BERLIN – With her towering, charismatic, tattooed presence, American blues singer Beth Hart broke out counting numbers in Hebrew just as the interview began backstage at the FZW concert venue in Dortmund, Germany, where she was about to perform as part of her European tour.
“Echad, shtayim, shalosh,” she bragged. “Elef shanim chayim,” she showed off again, her effort to say “a thousand years of life.” “Ani Ohevet Ladug.” Indeed, she loves to fish.
Her Israeli concert promoter, Adik Chezron, a Jewish resident of Dortmund, tried to teach her a few more Hebrew words ahead of her June 19 concert in Israel at the Ra’anana Amphitheater (which she managed to pronounced). Her knowledge of Hebrew goes back to her 20s, when she was starting out as a singer at clubs in her hometown of Los Angeles.
“I met a group of people that became my really close friends, and they had just arrived from Israel, like Tal Herzberg, a wonderful bass player and producer. And when I met him he didn’t speak English very well, and then before you know it he just got so successful in the US.”
The late Herzberg went on to become an in-demand recording engineer for the likes of Lady Gaga and Black Eyed Peas, as Hart went on to become nominated for a Grammy. He’s the one who introduced her to the blunt Israeli mentality, having saved her from undergoing chin-reduction surgery, telling her it would be like “Barbara Streisand chopping off her nose.” Through her Israeli posse, she discovered her favorite Israeli comfort foods, like babaganoush and Israeli salad.
Chezron promised her a classic Israeli “al ha’esh” (barbecue), to which Hart said: “That would be a cool name for a song.”
A bunch of necklaces dangle from Hart’s husky frame, among them two crosses, with one imprinted with the famous call from the Book of Joshua: “chazak v’amatz” (be strong and courageous). While not raised as a religious Christian, she turned to Christianity and to God for strength in overcoming her alcohol addiction.
Her appreciation for Israel, however, predated her encounters with her Israeli crew and the Bible.
“It was weird, and I think part of it comes from being raised by my mother, and my mother always having a love and respect for Israel, and always hearing that, so I think I was already open to that energy and it just connected.”
Despite that love for Israel, she and her mother have never visited the Jewish state.
“She’s always had a real regard and made it a point to tell us to be very respectful and loving and grateful because you could learn so much from people that had been through so much and have persevered,” Hart said.
Perseverance in overcoming hardship are thematic staples to Hart’s prolific music; that’s what kept her from going the troubled, lethal way of other raspy blues artists like Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse. Hart is outspoken about her struggles with bipolar disorder and alcohol addiction. Mental illness combined with a loving but broken home made her a wild child, turning to booze to numb her pain. She dropped out of high school, focusing only on one subject: music.
“Especially in the early part of my career I was really self-destructive. It’s kind of amazing I survived.”
Her soulful voice, honest lyrics, and sharp musicality got her noticed by record labels and producers throughout the years, and once she took hold of her demons, she consistently reached the top of blues charts in the US and particularly in Europe. Hart’s uncensored flair and acoustic authenticity are a refreshing counter-point to the overly-produced, overly-stylized pop stars coming out of Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and road manager, Scott Guetzkow, her “rock.”
“I don’t really see myself as a success. I just don’t look at it that way. What I look at success is about really being grateful. You wake up in the morning and you’re thankful that you could breath because it’s a beautiful planet we live on and I know there is a lot of struggle and pain but there is more joy.”
Hart’s popularity skyrocketed when, to her utmost nervousness, she was asked to perform and record soul covers with blues icon Joe Bonamassa. Working with Bonamassa honed her musicality, and it propelled her to study some of the jazz greats. Hart writes all her own songs and doesn’t feel comfortable writing for other artists. Her last album, Better Than Home embraces her storytelling style with stories about overcoming loss, staying optimistic and finding home.
“When I’m going through something really difficult, I think it’s what made me go to the piano for the first time when I was a child. I look at it as a place to pray. I really feel like you kind of sit at the piano and you go: ‘I’m having a really hard time, I’m freaking out, I don’t know what’s going on.’ And then I feel like God just says: ‘Well, I’m going to help you figure it out. Start playing.’ And the song writes itself. And I always feel like if it’s a bad song, it’s me that’s writing it. But if it’s a good song, it’s God’s way of answering a prayer.”
During her June tour, she won’t have time to visit Jerusalem, but she’s hoping it’s just the start of her relationship with Israel. She and her management team give little heed to anti-Israel boycott pressure, and if there’s another quality that may explain her attraction to Israel, it’s the ability to overcome criticism.
“I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t care what people think, but I would rather have less people who like or approve of me for who I really am than a bunch more people who like or approve me for what I’m not.”
In other words: “chazak v’amatz!” Beth Hart will be performing at the Ra’anana Amphitheater on June