Beth Hart is on fire. Right now, the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter is riding a creative tidal wave, firing out acclaimed albums, hooking up with the biggest names in music and rocking the house each night with that celebrated burnt-honey voice. In 2016, the headline news is Beths latest album, Fire On The Floor, a release that even this fiercely self-critical artist describes as pretty frickin good. But lets not forget the backstory that brought her here
The Blues Magazine once dubbed Beth Hart the ultimate female rock star, and theres no doubt that her two-decade career is the ultimate thrill-ride. Born in Los Angeles, she released a fistful of hit albums through the 90s, then reignited in the post-millennium as both a solo artist and the head-turning vocalist for guitar heroes like Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Beck and Slash. Extraordinary, wrote The Times of her once-a-generation voice box, while The Guardian praised her daring, brooding and angry performances.
But its in recent times that Beth has truly blossomed. In April 2015, she released Better Than Home, a critical and commercial smash that topped the iTunes Blues Chart and was crowned #4 Best Blues Album Of The Year by Mojo magazine. The release also reached #1 in the Dutch charts and helped Beth to fill Amsterdams Heineken Music Hall with 5,500 fans (her largest club show to date). Oh, that was so good, man, she reflects. I love Holland. Theyve been really good to me.
The US market has embraced her, too, with Beth packing ever-larger venues in major cities on the Better Than Home tour including Nashvilles iconic Ryman Auditorium and receiving a nomination from the American Blues Foundation in the category of Contemporary Blues Female Artist. Its unbelievable, she admits. This last tour, we were playing much bigger houses than Id ever played in the States and they were sold-out.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, Beths rocketing UK profile has never been higher. Recent years have seen auspicious headline sets at the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican (not to mention the historic Hampton Court Palace with Joe Bonamassa), and in December 2015, she chalked up another first with a spot on Jools Hollands legendary annual Hootenanny.
Bringing in the New Year with a soulful take on Tell Her You Belong To Me and Nutbush City Limits alongside long-time collaborator Jeff Beck, it spoke volumes that the pairs performance rapidly became the Hootenannys most-watched clip on the BBCs official YouTube channel (even overtaking heavyweights like Tom Jones and Paul Weller). Every time Jeff performs, he just kills it, gushes Beth, who also joins the veteran guitarist for her first-ever appearance at the Hollywood Bowl this year. To me, hes the greatest ever.
Just as memorable, also last December, was Beths first solo gig at Londons Union Chapel (subsequently voted by fans as the venues gig of the year). It was the most terrifying experience of my entire life, she admits. I got up there and I was so frickin scared. But then, halfway through the show, I just started to enjoy it. By the end, I felt so connected to the audience, and I really felt like they did that show with me. It was like we were all the band.
A highlight of that Union Chapel show was a heartfelt rendition of Mama This Ones For You (included on Better Than Home as a bonus track). The audiences reaction lit a lightbulb, and in early 2016, the singer announced a contest inviting fans to submit footage of themselves with their mothers, for inclusion in a special Mama video released for Mothers Day. I cried when I saw the edited version for the first time, Beth recalls. I love my own mom more than anything in the world, and I found it so touching and beautiful.
Beths passion for collaboration also continues apace in 2016. On the heels of 2011s Dont Explain and 2013s Grammy-nominated Seesaw, therell be another studio hook-up between the singer and blues titan Joe Bonamassa, with sessions set for August. Im really interested in us doing stuff from the 40s and 50s, she reveals. Rock 'n roll, torch songs and jazz songs
For now, though, Beths focus is Fire On The Floor: a new studio album sure to build on her breakneck momentum. As the singer explains, this latest record gave her an emotional release following the bitter-sweet sessions for Better Than Home. If theres a theme that ties these twelve songs together, its a sense of escapism following the hardest of times. We were still in the mixing stages for that album and I knew I had to make another record. Making Better Than Home was so painful, because one of the producers, Michael Stevens, was dying of cancer. It was a very emotional record to write and to make. I wanted the songs for Fire On The Floor to get born real quick.
Beths first call was to the acclaimed producer Oliver Leiber, who called a session at his home studio in Toluca Lake and drafted a crack studio band that included Michael Landau (guitar), Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Brian Allen (bass), Rick Marotta (drums), Jim Cox (piano), Dean Parks (acoustic guitar) and Ivan Neville (B3 and organ). Oliver rounded up some amazing musicians, nods Beth. Michael Landau and Waddy Wachtel are legends, so when I found out we had them, I just couldnt believe it. If you dont have great musicians, youre not gonna have a very good record, are you?
We recorded sixteen songs in three days, continues Beth of the quick fire LA sessions, but then we spent a long time mixing. Oliver is a brutally hard-working person, but hes also incredibly sensitive and that combination works so great. Hes strong and focused, but still so vulnerable, and his heart is wide open. Im so proud of what he did on this record.
Take a spin of Fire On The Floor and youll see exactly why. These twelve new songs run the gamut of genre, reflecting Beths eclectic teenage influences, which took in everything from gospel, soul and classical to the seismic rock of Soundgarden. As a writer, she nods, I feel really stifled if Im trying to write in the same style. I just cant do that. Growing up as a kid, I was raised all over the place stylistically, loving so many different genres.
As such, youll find everything from the spring-heeled soul of Lets Get Together to the brittle rock of Fat Man. I love that song, she says of the latter. Thats actually a co-write with a wonderful songwriter named Glen Burtnik, who I started writing with when I was about 24. We wrote that seven years ago just a basic skeleton but then I got super-inspired and wrote out the lyric. It feels good to sing it. Thats whats so great about rock 'n roll. Its just such a fantastic way to let out your angst.
Likewise, the title track: I love Fire On The Floor. Its just smoldering. I think its gonna be a fantastic piece to perform live. Its filled with passion. Its about when someone you know is so bad for you, but you cant help it. Then theres No Place Like Home. I love that song. Its about how, like, you spend a lot of time on the road, and you start to realize all the great things about being home. Kinda the opposite to the song Better Than Home.
Other upbeat highlights include the salsa-tinged Baby Shot Me Down and the jazz-inflected Coca Cola, with a vocal that reminds you why Beth was recently voted as the 20th best blues singer of all-time in The Blues. Vocally, that one takes me back to a Billie Holiday kinda singing, she reflects. I love that kind of vibe, like a light, fun sexiness.
By contrast, there are some songs that Beth had to wrench from the emotional depths. Picture In A Frame is a big one for me, she says. When I started writing it, I was thinking about being in love with my husband. But when I was done, I could see that I really connected it with Michael Stevens, and it was my way of saying to him, yknow, 'I just want you to be better.
Despite all the emotionally bare moments, for Beth, this record represents a catharsis. I think Better Than Home is one of the best records Ive ever done, she says, but it was a brutal experience. Fire On The Floor has more energy and I think, overall, its just got more balls. And I think I really needed that, just to balance out that heavier mood on Better Than Home.
Fire On The Floor is the album that Beth Hart needed to make. Likewise, its a record that you need to hear. Im so pleased with it, she concludes. I recently had to organize the sequence of the record, and while I was doing that, I was thinking to myself, 'Yknow, this is pretty frickin good!