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Beth Hart On Working With Jeff Beck and Her Upcoming U.S. Tour

Beth Hart
Jeff Katz

Beth Hart is one of those singers you’ve probably heard, even if you’re not aware of it. She’s had a long career that includes an adult contemporary hit titled ‘LA Song (Out of This Town)’, from her critically acclaimed album 1999 album ‘Screamin’ For My Supper,’ as well as a slew of work she’s done with such high-profile artists as Slash, Joe Bonamassa, and Jeff Beck.

Hart gave a breakout performance at the Kennedy Center Honors in Dec. 2012, performing ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ with Beck in tribute to Buddy Guy. Their rendition earned a standing ovation from the assembled crowd, including President Obama and the First Lady. Hart is preparing to release a new album titled ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom’ on April 2, which includes the track from that evening’s performance.  She spoke to Ultimate Classic Rock about working with Beck, her new album, and getting a second chance in America.

How did you meet Jeff Beck?

Years and years ago, my old record company guy from Atlantic turned my manager on to a guy named Alan Callan, and Alan Callan managed Led Zeppelin for a while; you know, he knew Jeff and all of those guys.

I had just finished doing a song on an amazing harmonica player named Toots Thielemans. He’s gotta be in his 80s now, and he’s just fantastic. And I did a song called ‘I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues,’ by Billie Holiday. And Alan Callan, I guess, had given Jeff a copy of the song, and Jeff really enjoyed it very much, and he wanted to write together. So I first went to write with him in England, which was amazing to sit there and just watch him play, like, “Oh, my God.” [Laughs]. It just blew my mind. And he’s just such a kind man.

And then, I think like a month or so later he got a copy of my ‘Live at Paradiso,’ the DVD I did years ago in Holland. And then he called me up and he said, “Hey, I want you to be my singer. I want to go to the States and I want to do a tour, and I’d like you to be the singer.” And I said, “Well, that sounds good to me.” [Laughs].

And then we went out on the road, and God, what a humbling experience to see somebody with that kind of talent, you know? It’s just phenomenal.

You’ve done a lot of work with a diverse group of people, but does it still trip you out to walk into a room and say, “Holy crap, that’s Jeff Beck?”

Absolutely. But you know, that guy is one of the kindest, humblest dudes in the world. So quickly that whole, “Oh my God, I’m in the room with Jeff Beck” goes away. He’s just such a team player in every way, and he’s very, very real. There’s no airs put on in any way. But I still pinch myself, man, when I’m in the room with him. I feel special when I’m in a room with him, for sure.

You had a very big breakout performance at the Kennedy Center Honors. Tell me about the preparations for that and how it came together.

Well, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ was a song I did on an album with Joe Bonamassa called ‘Don’t Explain,’ and I’ve always been such a huge, huge Etta James fan. I went on the road, we toured for that, and then I made my latest record, ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom.’

I was on the road, and I was playing on a TV show in England called ‘Later…with Jools Holland,’ and Jeff came down to support me and watch the show. And we had a good time that night, afterward, and he said, “You know, I might be calling you about something in a couple of weeks, where are you going to be?” And I said, “Well, I’m on the road.” And he said, “Well, just keep your ears open.” And I said, “Okay.”

A couple of weeks went by, and he called me and said, “Hey, they’ve asked me to honor Buddy Guy [pauses] — man, just telling the story, it’s just so rad! [Laughs]. He said, “I’ve been asked to honor Buddy Guy at the Kennedy Center Honors — would you like to do it?” And I’m like, “Yeah! Of course I’d like to do it!”

We went back and forth over which song we would do, and I was really pushing to do ‘I’d Rather Go Blind,’ because I had heard that Buddy really loved Etta. And so we talked to Jeff about it, and we talked to the director of the show, and everyone agreed.

So I was out on the road and singing the song, not every night, but once or twice a week I’d do the song. so I was ready to go, and I was really, really happy and excited.

Were you unusually nervous walking into that?

You know, my personality is a personality where I get really, really nervous and doubtful about almost everything, which is always a work in progress to build up my confidence a little bit more. But it’s a struggle of mine, and when I heard about this, the same thing always happens — this sinking feeling in my stomach. Especially when it’s a great opportunity.

And the next thought I had — I don’t know, it’s really weird, man, how this happened, but the next thought that went through my head — it was like I had a guardian angel on my shoulder or something, that whispered into my ear and said, “Don’t miss enjoying this. Don’t let your nerves take away the incredible experience you’re going to have.”

And then I heard another whisper, and that was, “This is not about you, this is about Buddy Guy, and you’ve gotta do this for him. You’ve gotta come prepared and give all of your love — with Jeff — up for Buddy Guy and what his amazing life contribution to music has been.”

So because of that shift in perspective, I think it really helped me to not feel nervous at all, the whole time I was down there. It was just a pleasure every moment.

What was it like for you when everybody stood up at the end of the performance?

Oh god! When it was over, I took a huge breath and let it out. I don’t even think I saw them. I was just like, “Oh my god, we’re done. It’s over!” And then I looked over and I saw them standing up. But my brain, the way it registers, I never can take the credit for anything, so my thought was, “Yeah, we’re standing up for Buddy Guy.” And it wasn’t until later, when people were saying, “They gave you guys a standing ovation,” that I went, “Oh, okay, maybe part of it was for us, too. I don’t know.” At the time, my head wouldn’t let me go there.

Is it going to be that version of it that’s going on your record?

The version I did with Joe is on a record called ‘Don’t Explain,’ and the version I did at the Kennedy Center Honors, since it seemed to go over so nicely, we thought that we would put it on the ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom’ record. I had recorded the record, I had released it in Europe first, and I was doing press and a tour for it. But we hadn’t yet released it in the States, so we thought, “Why not put it on the one coming out in the States?”

You’ve had a long career already, but this has brought an extraordinary amount of attention to you in a short amount of time here in the States. Does that change your game plan at all?

Oh god, yes! And I have to tell you, I had myself a nice little start-up in the States, and the States were very good to me. However, I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t believe I deserved it. It’s that old cliche, you know; terrified of success, so I’ll burn my house down before you do. And I messed things up pretty good for myself there.

So when I was able to get myself together, I started again, but this time it was in Europe. And it was a very slow process in Europe, to start getting out to all of the countries. It started in Holland. And I remember thinking, whenever my mother or someone would bring up, “Why aren’t you playing in the States?” I would always say,”Well, I screwed things up so bad, so I can’t get another opportunity.” And as the years went by I started to realize that yeah, that was part of it, but I think another part of it was that it was so traumatic for me, what happened with the whole ‘Screamin’ For My Supper’ record in the States back in the late-’90s, that I was afraid to go back into the lion’s den. So I was safe in Europe, because I hadn’t screwed things up there.

And then I started to get frustrated at a certain point, where I was like, “God, I miss the United States so bad.” And I started getting on my manager about, “We’ve got to find a way to somehow try to release a record in the States, try to do some touring, I don’t care if it’s for two people.” And then all of a sudden I get Joe Bonamassa asking me to make this record with him, and the next thing is I was doing a DVD with him in New York, and in the next moment I got a deal for the States with my label that’s with me for Europe, and they decided to get behind me.

And the f—ing Jeff thing happened, where he said, “Come do the Kennedy Center Honors.” So in the course of less than a year, the things that I started to believe — like, yeah, I screwed things up, but I’m a human, and I’m working again, and I love the United States and I want to work there again — as soon as I shifted my head, suddenly the possibilities came my way to open up the door to start working in the States again.

Now, as I’m sitting here talking to you, coming up here in about four weeks I start a real tour of the States, which I haven’t done for ten years, eleven years.

You’re going to be at the Eric Clapton Crossroads Festival. What’s that appearance going to be like?

I don’t know what that’s gonna be. I’ve never done anything like that before. I just know that the two songs I’m going to do with Jeff are probably gonna be ‘I’d Rather Go Blind,’ and the other one we’re gonna do is ‘Going Down.’

What else have you got coming up?

I just finished another record with Joe Bonamassa, it’s like a ‘Don’t Explain’ No. 2. That’s gonna be coming out in about three months or so. Two months, something like that. So I’m really excited about that, because it’s another thing with [producer] Kevin Shirley. This is the third thing I’ve done with Kevin. And I think it’s really fantastic. I’m really hoping that it’ll get a shot.

What can I say? I’m really excited about playing the States again. I’m starving for it.

Next: Beth Hart and Jeff Beck Perform 'I'd Rather Go Blind'

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