When Beth Hart left the stage at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors after performing a soul-stirring rendition of “I’d Rather Go Blind” in tribute to legendary bluesman Buddy Guy, she didn’t realize the impact she’d made. She was caught up in the moment, proud to be performing for that year’s honorees and a crowd full of celebrated personalities. Later, while watching the performance on TV with her mother, she took a step back and saw what happened after she let loose the last note of the bluesy love song popularized by Etta James.
The applause was uproarious. The audience at the Kennedy Center gave an enthusiastic standing ovation. Not only were the honorees on their feet, but so were Barack and Michelle Obama.
The 41-year-old singer-songwriter considers that performance the highlight of a career quite nearly derailed by untreated mental illness and substance abuse.
Hart found fame with the single “LA Song” off of her 1999 album Screamin’ for My Supper. The track made the Billboard Hot 100; it was an adult contemporary hit in the U.S. and celebrated success abroad, too, including topping the charts in New Zealand.
“Instead of rejoicing and feeling great, it absolutely terrified me,” Hart said. She feared the success. She felt she wasn’t worth it. She thought she had no talent, and that people would find out. “So before they take it away from me, I’ll take it away from me.”
Hart spent months in a downfall of drinking, drug use, and disordered eating. She was crippled by agoraphobia. The bipolar disorder she’d struggled with was beyond her control.
“I was in and out of hospitals, psych wards as well as a couple of rehabs,” Hart said. “My brain couldn’t function right.”
With medication, therapy, prayer, and supportive people to surround herself with, Hart made a recovery.
“It was a miracle,” Hart said, “I got to get a second chance at life, on what I didn’t really know then would become the best part of my life.”
She returned with the 2003 album Leave the Light On, which was originally released in New Zealand and came out months later internationally. She continued to tour and release albums, developing a following across Europe, but the native Los Angelena wouldn’t return to the United States.
“I didn’t feel worthy of playing in the U.S.,” Hart said. “I love the U.S. so much, this is my home. But I just felt ashamed, and embarrassed.”
“I’d Rather Go Blind” put her on the path back home.
She recorded the song for 2011’s Don’t Explain, a covers album made with blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. She felt like she had reached a closing point with the rock and singer-songwriter tunes she’d made all her career. The project would give her the chance to sing music she loved to sing, songs by artists like Bill Withers and Ray Charles, and not have to write. She was happy recording this album, and it was a revelation. This was the music she wanted to write for herself.
“I had the balls to really make a hard left away from the path musically that I’d been on for my whole life,” Hart said.
The result was Bang Bang Boom Boom, and from the smoky blues crooning of “Baddest Blues” to the electric gospel of “Spirit of God” the album debuted a new Beth Hart. And when she got the chance to release the album in the U.S., she latched onto it.
“When that opportunity came … for the first time in my life since all that crap happened, I was not afraid, and I was excited,” Hart said.
Bang Bang Boom Boom was released here last month and Hart embarked upon a U.S. tour, including a sold-out show tomorrow tonight at The Birchmere.
“This is a beyond extraordinary time in my life,” Hart said. “It’s like going back into the lion’s den, but instead of fearing that the lion’s going to bite my head off, I feel like I can do this with my head up, and rejoice in making music in my own country.”
• For more information about Beth Hart, visit bethhart.com.