It's a gorgeous evening today at the majestic Hampton Court Palace, London, in occasion of the Uk date of the Seesaw Mini Tour, which Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa are taking around Europe. Bluebird Reviews has been a great admirer of the L.A. artist for a very long time and we couldn't miss the chance to talk to her about Hart's career so far and the extraordinary success of the Seesaw album with Bonamassa.
After the sound-check is over, Beth Hart graciously accepted to see us in her dressing room, welcoming us with her usual warming smile and cordiality.
BR- Beth, thank you so much for meeting us. Seesaw is a phenomenal time capsule type of record, covering many different decades of music history. How challenging was it to record?
BH - Very challenging and the thing is I love all the artists singing these amazing songs but there is a specific one I really gravitated towards, like, for instance, Billie Holiday on "Strange Fruit" but Kevin Shirley, the producer, turned me on Nina Simone's version and both versions blew me away. The record overall was very challenging as was the Don't Explain record I did with Joe, the first one we did together. I guess is a good thing to be challenged, because hopefully you grow a little bit. But what a fun time was recording Seesaw!
BR - Is there any particular track on Seesaw you are particularly proud of and, if so, which one?
Beth - I think I am proud of all of them and the band, the musicianship on this record is so phenomenal. Kevin Shirley, his mixes and his production ideas are really brilliant. The whole record made me feel very proud of each song we did. I just love "Them There Eyes" (she hums the first verse of the song), one of my favorites and also the "Nutbush City Limits" song from Tina Turner... But if I really need to choose one song, then I would choose "Strange Fruit."
BR - You studied opera when you were younger. How did you discover your inner blues?
BH - Yes, just for a bit, when I was very very young; I had a wonderful coach called Rhonda and she was an opera singer and it was something I really wanted to do because I loved classical music, it was my first love. "Piano Sonata" from Beethoven and some of the wonderful soprano parts from Mozart and all wonderful stuff like that... So I really threw myself into it but my coach Rhonda said: "Hey, I don't think this is necessarily for you; I think you have the voice to do it but the problem is you don't have the discipline to sing the way it's written. You want to do your own thing; maybe something like blues or jazz would be better for you." So I was definitely disheartened for a while, but it has been so much fun trying.
BR - So how did you discover your inner blues?
BH - I was listening a lot to Robert Johnson, some people turned me on to him.... Some other people turned me on to Joe Turner, I am a huge Joe Turner fan.. Then I stumbled across Howlin' Wolf and I loved the way his voice sounded and Etta James and the way she sings. I found that with blues music it was a great way for someone like me, who's really erratic in my emotions, though I try so hard to have social graces in which I am not very good at, to express myself. Blues is all about being honest, letting yourself go and not being afraid...You are just yourself, telling your truth and this is what I love about it, it is so attractive to me.
BR - Beth, what a remarkable year this has been for you; a great, fast-selling solo record Bang Bang Boom Boom, touring half the world, playing at the Kennedy Center Honors, then Seesaw with Joe. With this crazy schedule, how do you manage to write and record new material?
BH - I don't do much writing on the road, if I do, is just ideas, which I would then record on my mobile phone. Then when I get home, sometimes I throw myself immediately into writing and then I would spend something like 16 hours a day all day into the night and getting pretty manic about it. That is a very nice place for me to be when I am manic about it because I wouldn't do anything but a toilet break, a cup of coffee or taking the dog out. Then I would ensure I would have time on my schedule to write with other writers when I am recording, although I tend to privilege writing on my own as much as possible, because I like to do my own things, be as crazy as you want and if you have any bad idea whilst writing you don't have anybody watching over but you.
BR - Seesaw is a true American Songbook; from Aretha Franklin to Etta James, Billie Holiday to Lucinda Williams. Did you feel their "presence" in the studio when you covered their songs?
BH - I always pray that, whether they are still alive or passed, somehow their energy would visit me for a bit. If for no other reasons, just for my love for those songs; thinking that up there they would say to me "Hey, someone is singing our songs out there, let's give her a little encouragement!". I always like to hope that, I definitely use them as a touchdown for me, for sure.
BBR - Your life is truly a rock'n'roll tale, in which you overcame major setbacks and came out triumphantly. If you were producing the soundtrack of your life, which songs would you choose?
BH - I would choose a song from Bruce Springsteen, which is my favorite lyrical song I ever heard in my life, "Thunder Road." The thing in that song, which blew me away so much at the beginning and still does is not just the artistry that it takes to write so beautifully like that but it's what really means to me; no matter how many things are against you, everything you can possibly see and feel against you, there is always hope. You still hold onto your dream and that dream is just to get free and no matter how hard it is, that's the thing that keeps you alive and help you to survive. It's not about being triumphant, it's just holding on in that hope and that faith and that is what song is to me. I love it; I think I would love to have that song played at my funeral.
BR - Billie Holiday once said: "I hate straight singing, I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know." Do you feel in the same way while performing live?
BH - I don't feel in the same way; maybe I don't feel in the same way because being a songwriter my whole life, I'm really [tough] about respecting the original writing of it. But in the same way, I'm [more flexible about the fact that] if I hear a singer singing in a certain way and I particularly like their version, I want to embrace that as well. I don't know, I think it is just a smart thing to do. However, when I hear artists like Billie Holiday or even Amy Winehouse making some tracks as theirs through their unique version, I look up so much to them and I envy that; I don't know if I have the talent for that, I think I just try to look at it from a songwriter point of view and try to make sure that my story is in there. Not necessarily in the way I sing it but rather in the way I feel it...
BR - In "Nutbush City Limits," it's almost impossible to spot the difference between the quality of your voice and Tina Turner's! How much did you enjoy recording that track 40 years after its release?
BH - You know, I didn't know that song; I walked in the studio on the last day of recording and in the morning Kevin (Shirley) said: "Let's do Nutbush" and I'm like "What's Nutbush?" "It's a Tina Turner's song; you have 30 minutes to learn this!" So I took it outside and I played it and I loved it. Kevin said "Well, listen if you can do it, you do it, if you can't, no worries!". And then I went back in and I was so impressed by the talent of the band, almost intimidating talent that I said to myself, "You have at least to try and fake it," as I did on record (laughs) but in the end I think it turned up OK.
BR - How much becoming spiritual and religious through the years changed your approach in writing music?
BH - I don't call myself Jewish or Catholic or in any other many religion there are; I just believe in God and I hang on to God. I talk a lot to God since I was little; I didn't go too much to church ever in my life, in fact, the times that I would go, would be when there was no one inside; and I love to go in, playing the organ or just sit by myself and talk to God. I do believe in Jesus but I also believe in many other amazing people that had so much love and connection to God but when I pray, I like to pray to Jesus Christ. I don't think though that my way is the only way; I think there is so much out there we don't know or understand that in the end it all comes down to the individual. My way of praying is just mine and I am not expecting that anybody would follow me in that path.
BR - You will be touring Europe in November. Will you perform mostly tracks from your last solo record or also any new songs?
BH - Every time I do a tour, I always make sure that I do one or two songs from my past records; then I would play most of the tracks on my latest record and quite a few from my previous one before the last. On this tour though, we will do most songs from Don't Explain, Seesaw, Bang Bang Boom Boom and then, as I said, one or two from my past records. The reason is I am never sure whether the audience have all got my latest record so I want to ensure that I would be able to play at least some tracks that the audience would certainly know; in this way, everybody would be happy.
BR - Beth, how long does it take for an incredible singer like you to feel the intensity of another artist's song and make it yours, like you beautifully did in Seesaw?
BH - Thank you. I guess I live a lot in the past with music. There is some music now in this generation that I do believe is fantastic and artists I think they are fantastic but in terms of wanting to cover songs, I would go still to Old School tracks. I usually know when I like so much a track that I want to cover if it makes me cry.. or makes me laugh... some kind of emotion that's intense. And I would be able to feel it right away, from the first listen. That does not necessarily mean that I would be able to sing it... like for instance, when I was a young kid, listening to all that Aretha Franklin, Etta James, I NEVER! in a million years thought I would be able ever, to cover those songs, Hell No! I just didn't feel that I could so it was not until now, in my early 40s that I guessed I feel a bit more confident, that I could sing one of those songs and bring my own things to it and feel less insecure about it. Although I still feel very insecure nevertheless.
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato
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Giovanni "Gio" Pilato is an Italian music writer, who has been living in UK since 2002. With an enormous passion for music and life in general, his interest in the communications began at 11 years old. He worked briefly for local radios in his youth and did a one-off radio show on 2007 on the glorious BBC 6Music Radio station. Gio started his freelance journalist career in 2012 with Italian artists and is now focusing on blues artists mainly. He was kind enough to publish his interview with one of the most talented blues/rock artists worldwide, Beth Hart, reporting from Hampton Court Palace in London, earlier this year for the Seesaw Tour.
Read More Bluebirdreviews Article on Beth Hart here:
~And Many Thanks to Deb Hebert, writer, content editor for BBR, and current director of In the Loop Communications for her assistance in coordinating this article.