“Drug addiction wasn’t just affecting my music. It was destroying my body, my soul. It was ripping apart my relationships.”
Los Angeles singer/songwriter, Beth Hart, releases her latest album, Better Than Home, on April 10, and will perform at West Coast Blues N’ Roots this Sunday, March 29. ADAM MORRIS reports.
For someone who has been living the beguiling life of a muso for over 20 years now – with all the usual rewards and several of the particular lows – Beth Hart is one of the most open and enthusiastic speakers you can imagine.
Her reflections on her career and the hurdles of bipolar disorder are told with campfire ease, as though she is excitedly speaking of them for the first time. She and her band are coming back to Australia for Bluesfest and West Coast Blues N’ Roots and this storytelling virtue will serve her well. As Hart has found in the past, each performance needs a character of its own.
“I love the internet,” the Californian laughs, her accent touched with a slight huskiness. “Because when you’re coming to their town, people can really let you know what songs they want to hear. And that’s why I have my band learn so many songs. I have a new drummer that I’m breaking in, he’s learned 54 songs for the road! But I do very much cater the show to each town. There are certain songs that I’ll have in each show, but every show is going to be tailored to the territory. Like in France, I know they like more jazz. They also love rock’n’roll, which are two genres so far apart, but that’s what they like and I play it while I’m there.
“That’s what I love about touring so much – you really get an awareness of where you are and what they like. It makes it fun, but it also makes it challenging for us as a band, because you have to stay on top of all the material. It never makes for the same day twice, and that’s what I just love about it.”
Hart’s debut, Beth Hart And The Ocean Of Souls, was released back in 1993, but it wasn’t until 1999’s LA Song (Out Of This Town) that she found her breakthrough. A song that charted a dark and distressing time in Hart’s life, it has remained a fixture in her set over the years, yet its power has not diminished for her audiences, or for Hart herself.
“I never have to tap into a song. I think it’s because when I write this stuff, I’m so emotional at the time. I can’t write when I’m light-hearted or in some middle ground where things are just drifting along. I don’t like when I’m in that place. But if I’m really emotional, I need to get something out – and it could be being emotional over something that’s joyous or funny, or something that’s more of a struggle. And when I do that, it just gets cemented into my memory and forges some connection straight to my heart.
LA Song, when I play it live, it’s like I just wrote it. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you go through traumatic events – even though you get through them, those ghosts never go away. They’re still set in your heart, and it’s hard to let go. Now I’m starting to think it isn’t even about letting go. It’s more about making friends with it, with having compassion and finding the lesson in it. The strength you’ll get from going through it.”
There are ghosts that can never be exorcised, whose presence in our lives is the shade we can never quite escape. As Hart suggests, learning to live with these memories can be one of the most difficult and despairing tasks a person finds themselves faced with, though the understanding that comes with survival is profound. For Hart the dangers were never just emotional, but a genuine mortal threat.
“Drug addiction wasn’t just affecting my music. It was destroying my body, my soul. It was ripping apart my relationships. I was around 12 when I started. I was what you’d call periodic. I’d go months without touching anything, and then I’d go on a bender for three or four days – which is seriously dangerous, but it seemed to be working for me at the time. I seemed to be able to keep going, get my career happening, find a manager, putting bands together, writing music, all that stuff. But then, when I was around 26, on my second record I had a hit. And when that happened, it made my bipolar go out of control, because I’d never felt such overwhelming anxiety and panic, and I just wasn’t right. I started drinking every day. And then I was taking pills.
“Life is so much better now, but I still have my struggles. Back then I was skin and bone, my hair was falling out. I was so far gone I wasn’t making good decisions. But one of the most beautiful things that happened – and this is why I disclose my drug addiction and my bipolar – is though it’s not a good thing to experience, I found the gratitude in it. And the gratitude was that I had to reach out for help, and want, more than anything, to change my life. So I’m really grateful for everything I’ve been through, for those times I’ve survived. I get to be alive today. I’m 43 years old, and it was stacked against me that I’d ever make it past 30. Here I am, and I’m so thankful for that.”