For a Grammy-award nominated singer-songwriter with seven albums under her belt and another one on the way, Beth Hart is remarkably down-to-earth. Though a single from her upcoming album Better Than Home, which is set to come out on April 14, has already topped the iTunes Blues Chart, Hart remains passionate, easy-going, and above all, thankful. We wrestled through a spotty international phone connection to talk to the Californian artist about Tom Waits, the triviality of fame and the importance of embracing new experiences.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Oh my god, so many! Number one would be Beethoven. Without a doubt, the greatest musician and songwriter of all time. I would say some of Nina Simone’s work is phenomenal. Etta James takes credit for writing some of the lyrics on “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which I think are some of the most phenomenal lyrics I’ve ever heard. There’s arguments now about who wrote it but she always takes credit for it in her live performances. There was one song I came across on one of (Bruce Springsteen’s) records called “Thunder Road,” and to this day I think it’s the bible on how to write a phenomenal song when it comes to a lyric. The lyrics on that song are so genius, so genius. Amy Winehouse is a phenomenal songwriter, too…they’re all amazing songwriters! Bob Marley is an amazing songwriter. You could go through every genre of every decade and you’re gonna find so many amazing songwriters.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I wrote my first song when I was four, and I played it at my piano recital. Instead of me playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” I played something that I had written. As far as adding lyrics or vocals to my music, that didn’t come until later on in life. It wasn’t until I was around age 13 that I could actually sing with the music that I was writing. At first I was using my sister Susan’s lyrics, as I could not write myself, only the music. And then one day she and I had a fight and she threatened to take away the lyrics from all the songs that I put the lyrics to so it was that day that I began writing my first lyric to the music.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I have no idea what I called it, I have no recollection of it. No one ever recorded it or anything like that, and then I could not tell you the name of the very first demo song I made with a producer I was working with at fifteen. It just seems like I’ve always been writing and maybe that’s why I don’t recall the first one or the first two or the first fifty. It’s just something I’ve always done.
Which of your songs was the most difficult for you to write?
In terms of length of time, I would say two songs took the longest. One was a song called “Sky Full of Clover” which was on my album Leave the Light On and the other is “Tell Her You Belong To Me” which is on Better Than Home, the latest record getting ready to come out, and both of them took well over a year/a year and a half to write. Which is unheard of, to take a year and a half to write a five minute song. They took a long time but that’s what they took and I guess that’s what was meant to be. The funny this is, the songs that became hits were very fast writes, they took two seconds to write. But “Sky Full of Clover” and “Tell Her You Belong To Me” to me are my top two best-written pieces, and they took the longest to write.
Are there any songs of yours that you wish you could go back and change?
Oh, no! God no. No, no, no. Once I finish something, if I don’t feel that it’s absolutely fabulous, there’s no way I would ever let it be recorded, I wouldn’t even present it to a producer. No, no, no. I write a lot, so whenever I go to make a record I have at least fifty songs written for the record, it’s been that way since the very beginning. But if something is not where it comes out fantastic in the studio…for instance, let’s say you write a song and you love it, right? But the way the production is screws the whole song up, and let’s say you can’t meet eye to eye with the producer…or I would never let the producer truck over me and say it’s gonna go on the record. No way in the world. So everything I’ve ever released is because I’ve felt wonderful about the song or it wouldn’t be there.
What percentage of the songs you write are keepers?
Well ever since I was first signed, everything I’ve written has always ended up making it to a record at some point. Now “Sky Full of Clover” I wrote when I was 22 and it didn’t make it to a record until I was 30. So sometimes they don’t make it to the following record, it might take two or three records before it finally finds its family on that record. That’s another thing I believe, too. Whenever I finish a song, I say to myself and I say to God, “Thank you so much for this lovely experience of getting to finish this piece,” God knows it makes me so happy to write, more than anything else that I do. It’s my favorite thing, other than loving my husband. But when it’s done I think to myself, “Okay, if this song is meant to find a home, then it will. If it doesn’t, then that’s fine too because I’ve already received the best part of the album, and that part is that I’ve gotten to feel my church feeling with God and experience writing it. So the best part’s already over with. And if God sees fit that it’s gonna find its way to people’s ears then it will, and if it’s not supposed to then it won’t.
Do you have any standards for your songs you try to adhere by when choosing them for an album?
I really take my time…usually I’ll record many songs and then choose from that. Maybe because, like I said earlier, the production has to be up to the standard of the song or better…it’s like having a beautiful woman. If you put her in a bag and stick a plate of poop on her head she’s probably not gonna be that pretty so you wanna put her in something nice, so that way you can see the woman and also see the nice things she’s got on. So for me the production is really important and it kind of makes or breaks the song.
What do you find to be the most annoying thing about songwriting?
Oh, nothing annoying. Nothing annoying, no. Painful, at times. Scary, at times. Sometimes I feel so incredibly lost and worthless, but never annoying…just really alive. And sometimes when we’re really alive, we feel excited and we feel happy and we feel dedicated. But I would never use the word annoying.
Which of your songs means the most to you and why?
Well those two that I said to you earlier, “Sky Full of Clover” and “Tell Her You Belong To Me,” those are the ones I said took me the longest to write. “Sky Full of Clover” is a song about God and I wanted to write a song without being preachy, and without making anyone think that I was trying to tell them what I think they should believe, because God knows I have no idea what the answers are to anything. I just write about how I feel and what I believe. It took me a long time to try and be able to express my love and gratitude and need for God without seeming preachy. So that took time and I think it came out really amazing, I’m super proud of it. The song “Tell Her You Belong To Me” is about my father, and my father abandoned us when I was a child. He married a woman who would not allow me to talk with him or see him ever during my whole childhood and also into my early twenties. So when I went to write a song about this, it was very hard for me to face all of that again. Me facing it at 43 years old is very different from facing it at 23 or at 13, because as I’ve aged I’ve realized the absolute imperative importance in life to absolutely forgive and have no blame and no judgment in you, because that means the death of your spirit. And it was so beautiful once I was finished with “Tell Her You Belong To Me,” I saw that, honest to God, there was no more blame, there was no anger in me towards my father, there was something else: there was a promise to love and adore him just as I had as a little girl when we were close, and that nothing, not even him or me, could taint it, or make it less than that. But instead it would grow. And that would be my promise, a promise to myself and a promise to him. So that was a beautiful thing to experience that kind of healing. I don’t think that I’d tell him the song was for him because I wouldn’t wanna take a chance of him feeling guilty or sad.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I would probably choose Tom Waits. I think he’s fabulous and out of his mind and beautiful and brilliant and funny and sexy…and so smart, so creative. I would definitely choose Tom Waits.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
You know, I’m not really that up on who’s considered to be the approved people and the disapproved people. I’m not really aware what the popular culture is for artists, I just know that I love so many, and I don’t know if I’ve ever not been able to find something beautiful in every artist that I’ve ever seen or heard of, there’s always something wonderful. I guess it comes down to if you look for something bad you’re always going to find it no matter where you look and if you look for something good you’re always gonna find it. To me, if you’re doing your work and you’re able to make a living out of it, that’s pretty amazing. You should be thankful. If you’re not famous, if you’re not rich, who gives a shit? If you’re able to make a living doing what you love, that’s fabulous. If you’re not able to make a living doing what you love but you do it anyway because it brings you happiness, then you’re a luckier son of a bitch because you really get what life’s about. Life is really about spreading your wings and doing your gift. We’re all given so many gifts. Unfortunately we let others scare us away from ourselves or we scare ourselves away, but I think that the only person who can make you feel underrated is yourself, so don’t do that.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
The greatest piece ever written is Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” it’s just so rich and so deep and it perfectly reflects the deepest part of human nature. We have this awareness that we’re gonna die which is fucking scary, but we have all this courage to face it anyway and reach out for love and to reach out to survive in this world. If you’re alive, you know this. His music sounds like it came from a dark room and there’s no light, but in his soul he trusts that he will find that light and even if he never gets to visually see it, he’ll find it within his own soul. It’s like this demonstration of faith. It’s so deep…it’s just gorgeous.
On “Mechanical Heart” from your upcoming album Better Than Home, your lyrics seem especially poignant and emotional. What state of mind were you in at the time that caused such passionate verses?
I was not in a good place. I was terrified of writing this record, it was very uncomfortable for me. I’m used to writing about a lot of darkness and tragedy and I’m very dramatic and a big scaredy cat. And I’m a recovering addict, so I tend to write a lot about what scares me, what hurts, and what I’ve lost. I was challenged on this record by the two producers, Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens, to write about my joy. I told them both, “You’re nuts, I don’t wanna write about my joy! If I’m in a joyful mood the last thing I’m gonna do is go to the piano, I’d rather just be out having fun!” I always use the piano as a means to make myself feel better, make myself feel like I’m not alone, but I never really use it in a way to celebrate. Once in a great while, but for the most part, no. And everyone challenged me to do so, so doing something that I wasn’t used to doing was scary and uncomfortable. The other thing is, if I feel good, there’s something to fall from – from up. And I could fall and crash and be hurt, whereas if I stay hurt and I hide under the covers, I would be safe. I don’t have anywhere to fall. So taking on this project, it took more than courage, because I can’t even say that I had courage, I just think that I had a lot of wonderful people around me that held my hand and kept telling me that they believed in me and that I could do it, and I hated them for it. Oh, I kicked and screamed like a child the whole way! But now that it’s over and the record’s done and mixed…it really feels fucking great, man. To write something that is filled with hope and is filled with joy and family and friends and music and life and the future and doesn’t hold on to feelings from the past. It’s a real birth for me. It’s different for me. I’ve been doing this a long time and to be able to go in this direction…it’s such a relief now.
Do you ever feel uncomfortable about sharing such personal experiences with the rest of the world through your lyrics?
No, not at all. I never have been. It might have to do with starting at five or six years old and seeing a psychiatrist, so I got used to talking about my feelings and my emotions out loud to people at a really young age. So that’s probably why. I’m just used to it.
Is the strength to be vulnerable an importance aspect of honest songwriting?
I think it’s just important to be honest. If your honesty doesn’t come from vulnerability that’s fine. Some people run a marathon and I think, God, if I could be so vulnerable. Some people like to listen to songs that make them feel like they can dance or some people like to listen to songs that are scary like Black Sabbath…everybody’s got a different desire, so I think all that really matters in terms of being a good writer is to write what you know and be as honest as you can be about it and leave the rest to…it doesn’t matter. Just be yourself and try not to judge yourself. Trust that you’re on a journey as a writer and writing is gonna get you through all steps of life. Those ridiculous geniuses like Beethoven or Prince or Amy Winehouse where they were able to find their voices at a really young age…that’s just rare. Usually it takes people a long time and the courage to keep going down that path.
May 17 – Dana Point, CA – Doheny Blues Festival
June 10 – Austin, TX – The Parish
June 12 – Dallas, TX – The Kessler
June 13 – Houston, TX – House of Blues
June 16 – Atlanta, GA – Center Stage Theater
June 18 – Cincinnati, OH – Taft Theatre
June 20 – Munhall, PA – Carnegie Music Hall of Homestead
June 21 – Harrisburg, PA – Whitaker Center
June 23 – Rochester, NY – Rochester International Jazz Festival