Interview: Joe Bonamassa and Beth Hart on their new album, Don't Explain

Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa face-off - no, really! - on the new album, Don't Explain. Photo: Mike Prior

"What a smoking record!" Joe Bonamassa raves on the subject of Don't Explain, the just-released collection of soul covers the guitar star cut with singer Beth Hart. "This is an album I would listen to if I had nothing to do with it. Beth is such an extraordinary talent. Her time is now, I'm convinced of it."

Not surprisingly, Beth Hart returns Bonamassa's sentiments: "One hot disc!" she gushes, letting out a throaty laugh. "I almost can't believe that it's me when I hear it. Really, Joe is that phenomenal. He made me sound good. Every singer needs that kind of support. What he did for me is unbelievable."

What Bonamassa did for Hart, a veteran blues-rock singer with a devoted cult following, was put her front and center in the studio with himself, producer Kevin Shirley and a top-notch gang of musicians that includes Blondie Chaplin on guitar, Carmine Rojas on bass, Anton Fig on drums and Arlan Scheirbaum on keyboards, along with a boatload of ace material made famous by such artists as Etta James, Ray Charles, Brook Benton, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday, among others.

"You've got the right singer with the right songs - the rest takes care of itself," says Bonamassa.

"Put a singer in the studio with Joe Bonamassa and Kevin Shirley, you're going to get something good," says Hart.

OK, so it's a love fest, and it's one that MusicRadar jumped right into when we sat down with Bonamassa and Hart recently.

So how did the two of you discover each other?

Joe Bonamassa: "I'm not sure when I first heard about Beth Hart. I do remember seeing her on various TV shows. I think I'd seen her on Conan O'Brien or whatever. And it seemed that whenever we'd tour Europe, our paths would cross. She'd be staying at the same hotel and what have you. Last year, we were both playing the Blue Balls festival - I kid you not! [laughs] - in Lucerne, Switzerland, and she did an hour before us, and man, she knocked me out! It was an unbelievable performance."

Beth Hart: "Joe's very kind."

Bonamassa: "So it was a little while later, I was making the Dust Bowl record with Kevin Shirley in Greece, and I was listening to the expanded edition of The Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out. It had the Ike & Tina Turner tracks on it, and I immediately started thinking about pairing up with a female. And then it hit me: Beth Hart!"

Hart: "I knew of Joe, of course. I was totally familiar with who he is. Then I heard that he was playing a song of mine called 37 Days on a radio show he was broadcasting in England. We were coming to the UK to do some dates, and I planned to meet him there, but for one reason or another it didn't work out."

Bonamassa: "You'd be surprised how much that happens. The best-laid plans…"

Hart: "But later on, we in Dublin at the same time, so we met up in a hotel bar there. I thought he was great, so enthusiastic and so sweet -

Bonamassa: "And I was totally knocked out by Beth. Here's this lady who's acting like I'm the cool one, and meanwhile I'm thinking, Man, she's got it all. She's the new Janis Joplin, Tina Turner - the real deal, you know?"

Pretty nice praise, eh, Beth?

Hart: "Absolutely. See, I couldn't think of all the things to say about Joe. Eric Clapton, BB King, Johnny Winter - Joe's right up there with all of them and so many more."

Bonamassa and Hart: soul brother and sister. Photo: Mike Prior

When did you start talking about doing a record together?

Hart: "Before you knew it, Joe asked me to do an album with him. I immediately said yes, thinking that I'd be singing backgrounds. I had no idea that he was suggesting that I sing lead on the record. [laughs] I was floored, to say the least."

Bonamassa: "The whole thing just seemed very natural to me. I'm always looking for something new to do. I'm going through my iTunes shuffle late at night, and boom! there it hits me. Beth's an outstanding talent, the likes of which we don't get any more. She's the kind of artist I want to work with. So, of course, I was like, 'Let's do something - something real.' I didn't just want her for a backup singer."

How did the record take shape?

Bonamassa: "We made lists of songs. That was the start."

Hart: "Joe, Kevin Shirley and I made lists of our favorite soul songs and artists, we compared them, and we agreed on 12 songs. Well, sort of... [laughs] We ended up recording 10 tracks."

Bonamassa: "We threw a couple of things at her that she hadn't heard before. Hey, that's part of the fun of doing a record like this."

Hart: "I had never heard Bill Withers' For My Friend, but I love his work, so I thought it was a great idea. Well, Well was a song I wasn't in love with, and I didn't know if it would work, but the day I sang it in the studio I totally got it. And now it's one of my favorites."

Vocally, you guys go toe-to-toe on Well, Well in a big way.

Bonamassa: "Thank you. Yeah, sometimes you have to have a little fear to bring something out. I know I experience that all the time."

Hart: "Fear, apprehensive…fear…[laughs] Yeah, sure, whatever works. I just loved singing with Joe on it."

Joe, when it was your turn to do vocals with Beth, did you approach the situation differently than when you sing on your own?

Bonamassa: "I just tried not to get in the way, really. We did the vocals live, and to be honest, I was just concentrating on singing the harmony. I wasn't trying to match her or be her equal; I just wanted to hang in there. Well, Well is my only vocal contribution to the record, and I'm fine with that. Beth doesn't need anybody else."

Photo: Mike Prior

What about some of the other songs? How did you agree on what to do?

Hart: "All on all, we chose five tracks each to wind up on the record. Another one that Joe and Kevin threw at me was Sinner's Prayer. That was a left curve. It's not that I didn't like it, I just didn't know what I could bring to it. But then I listened to a lot of Ray Charles and I sort of found it - whatever 'it' is. I grabbed onto the center of the track. It's another one of my favorites."

Bonamassa: "Brook Benton's I'll Take Care Of You was another one that Beth wasn't so sure about at first, but she did a great job on it. That one and Well, Well - I've always wanted to do those."

Hart: "I wasn't certain about I'll Take Care Of You. You know, you just have to live with something and see if it hits you. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. I'll Take Care Of You, yeah, I did find myself in that song. I think the reason is…see, there's a personal story in it - in all of these songs. They're sincere. You don't have to relate to all of the words, you just have to relate to the narrative."

Bonamassa: "Picking the material was the hardest thing in making this record, by far. We didn't want to get too rock 'n' roll, but we didn't want to get too light, like we were doing a Rod Stewart standards record. We wanted it to be gritty, but it couldn't infringe on our day jobs. Amped-up versions of soul songs worked."

Like you said, Ike & Tina Turner…

Bonamassa: "Yeah! It had to have that kind of feel. Ike & Tina would do sped-up versions of Beatles songs and stuff like that. We wanted it to feel like we were flying."

Beth, you do a couple of Etta James songs, I'd Rather Go Blind and Something's Got A Hold On Me. What about those ones stuck out to you?

Hart: "That's hard to say. I've been such an Etta James fan since…forever! [laughs] She's my favorite singer of all time. I remember when a friend of mine turned me onto a live recording of hers called Blues In The Night - I was probably 19 or so - and I fell in love with it.

"I don't like all of her records, but Blues In The Night is amazing. I never thought I could do justice to those songs - I'm too white! - but something about this opportunity spoke to me, and I said, 'Give it a try.' And so that's what I did. I've always connected with these songs."

In making this record, what did you guys learn from each other?

Hart: "I really learned what trust was all about. When you work with Joe and Kevin Shirley, they've got their thing down. You don't have to worry about them. You can trust them. Of course, you have to give that trust back. [laughs] They're together, so you have to be together, too. The whole situation is so respectful. I've never seen a working relationship like that before."

Bonamassa: "I feel like I always learn from somebody who can do something better than I can. Beth's one of the greatest singers out there, bar none. She finds a way to live inside whatever she sings. That's what I want to do, whether it's as a singer, a guitar player, whatever. It's not enough to play a song, you have to inhabit it. Beth does that."

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.