Graham Reid | | 3 min read
On what felt like one of Auckland's most humid days of the year, Los Angeles-based singer Beth Hart was coiled on a couch in the lobby of the Sheraton, swathed in an enormous black woollen coat.
Gaunt and sporting a massive shoulder tat, the anorexically thin serial smoker cut a striking figure.
But up close it was her eyes -- penetrating, impossibly clear, unwavering and betraying a keen, quick intelligence -- which were her most striking feature.
Hart was in Auckland on what the music industry calls a promo tour. A swag of interviews, a brief showcase performance before invited media and as many photo opportunities as could be accommodated are customary -- and Hart obliged.
But her three-day visit had more to offer than most fast-turnaround wannabes.
By happy coincidence the single LA Song from her gutsy Screamin' For My Supper album went to number one on our charts this very week.
But more important, Hart had A Story the media could latch on to.
As a former junkie and alcoholic, Hart is not only happy to talk about her former life, but readily peels off a list of drugs she was doing which sounds like the contents of a pharmacy. She also made time to go to Odyssey House -- with a Holmes tv crew -- to support others in rehab.
By her account, and to some extent the evidence on television, the Odyssey visit could be counted a success. The Holmes Show got its pictures and a story, and "by the end all of us were hugging and kissing and saying, 'We're going to do this,' " says Hart about it.
"In all my life and with all I've done, there's never been anything more painful than getting sober," she says. "But I know it's going to save my life and give me a chance to do the things I've dreamed about."
Hart is courageous -- although there's nothing shameful in her former life, it happens to many -- but accepts there are questions of exploitation and integrity involved in being filmed at a drug rehab centre on a tour which is ostensibly about selling an album.
Hart admits aspects of the incident left her uncomfortable. She didn't want cameras there but "the company thought it best to let the country see what's going on there."
As to The Story getting in the way of the music: "It's a process and I've just started recovery, so it's the thing I have to talk about, especially since LA Song is about that."
Hart says the song is part of her healing process.
At 28 and after 17 years as a user, Hart's background and latest album suggest she has it in her to produce fine music for a long time.
As a teenager at LA's High School for the Performing Arts -- studying vocals and cello -- she appeared at open mic nights and entered talent quests. Seven years ago she enlisted a loose-knit band to play on the streets of LA and the club circuit.
Her debut album in '95 as the Beth Hart Band (on Immortal) saw them tour the US, Europe and South Africa, only to break up acrimoniously and have her recruit new players to record Screamin' For My Supper.
She also auditioned for the part of Janis Joplin in the stage production Love, Janis . . . and for two months, over three hours and through 20 songs a night in '98, she roared through Joplin's throat-searing blues rock.
"It extended my soul because I got to read about a woman willing to die for what she believed in and who had such great courage and strength."
Today Hart is smart enough not to believe her own publicity ("You've got to be pretty strong to not let it go to your head"), has modest ambitions ("An apartment in San Francisco") and is suspicious of success.
"Success isn't reality. I've started a retirement plan and any money that comes in off this record I'm going to put in some investments and turnovers.
"Health insurance too. I go to a doctor every year and get a full physical, pap smear every six months, the dentist every six months -- just trying to take care of myself. With sobriety, my awareness and courage, [my] levels have come much higher.
"I know I'm going to be playing music for the rest of my life and it doesn't mean I have to be playing for 25,000 people.
"I can go into a bar with a cigarette in my hand and a cup of coffee, and sit in with a jazz or blues band and sing right there and get the same joy as playing for a large audience.
"I'll never stop writing, never stop singing. Never.
"Because that's where my heart lies."