Beth Hart on why the piano is personal

Our interview with firey Nashville-based singer, songwriter, and pianist Beth Hart.

During her two sold-out shows at Nashville’s “3rd and Lindsley” nightclub in March, Beth Hart was a whirlwind onstage, almost too explosive to be confined within the venue’s walls. Pain, humor, physical yearning, ecstasy, and a bit of sweetness spilled from her vocals in a passionate tumble.

As Hart started one particular song, eyes closed, she dug deep into her well of heartache to sing, “If I ever leave you, baby …" Then, there was a second of silence silence, her eyes opened, and a sheepish look crossed her face. “Oh, f*ck, I forgot the lyrics,” she announced.

Toward the end of the show, obviously supercharged with the night’s energy, she counted off a song and then suddenly waved her arms, stopping it. “Wow,” she said. “I started that really fast!” Looking apologetically toward her musicians, she goggled as if seeing them for the first time and marveled, “You guys look really handsome!”

This sort of spontaneity is catnip for Hart’s fans. In Europe, she draws thousands to major arenas. Plenty of Americans have been following her too, ever since she blew the roof off of Star Search as a contestant twenty years ago. Fans celebrated the Beth Hart Band’s signature hit “L.A. Song (Out of This Town)” in 2000 and stayed loyal during her dark period of drug addiction and a stretch in prison.

And now Hart is reclaiming the spotlight with a new full-length, Better Than Home. Released this past April, the album approximates the variety and honesty of her live sets. Just as important, it interlaces high-impact, soul-drenched band tracks with a few disarmingly intimate pieces, where Hart accompanies herself on piano.

In these moments, Hart reveals that even with her riveting vocals, the piano is just as important a part of her artistry. “It’s everything to me,” she insists in the 3rd and Lindsley green room, between intense drags on a cigarette—her one remaining indulgence. “The thing is, I’m not really a great pianist at all. But if God said I could either sing or play piano, and which would it be? I would definitely choose the piano.”

Her conviction is rooted as much in personal history as musical expression. “The piano represents home to me. It represents a place where I can heal—the sound of it, the feel of it, the way it looks. Honestly, before my family started to go through problems when I was a kid, it was an amazing family, and the piano represents the continuance of that dream.”

Hart has often told the story of how her parents noticed her talent when she played the Moonlight Sonata for them at age four. “When that happened, they got excited and immediately put me in piano lessons,” she says. “I worked with Mrs. Davis for four years, and then she realized as the material started getting harder that I had never learned to read. I was just listening as she’d play the song and I’d play it back. When that happened, she got very upset and stopped being my teacher. I didn’t do any more training after that.”

At 15, Hart started playing on demos for a friend and eventually for herself in Hollywood studios. As she began to nurture her own style, she found that two Beth Harts were emerging: roughly speaking, the extroverted frontwoman, and the still extroverted but less mobile performer at the keyboard. As she got deeper into songwriting, she began to see that each song naturally gravitated toward one or the other of these identities as it came together.

One recent piano-based song, “Mama This One’s for You,” closes Better Than Home. “I had been working on another piece the day I wrote this,” Hart recalls. “I was struggling with it, so I went outside to smoke a cigarette. Then I heard the lyric and the melody right away in my head. I had the lyric to the first verse and chorus and the music. So I went into the piano room and called my mom. I started playing her the song before I’d ever rehearsed it. As I kept going into the song, the lyric to the second verse all came out too. It was the weirdest thing. I’ve had songs come super-fast but never like that one. I really took it as God saying to me, ‘You need to call and tell your mother how much you really appreciate her. You’re lucky that she’s alive so she can know.’”

Are blues-belter Beth and piano balladeer Hart really two sides to one personality? “You’re dead on it, man,” she replies. “It’s funny that you ask about that because I was just talking with my band about it a week-and-a-half ago. When I’m doing rock 'n' roll or a blues song or a soul song, or maybe even a gospel song, I love it. I’m doing some of the stuff that influenced me. But when I do 'Light On' or 'L.A. Song,' that comes closest to who I am. When you hear me sit at the piano by myself and do one of those super-personal, confessional songs, that’s where my true voice is.”

The Quest for the Right Stage Piano

Given the piano’s significance in Beth Hart’s life, it’s no surprise that her stage setup centers on only one concern: How can she get as close as possible to the sound and feel of playing an acoustic grand?

Hart's search for her ideal stage piano began 15 years ago with an Oberheim, the model of which she can't quite recall: “The keys weren’t weighted at all, so I rarely ever played it,” she says.

Her husband Scott Guetzkow shares a few more details: “It was built right into the case,” he adds. “You just pull the lid off. We chose that for our ‘Screamin’ for My Supper’ tour (1999). Then we went to a Kurzweil PC88 for a few years.”

Once, when the Kurzweil was in the shop, they rented a series of Roland RD-650s to play during a residence at The Mint in L.A. “Every week, I brought it back with two or three keys broken,” Guetzkow says. “They were like, ‘Who’s playing this, some 250-pound guy?’ [I'd say,]‘No, it’s a little girl.’ She’d break keys every week. They finally said, ‘If you bring one more back with the keys broken, we’re not renting to you guys anymore.’"

Luckily, they found an instrument that was durable and musical enough for Hart's needs. “In five years on the Yamaha CP33, she’s broken one key,” Guetzkow says. “And she pounds really hard. One time a key started sticking. I got a guy who fixes them and he said, ‘I can’t find anything wrong with this.’ He put it back together, tipped it on its side, and a guitar pick came tumbling out! That’s pretty much the only problem we’ve ever had with the Yamaha.