The Gospel According to Ben Harper
Singer-songwriter Ben Harper is very serious about his job, and he expects others to feel the same way. Which means that when it comes to dealing with the media, he's frequently disappointed.
"I have two more interviews today, and I'm dreading them," he says from a hotel room in the heartland. "I should remain patient and be thankful that anyone gives enough of a shit to spend any of their precious time with me on the phone. But some of these people are asking questions of me that are so insulting to all the effort that's been put in and all the other articles that have been done. It's like, why do an interview and just rehash stuff? People say, 'Well, our readers, they don't know about you.' But that's even more reason to give them something totally different--so that when they do read something after reading yours, it won't be the exact same thing. It's so frustrating."
Harper is mystified by anyone who doesn't pour every last drop of passion into his labors. "If you're not always trying to better yourself at what you do, you probably should be doing something else," he says, then adds, "There are a lot of people in the journalism profession giving it a bad, bad name--and it's the same in music, really. That's why I try to do things differently."
He may do things differently, but music has been a constant in Harper's life. Now in his late twenties, he was raised in California, where both his parents and his grandfather owned music stores. By his teens, he was able to play virtually every stringed instrument in the outlets' inventories, and his fondness for blues, R&B, folk and rock fueled his desire to step before the footlights. He was only twenty when bluesman Taj Mahal invited him to tour at his side; shortly thereafter, he was asked to contribute to the soundtrack of Follow the Drinking Gourd, a 1992 documentary about underground-railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. Two years later, Welcome to the Cruel World, the first fruit of his contract with Virgin Records, was in stores, and Harper was on the road, where he's been steadily ever since.
Cruel World showcased Harper's astounding guitar skills (which have wowed audiences nationwide), his ability to skip from genre to genre with preternatural ease, and a voice made up of equal parts soulfulness and sincerity. But in general, the full-length's compositions weren't as singular as the man who penned them, and some of the lyrics were overly didactic, too on-the-nose. However, 1995's Fight for Your Mind bested its predecessor in almost every area, and Harper's latest offering, The Will to Live, made with bassist Juan Nelson and drummer Dean Butterworth, collectively known as the Innocent Criminals, lifts him to an even higher level. The opening song, "Faded," seamlessly merges rock riffing with a folk/roots middle section and impressionistic words ("Like a forgotten dream/Further than it seems") that are far subtler than Harper's previous prose. "Roses From My Friend," "Ashes," the enjoyably funky throwaway "Mama's Trippin'" and the lovely, wrenching "Widow of a Living Man" also show signs of lyrical improvement. And if the couplets that make up the title track are message-heavy ("Some are born with more/ Some are born with less/So don't take for granted/The life we've been blessed"), there's no denying that Harper gets plenty of mileage out of them. Couple these advances with Harper's rapidly developing sense of melody and song structure--musically, there's not a stiff on the record--and you wind up with a creative breakthrough. No longer can arbiters of taste write Harper off as a tremendous performer whose albums can be safely left on the shelf. The Will to Live makes sure of that.
At first Harper is reluctant to acknowledge that Will is a leap forward; like a good father, he doesn't want to denigrate his other children by comparison. "I think I could have come up with Cruel World as a third record and it would have stood up as a third record," he says. "I think you could swap them around and they'd hold their own." But ultimately he concedes that he, too, views the new platter as a personal zenith. "There's definitely been a growth, and I can see it," he adds. "Not to say that the other records are immature, but I think I've strengthened my ability to communicate musically and vocally. The tone of the guitars is more confident, and my vocal range is more assertive. Now I can hit my three octaves--ah, oh, ooooo--with a confidence that I didn't have on the first two records. And that confidence only came into being while we were making the record. Up to that point, I had it a little bit, and it was growing. But I just sort of found the confidence during recording, and I'm looking forward to the shows and to making another album in a year or so to bring it along even further."
Live, Harper is so certain of his abilities that he usually plays while sitting in a chair placed near the front of the stage. But anyone who'd brand him a folkie for this stylistic choice has never heard him perform. Although he renders ballads with surpassing tenderness, when he plugs in his electric guitar and cranks up his amp, he's a hard-rock marvel. Ben Harper Live, a new EP issued by Virgin, embraces this contradiction. "Forever," originally heard on Cruel World, is a simple strum-along that Harper purrs as quietly as if he were singing it to himself in a rent-controlled apartment next door to the landlord's. But it's followed by a torrid rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" that Harper rides for over eleven minutes. This last rendition can be criticized as excessively faithful; Harper reproduces the Hendrix style rather than innovatively reinterpreting it. Still, there's no faulting his amazing guitar technique, which has provoked gasps from music lovers of every stripe.
"I've seen crossovers from so many places," Harper says. "Realize that we've opened up for Pearl Jam, the Fugees and PJ Harvey--and I've seen people into all of those groups connect with what we're doing. Sometimes you think you'll have an obvious group of people there, and you don't. So when I'd see people from age 7 to age 77 there, I stopped trying to target the audience. Now I just play."
This summer Harper will do so as part of the H.O.R.D.E. festival, an annual assemblage of jam bands. But he's not worried that joining the troupe will cause him to be pigeonholed as a neo-hippie act; he has a wide range of fans, many of whom have told him that his music is uncategorizable. "That has been said quite a bit, and I have to at this point embrace that and take it as a compliment," he notes. "At the same time, I don't mean to overstate it. I'm not the type of guy to say, 'My music can't be categorized,' because I've borrowed so much from other people. But I've heard it enough times to believe that a good many people feel that way."
If Harper's also noticed the legions of young coeds following him around wearing wide-eyed expressions of lust, he's not saying. He initially responds to queries about his status as a thinking-woman's sex symbol with unfeigned embarrassment--"Are you teasing me?"--before saying with a chuckle, "I think I'll sneak out the back door of that question."
You don't often hear laughter from Harper: As implied by his formal, carefully composed speech patterns and the often-solemn topics to which he's drawn, he's not a fellow with a weakness for bawdy limericks and practical jokes. But he is too dedicated to self-actualization to write off the prospect of branching out. "I have to step into humor a little bit more," he acknowledges. "'Faded' has a little bit of that, and so does 'Mama's Trippin'.' But I could probably stand to get a little more humor into my songwriting. And I'd like to get more into fantasy, science fiction--more sort of things that are beyond the obvious, beyond common thought. I'd like to go into some dream states, without being ridiculous." He snickers. "All of this is predicated on not being ridiculous.
"I love the Beatles," he continues. "I love the way they can bring in a 'Yellow Submarine' or 'A Little Help From My Friends' or"--he sings--"'Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on...' You know what I mean? They could say things that weren't so serious that made you feel great, but they could also say things that were serious without being overbearing. And I love the voice of Marvin Gaye--the way he could sing 'Sexual Healing' with an urgency but without being over-urgent, without making it intimidating. Urgency with sensitivity, humor, fantasy: all keys to great songwriting, all things I need to get better at, all things I'm working on."
The rising quality of Harper's music is closely tied to his formidable work ethic; in his view, perspiration has as much to do with his endeavors as inspiration does. "It's definitely a discipline, to better oneself in one's craft," he points out. "And I'm working at it, because I know that there's so much more musically to come for me." He's trying to accelerate this process by remaining open to every musical form that comes his way. For instance, he's a big hip-hop enthusiast. "To me, it's far more reflective today of the true folk music that I grew up with," he says. "Personally, I see more in common between Leadbelly and Run DMC than I do between the Carter Family and Joan Baez."
He goes on to disparage "a lot of this whiny folk that I hear today," but a moment later he backs away from this harsh verdict. "It's just about sincerity to me," he says. "And, you know, there have been times in my life when I've been insincere, so I don't want to make it sound like I'm above that. To me, no matter what kind of music you're making, you have to tap into a place in your emotional buildup that's true and communicate from there. And I can't explain how to do it or describe how to do it. I just hope that I'm able to do it and that I do it well."
He also hopes that in the future, more of those annoying writers will ask him about musical matters rather than compete with each other to see who can most effectively plagiarize his record-company biography. "It's not like I'm looking to talk about astrophysics or Jungian theory," he protests. "I'm just looking to talk straight up about music and the enjoyment of it--because that's what it's all about, and that's why I'm here. That's not too much to ask, is it?"
Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals. 9 p.m. Thursday, April 9, Macky Auditorium, CU-Boulder campus, $25-$35, 443-3399 or 830-
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