. Look at Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Edith Piaf, Etta James. I mean, you’re following a well-worn trajectory. We want to root for you now! Didn’t you even play Janis off-Broadway?
BH: Yeah, when I was much younger. When I finished “Screamin’ For My Supper” [1999], the album with “L.A. Song (Out Of This Town),” which did good for me here, I went and did an off-Broadway show. It was way off-Broadway: Cleveland. I did three months of “Love, Janis,” a story about Janis Joplin.

GM: Based on the letters she wrote to her sister…
BH: Right! It was only a little bit of acting, mostly singing, and another actress read the letters. It was great. But I started drinking heavily. And I drank the drink that Janis drank: Southern Comfort. I would just get ripped out of my mind every night after the show. I could never do that now. I could bounce back then and not miss a show. I don’t know how I did it. And then when it came time to go out on the road in support of “Screamin’ For My Supper,” I was gone. I was just a drunk. It was weird, though, because it all went with that show and portraying Janis.

GM: You channeled Janis, just like you channeled Etta James at the Kennedy Center Honors with Jeff Beck.
BH: I’ll tell you something, man. Doing the “Don’t Explain” album [2011 with Joe Bonamassa] where I got to sing some of the Etta James stuff [“I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Something’s Got A Hold On Me”], was such a major thing for me personally. Because when I went out on the road for Immortal, starving myself, I’d listen to Etta James every day. That’s what saved me. My favorite record was “Blues In The Night Volume #1 The Early Show” [1987, Fantasy] where she sang “Misty” and “I Just Wanna Make Love To You,” just amazing stuff. And her phrasing was just phenomenal. She was 49 and she had grown and matured as an artist and was really feelin’ that sh*t! I remember loving that woman so much. She’s my favorite singer in the whole world. But personally? I would never be able to do her sh*t.

GM: Oh man, yeah, she did some really bad stuff in her day. Read her 1995 auto-biography, “Rage To Survive.
BH: Ooh, I think I have that book lying around here somewhere but I only got as far as her childhood. Hold on, let me look. [Pause.] Here it is! “Rage To Survive,” baby! Thank you so much! GM