ON the face of it Beth Hart is the archetypal Californian rock musician.
She was raised in the sun-drenched state during the 1970s on a diet of rock and blues and has that unmistakable West Coast drawl.
Hart has enjoyed plenty of musical highs – she’s had hit records and played alongside guitar heroes like Jeff Beck, Slash and Joe Bonamassa – and also had to endure more than her fair share of personal lows, including battling drug addiction and being diagnosed as bipolar.
To use a well-worn cliché, her life has been something of a rollercoaster ride. Except that’s only part of the story. To begin with it wasn’t the guitar and it wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll that first turned her on to music.
Back in the mid-70s Hart remembers watching TV with her family one night. “There was this commercial for pianos on TV and the music was Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard,” she says.
She loved it so much that from an early age she set her heart on being a musician. Not that she wanted to be the next Joni Mitchell or Janis Joplin.
“I never thought I’d be a singer,” she says. “I thought I’d be a classical pianist or cellist. When I did start singing, I took opera lessons and my teacher was wonderful, but one day she goes, ‘Beth, I don’t think classical is for you, because you like to do your own thing with music.’ That’s when I started putting singing to my own music.”
Today, her music draws inspiration from a broad palette of styles, from jazz and blues, to gospel and grunge.
The Grammy-nominated artist is speaking ahead of the release, on Monday, of her latest album Better Than Home, and her forthcoming UK tour which arrives at the 02 Academy in Leeds next month.
Her story, though, starts amid the bright lights of LA and her attempt to find her voice. “Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, I’m fascinated by them. But then when I heard Robert Plant and Chris Cornell, I couldn’t get over their power. But then Rickie Lee Jones and James Taylor, their voices were so lovely and soft,” she says.
Her eclectic musical background is reflected in the songs she writes which range from sultry blues with jazz influences, to rock tunes and ballads.
However, one legacy from hearing Beethoven’s music that’s never gone away, is her love of the piano. We tend to associate West Coast music with the sound of an electric guitar, but for Hart the songwriting process begins with a piano. “That’s where it starts for me. There’s something about the piano that I find very spiritual, it’s like a church.”
She learned her craft playing for peanuts with fellow musicians in the seedy nightclubs of South Central LA, “the school of hard knocks” as she calls it.
Then in 1993 she accepted a bet from a friend to take part in a TV talent contest in Florida which she ended up winning. “I won a lot of money, more than $100,000,” she says. “Instead of being happy the night I won, I went into total depression. I was so afraid of the pressure.”
Within six months the money was all but spent and Hart began doing a lot of drugs.
At the same time, though, her career was taking off. She signed to Atlantic Records and in 1996 released the album Immortal, which she followed up three years later with Screamin’ For My Supper, which spawned her first hit single, LA Song (Out Of This Town).
However, by this time Hart’s addiction, to klonopin, and her as yet undiagnosed bipolar disorder were taking their toll. In one year she was admitted to five different hospitals as well as spending time in rehab.
The turning point came in 2000 when she spent a night in jail. “After four rehabs, one little night in jail scared the **** out of me. I come from a family of bail bondsmen so I’d seen people going in and out of jail my whole life. So for me to end up there was a real wake-up call. It was like ‘what am I doing with my life?’
“So the next day I called all the pharmacies where I got prescriptions and cancelled them. That was a really big step for me.”
Her recovery was helped by her family and also Scott Guetzkow, her road manager, who she married.
Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder while being a shock was, in a sense, also something of a relief. “Mental illness is tough, the medication doesn’t make it go away – but it does make it better,” she says.
Hart returned in 2003 with her third album, Leave The Light On, and since then has steadily worked her way back.
Ex-Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash performed on her song Sister Heroine and she joined Jeff Beck on stage in a tribute to Buddy Guy. She also collaborated with Joe Bonamassa on two albums, both of which made the top three of the Billboard Blues Albums chart.
In the past, Hart’s songs have been about pain and battling personal demons, but with her new album she has found a way of channelling a sense of hope and optimism into her music.
“It’s different from what I’ve done before and it was scary because I’m used to writing songs where I’m the victim. But it’s shown me a different way of writing and I’d like to do more of this in the future.”
In truth, though, she’s thankful simply to be around. “I’m extremely grateful just to be alive. So to be able to still make music on top of that is a miracle.”
• Beth Hart plays Leeds O2 Academy on May 9. Tickets are priced £23, visit www.o2academyleeds.co.uk.
• Better Than Home is out on Monday.