Beth Hart is talking standards. Not necessarily the pages from the Great American Songbook she sings in her usual set (there aren't many), just the songs she “absolutely adores.” One is Cole Porter's “I've Still Got My Health,” recorded by Peggy Lee and Bette Midler, among others. She likes a lot of Sinatra, too.
“One of my favorites from Ella Fitzgerald is called 'Lullaby of the Leaves'; I think that's brilliant,” says Hart while on a break between studio sessions in her lifelong home of L.A. “'Summertime,' brilliant. 'Good Morning Heartache,' amazing. There's a lot of great standards that I love.”
Hart says she considers Otis Redding's “I've Been Loving You Too Long” and Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come” to be in that category, and we're certainly not going to argue. Today the 42-year-old singer and songwriter is arguably best known for her performance of another R&B standard of a similar vintage, Etta James' signature 1967 tearjerker “I'd Rather Go Blind.” Rock guitarist Jeff Beck asked Hart, who had once toured as the ex-Yardbird's featured vocalist, to be part of the tribute he was putting together for Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy for the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors. She suggested “I'd Rather Go Blind,” which Hart had recorded with contemporary blues-guitar badass Joe Bonnamassa on their 2011 album Don't Explain. She killed it, and watched as her career got bumped to a different level practically overnight.
“I noticed my manager and agent were definitely getting more calls from different parts of the world to come play, that I hadn't played before,” Hart says. “The audience here in the United States definitely grew. It was a wonderful thing. It was surprising. I didn't know that a show like that could be so effective, but I guess television, you know, it's a huge medium. I'm very thankful for that.”
Her performance also impressed the Honors' producer, Michael Stevens, and musical director Rob Landes, so much that the two men wound up co-producing Hart's latest album, April's Better Than Home. Her eighth studio album dating back to 1993's self-titled set with Hart's band at the time, the Ocean of Souls, Better Than Home alternates brassy, R&B-inspired cuts like “Might As Well Smile,” “Trouble” and "The Mood I'm In" with quieter, torchy songs like “Tell Her You Belong to Me” and “As Long As I Have a Song.” Hart says she turned in more than 40 songs to her producers, ranging from songs she wrote five or six years ago that have been in her live set for a while to relatively recent tunes like “Mechanical Heart” and the title track. Though she professes to love them all, Hart says two are especially close to her heart (no pun intended).
“[There's] 'Tell Her You Belong to Me,' which I wrote for my father, and 'As Long as I Have a Song,' which was the first time I had written about my need and joy of songwriting,” Hart says. “Really, my need, and my fear of it going into writer's block. And I'd never written about that fear. So that was a neat thing, to be able to have that. And I think it's a beautiful song.”
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Intriguingly, especially after the Kennedy Center broadcast, Hart is easily one of the best-known female singers working within the territory of blues, soul and classic R&B. The only issue is she doesn't particularly think of herself that way.
“Ever since I did the two blues/soul cover records with Joe [Bonnamassa] and then the “I'd Rather Go Blind” performance I've gotten so many interviews where they talk about 'blues singer,' and it's a compliment for sure, but I don't really consider myself that,” Hart professes.
Regardless of the tempo or mood of the songs on Better Than Home, nearly every one has a moment where Hart shows how and why people ask like Jeff Beck her to sing standards like “I'd Rather Go Blind,” physically and emotionally demanding songs that can be a proving ground for singers by separating those with the gift from the pretenders. Hart doesn't just sing from her gut, but somewhere beneath even that...way deep down. When she's getting ready to hit one of those notes that stretches her vocal chords to the limits, Hart says she tries to remember a trick she learned listening to Jimi Hendrix's late drummer Buddy Miles, also a vocalist and songwriter whose “Miss Lady” she and Bonnamassa covered on See Saw, 2013's sequel to Don't Explain.
“It was funny, I could hear what he was doing,” reflects Hart. “So just by repetition of doing it, I learned a new way to scream that's actually not a scream at all, but it sounds like a scream. So sometimes when I'm doing a song and I want to do that sound but I don't want to fuck up my throat, I'll do that now, and it's been really helpful.”
Beth Hart performs with special guest Matt Anderson Saturday night at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Doors open at 7 p.m.