Beth Hart's Advice To Fellow Musicians: 'We Have The Right To Say No'

Feb 21, 2017
Originally published on February 21, 2017 8:09 pm

Beth Hart just released her ninth album, Fire On The Floor. It exemplifies her signature, raw, bluesy storytelling about women down and out, surviving and taking control. But Hart, 45, says that when she was younger, she herself wasn't in control. She started drinking and doing drugs as a preteen; that exploded into full-blown addiction after she launched her career from the Los Angeles rock scene in the '90s.

"With [my] second record, Screamin' For My Supper, there was pressure," Hart tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "I was getting calls, and I guess 'LA Song' was doing super good. We were doing lots of music videos and all these things. So that really triggered me, and that's when the things the I'd kept kind of in control — they say 'functioning alcoholic,' a 'functioning addict' — all of a sudden, I couldn't function anymore. It was daily drug-taking, daily drinking and starving to the point where I was just skin and bones and my hair was falling out."

Hart says "LA Song" wasn't as massive a hit as "Back To Black" was for Amy Winehouse, another star who famously battled addiction. If her song had been that big, she says, Atlantic Records wouldn't have dropped her or taken her off the road. She believes that's part of the reason she survived.

"People who do care about you and love you — even they can be in total denial and are saying to themselves, 'Look at all these great opportunities around you! Look at all this that's happening! You're strong enough, you're stronger than what you think.' Instead, you're not hearing me when I say, 'That's too much for me,' " Hart says. "So it's a majorly important thing for young artists, as well as older artists like myself, to know that not only do we have the right to say no, but if we don't say no, we're gonna die."

These days, mainstream artists are becoming more public about their mental health struggles. Kendrick Lamar has talked about depression, and Selena Gomez took some time off last year, saying she just needed a break. But it's taken a long time to get to this point, and Hart says that the public stigma attached to mental illness is the reason the music industry has had trouble addressing it.

"You're in a business where you're taught that your image and the way people perceive you is important," she says. "But at some point, you realize it's not important at all. Fame doesn't matter, people approving of you doesn't matter. And if it does matter, you're in store for something very difficult and painful."

Hart is healthy now, and says she's focused on the challenge of songwriting, singing and performing, as well as setting boundaries with her label and management.

"Something I would stress the most to any artist is number one, don't ever allow success [to] determine your worth as an artist or as a person," she says. "And number two, do it because you love it. Don't do it for the applause or anything else, just do it because you love it. 'Cause it really is a gift to enjoy, it's nothing to prove. And you have a lifetime to learn and grow and search in music. It's not a business, it's just something to enjoy and love and have a good time in."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The I've-been-on-the-road-too-long song is a staple of rock and blues. But after two decades in the business, singer Beth Hart's voice tells you she's earned it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO PLACE LIKE HOME")

BETH HART: (Singing) It's been a long time on the road without a soul to call my own. I'm tired of talking to the cars. I miss the flowers in the yard.

It's interesting. As a kid, I hated home, and I just wanted so much to learn or do something that could take me away and keep me away forever. And then I got blessed to get to make music and meet people who wanted to work with me. And then the next thing I knew, I was on the road, and I was gone. And I was away from where I was trying to get away from.

And the (laughter) beautiful irony is now I just want to be home. You know, I want to cook for my husband, and I want to visit my mom and have friends over at the house. And you know - and I love the garden, and I love my dog. And so it's just - it's so funny how the place I tried to get away from my whole life now I miss so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO PLACE LIKE HOME")

HART: (Singing) There's no place I'd rather be than home.

CORNISH: Beth Hart just released her ninth album, "Fire On The Floor." And it's her signature, raw, bluesy storytelling about women down and out, surviving and taking control.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS A LIE")

HART: (Singing) Love is a lie. Love is a lie. Love is a lie, and I know I'm going down.

CORNISH: Beth Hart says as a kid, she wasn't in control. She started drinking and doing drugs as a preteen. That exploded into a full-blown addiction when she launched her career from the LA rock scene in the '90s.

HART: When I got with Atlantic Records, my first record with them didn't do anything, so there was no pressure. But with the second record, "I'm Screamin' For My Supper," (ph) there was pressure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "L.A. SONG - OUT OF THIS TOWN")

HART: (Singing) She hangs around the boulevard. She's a local girl with local scars. She got home late. She got home late. She drank so hard the bottle ached.

I was getting calls. And I guess one of the songs, "L.A. Song," was doing, like, super good. And we were doing lots of music videos and all these things. And so that really triggered me. And that's when the things that I'd kept kind of in control, like what - like they say, a functioning alcoholic, a functioning addict. And then all of a sudden, I couldn't function anymore. It was daily drug taking, daily drinking and starving to the point where I was just skin and bones and my hair was falling out.

CORNISH: Right. This was back in 1999.

HART: Yes. If "Screamin' For My Supper," which was my second record with them - it had a little hit song "L.A. Song." But it wasn't massive like "Back To Black" was for Amy Winehouse. And I think that if it had been, they would not have dropped me. And they would have not have taken me off the road. They were part of the reason why I survived it.

CORNISH: I guess what I'm trying to understand is, for those of us who hear these stories, one of the things that's hard to understand is how, like, managers and people around you kind of keep going, (laughter) you know what I mean - like, how somebody could kind of get into, like, repeated situations and no one says, hey, let's stop.

HART: It's so powerful what you just said. I mean it's so - you're the first person in interviews that have ever said that to me. And it's so the heart of it because when people around you - your family, the people in the business, people who do care about you and love you - even they can be in total denial and are saying to themselves, look at all these great opportunities around you. Look at all this that's happening. You're strong enough. You're stronger than what you think.

Instead, you're not hearing me when I say, that's too much for me. And I'm waving a flag. And I'm saying, stop. I have to stop. Instead, you're saying, I'm stronger than what I think for you to feel OK about pushing the envelope and having me work harder. So it's a majorly important thing for young artists as well as older artists like myself to know that not only do we have the right to say no, but if we don't say no, we're going to die.

CORNISH: These days, even mainstream artists are more public about their struggles. And we're not just talking about drugs and alcohol. Rapper Kendrick Lamar has talked about depression. Pop star Selena Gomez took some time off last year, saying she just needed a break. I asked Beth Hart why she thinks it's taken so long to get to this point.

HART: Oh, I mean the obvious. There's stigmas attached to mental illness. There's stigmas attached to anything that makes you in the public's eye seem weak. So of course, you know, you're in a business where your image and the way people perceive you you are taught is important.

But at some point, you realize it's not important at all. Fame doesn't matter. People approving of you doesn't matter. And if it does matter, you're in store for something very difficult and painful.

CORNISH: Beth Hart, you've been healthy, we're happy to say. And you - as you spoke about going to therapy (laughter) earlier, you're taking care of yourself. Do you still find that you are dealing with this struggle in your music?

HART: I don't feel like I'm dealing with the struggle in music actually at all anymore. And it's because I don't take it so serious anymore.

CORNISH: That must be nice, freeing.

HART: It's wonderful and freeing. What I do is I really enjoy and appreciate the challenge of songwriting and singing and performing and just being really, really grateful at all times. Also, I have no fear or problems with saying no and setting boundaries, you know, with the label, with my management. For instance, you know, when I do promo, I never do it while I'm actually doing show tours.

CORNISH: So these are kind of promotional interviews, a little bit like this one now, (laughter) right?

HART: Exactly, yeah. I'll have the week set up for just promo for a record, and then I'll have, you know, my months set up where I'll go out and tour. And I tour about seven, eight months out of the year every year. So I'm always, always out touring. But now it's just pretty easy, you know?

But I'm also - I'm going to be 45 this month, so I've had a lot of years to learn how to do it, learn how to relax into it. So I'm fortunate. I think, you know, it's really hard when you're young and you're getting into this business. It's really, really hard to think that you have any rights to say no.

So that would be something I would stress the most to any artist - is, number one, don't ever allow, you know, success or whatever you want to call it to determine your worth as an artist or as a person. That's number one. And number two, do it because you love it. Don't do it for the applause or anything else. Just do it because you love it because it really is a gift to enjoy. It's nothing to prove. And you have a lifetime to learn and grow and search, you know, in music. But music is just - it's not a business. It's just something to enjoy and love and have a good time in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE ON THE FLOOR")

HART: (Singing) His love is like fire on the floor. It's got me running for the door. But I'll be crawling back for more of his fire on the floor.

CORNISH: Singer and songwriter Beth Hart, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HART: You're so welcome. Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: Beth Hart - her latest album is "Fire On The Floor."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE ON THE FLOOR")

HART: (Singing) So tonight I'm going to stay and play with his fire on the floor. I'm going to play with his fire on the floor, child. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.