FINDING VOICE IN HEALING
Singer-songwriter Beth Hart has had a lifetime of pain to draw on for her music but she still finds things that she can be, and is, thankful for
Here’s a way you weren’t expecting a Beth Hart album to start. With the lines: I woke up this morning/With a smile on my face.
It is a bright, hopeful R&B song, with Hart’s gritty voice singing about handling the dark times and coming out the other side. The song is called Might As Well Smile and, for those who have followed the highs and lows of the American singer-songwriter’s career, it is a sign of good things to come. It wasn’t easy for her to write.
“I was challenged by my therapist who said, ‘You’ve used music since you were a little girl to try and heal your wounds and confusion. Try writing from a place where you aren’t lost, confused, sad, lonely, but where you are happy and free’.”
She gives a laugh that’s as big as her singing voice: “I thought that was the worst idea I had ever heard! Why would I sit down and write about happiness when I would rather just be experiencing the happiness? But it was an interesting challenge and it was fun to write like that, an uplifting song but not in a corny or cheesy way.”
That’s just one side to Hart’s Better Than Home, one of the strongest albums she has recorded in a 20-year career. There is hurt and heartbreak, there has to be with a voice such as Hart’s, and it has never been in better shape as she delivers songs such as Tell ’Em To Hold On. It’s the kind of gospel-soul tune that could have appeared on one of Joe Cocker’s classic early albums.
There is plenty of strength and healing in these songs too. But if the listener hears pain in Hart’s voice, she’s speaking from experience.
At 20 she lost a sister to complications from AIDS and descended into her own battle with booze, drugs, bad relationships and, eventually, her diagnosis with bipolar disorder.
“I had my first taste of real success when I was in my 20s, with Atlantic Records. I wasn’t being medicated properly for my disorder and I went out of my mind. The crush took my brain to a whole new place and I took abusing drugs and alcohol to a whole new place. Of course that didn’t work, it was either make a change or die.’’
While on tour she met drum technician Scott Guetzkow, who became her husband and the rock behind her recovery, which included a year when she couldn’t face leaving her house, let alone making music. “He was so loving and beautiful. There was no way I would have opted for getting help. I think I would have just, you know, let my life go. But I did choose to fight back and that was a direct result of my husband.”
While the road has been the downfall for many musicians, that’s not so for Hart.
“Doing a lot of exercise, that’s good for my brain chemistry. If I’m on the road I don’t have a choice with that. I have to do the show. All that adrenaline and sweat and getting the heart rate up, doing something I love with my friends, that’s really healing.”
The new album includes some of Hart’s most fiery vocal performances and none better than Tell Her You Belong To Me, which could be a song to an unfaithful lover but is inspired by Hart’s relationship with her father at a point where his then-wife wouldn’t let her close to him.
Hart likes the sound of her voice on a record. “When I was younger I liked the way it felt in my chest, particularly when I sang very loud. If felt like I was getting everything out, the good, the bad, everything in between. In my late 30s I started finding a different voice that wasn’t about yelling or screaming; it was a lower tone. When I found that tone was the first time I enjoyed being in a studio. Before that I hated my voice so much I couldn’t stand to be in there.”
That’s the voice you hear on her collaboration albums with blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa and with Better Than Home. It’s the voice of a survivor.
“These things don’t go away; I will always have bipolar disorder but I have so many wonderful moments in my life. When I wake up, one of the first things I do is thank God I’m alive.”
Beth Hart has credited love for helping her overcome issues with alcohol and drugs.