Music Matters: Surviving to Sing

, one of music’s most powerful voices, defines the word survivor.

Beth Hart appears March 2nd and 3rd at The Birchmere (photo by Greg Watterman)

Beth Hart appears March 2nd and 3rd at The Birchmere. (Photo by Greg Watterman)

“POUR ME A DREAM/AND PLAY ME A TUNE/AND I’LL GET ALONG/JUST AS LONG AS I HAVE A SONG”

You might say having a song saved Beth Hart‘s life. Sure, there were other things that brought her back, but it was always the music that steered Beth Hart home, gave her a purpose, a second (maybe even a third) chance. Music has constantly beckoned her from the edge of disaster.

Hart’s new record, “Better Than Home,” due in mid-April is different than her past records. Here, she was challenged to really open up, to put aside more broad landscapes and some of her trademark blues riffs and speak honestly about the hardest and most joyful things in her life. And given how the album sounds, pouring her heart out just might have injected a once monstrously promising career with real promise again.

“It’s good to tell the truth, and to search for it and to try and find it and open up I guess,” Hart says with her typical candor. “That’s what the challenge was, and I think there was some good healing in that. So hopefully, other people will feel the same.”

After years battling demons that surely would have conquered others, Beth Hart is the quintessential survivor. She has been in the depths of despair, but luckily for her family and fans, she came out on the other side. But it wasn’t easy. Once a promising talent looking at a future paved with almost certain success, she found herself beaten down by addiction and alcohol, but it wasn’t the same old story of a rock and roll lifestyle bringing her down. It was the destructive habits that were fostered early as a result of untreated childhood mental illness that started her on a devastating path.

“I wish I could say it was part of the [rock music] culture,” the affable Hart said recently as she was preparing for a tour that will bring her to The Birchmere on March 2 and 3. “But the honest truth is that I have an illness. I’ve had it since I was a really young kid. And I didn’t come up in a family where anyone believed in taking medication from a doctor. So I started self-medicating at 11.I had to take something, so I found different types of drugs that I liked and alcohol and I also found an eating disorder that helped me numb out, and then being with men that were really really abusive. All different ways that I kinda found to numb my head.”

Given her raw, natural talent, Hart was able to plow her way through the morass of addiction and self-release her first record in 1993, the same year she won a nationwide Star Search competition. She was signed by Atlantic Records and put out two albums before the floor gave out beneath her, for the first time. It was the pressure that comes with the territory that made her unable to face impending fame, a pattern that would follow her for years.

“I’ll never forget when Atlantic Records sat me down and they told me, hey, [“Screaming for My Supper”] is one of the best records anyone’s turned in to this label,” Hart said. “You’re gonna be a star this year. We’re gonna take this record and shove it down everybody’s throat; get ready. And I remember, thinking in that moment like it was yesterday, that it was not a good thing. It was a horrible thing being terrified. I mean, I knew I couldn’t be f–ked up all the time and work on music. I think what happened was I had never had that amount of pressure on me, so it made my mental illness go through the roof, full blown manic. I take medication for my illness today, but everything I’m on is completely non-addictive, it has to be because when you have chemical imbalance you cannot take stuff that’s addicting because it throws your chemistry out even more in your brain. But back then, I got ahold of something that made me really high, and yeah, it calmed my mania, but it was highly addictive and I just went out of my mind.”

Atlantic then chose to let Hart go. Whether it was an act of kindness, or to dodge a bullet she’s not really sure, but she’d like to think it was the former. “They said buh bye, you’re outta here. You’re gonna die and we’re not gonna stand by. And maybe the honest to God reason is I didn’t sell enough records and they thought, screw this girl. But I think there was a bit of real compassion there, I really do.”

After getting cut loose, Hart desperately tried to get help, but nothing really worked. Her ongoing odyssey and struggles included spending a night in jail, and Hart thought this was the wake-up call she needed.

“I did go through a handful of rehabs, a handful of psych wards,” Hart said, “but nothing was really helping. I totally denied being bipolar. I denied taking the medication and then I ended up in jail for a night. My brother’s ex-girlfriend came to bail me out. I’ll never forget walking out, and she looked me up and down, and she said, ‘Oh my God, what happened to you?’ And that was it. It was really amazing. It just like scared me straight. Something clicked, for a minute at least.”

Hart was able to get it together enough to wrangle her career seemingly back on track and put out another record, “Leave the Light On” in 2003, even discovering some new found fame abroad in countries like New Zealand and Holland, where she became a cult favorite thanks to her album and subsequent concert DVD. But because of the haunting medication issues, she never felt quite right. She remained on edge and was just not herself, and eventually the ever-present demons that thrive on pressure cascaded down upon her. After she made her next record “37 Days” in 2007, the bottom fell out once again.

“After five years, five months and six days of being sober, “Hart said, “I lost my mind completely and went back in the hospital. This time was the worst, and my illness came back full blast. That was actually a great gift when it happened, because I was, for the first time, confronted with [the fact that] this isn’t about being an alcoholic, or drug addict. Dude, this is about being mentally ill.”

Hart survived the hospital stay, but she was still not right. “I get out, I’m on all this medicine they got me on and that’s actually really making me nuts,” Hart said. “And I had to tour in two weeks. I couldn’t remember how to play the piano at all. I couldn’t remember one thing and I got hundreds of songs in my head. I couldn’t do one thing.”

Hart seemed like she was on her last legs. But life can often turn for the better with one serendipitous move, and that move happened and no doubt saved her life.

“My psychologist that I’d been with for so many years said to me, ‘I want to turn you to someone that’ll get you straightened out I think,'” Hart said. “This guy just hit it out of the ball park, like unbelievable. He put me on something and my whole life began to change. Because once the medicine helped with the mania and slowed me down,I started being able to focus on how I wanted things to shift out and change in my career, and I was able to look at things that I could have never, ever done before because it would’ve caused me so much anxiety. Before, just the pressure of doing a show and making an album was intense. Now, that became easy and then I could take on things that were really important.”

Since coming back from the brink, a few times actually, Hart has thrived. A succession of collaborations with bluesman reignited her passion and introduced her to his already established audience. And in 2012, she got the offer of a lifetime when old friend Jeff Beck asked her to join him for a song honoring at the Kennedy Center Honors. Before, this might have been too much to handle, but not now. Hart nailed a powerful rendition of one of her favorite songs, Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” in front of not only Guy, but members of Led Zeppelin and the President and First Lady. It was as if the unrealized promise of years past had coalesced onstage.

“In my heart I felt like myself, instead of having that dread that I’ve always had over every fricking opportunity ever,”Hart rejoiced. “I just felt so excited and happy.”

Hart’s new record “Better Than Home” seems like the perfect album at the perfect time. A chance to confront the past head on, while knowing the worst is behind her. But it wasn’t easy to open herself up and let those demons dance around her head for awhile. “I really resisted, because those types of songs, it’s just more painful,” said Hart. “You just gotta dig harder to get into that stuff, but I did it anyway. It’s a very narrative record about life, survival, family, marriage, love and fear – all of it. It’s just kinda what things have been like for me in these last handful of years; it’s very personal. But I just said I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna go for it.”

And go for it, she did. With a new album, a new home and a new lease on life, Beth Hart has been to hell. But she’s back and appears better than ever. And given her kind soul, she wants her story to resonate with others who, like she did for so long, may feel lost and unsure of how to climb out of the darkness.

“When you’ve had an opportunity in your life to have struggled so horribly and then to have found a new way to live that really has helped you enjoy your lifeand not live in absolute terror and shame all the time, you wanna talk about it,” says Hart. “You know that you’re not the only one, but it’s so great and exciting to talk about, because you want to get it out there to people.”

Beth Hart performs March 2 and 3 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA. Tickets are available for both days here and here

Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.

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