March 22, 2018 Interview – Ben Harper
Some musicians defy genre: they craft an ever-evolving career that is built on heart and accomplished musicianship, transcending all fabricated boundaries. Grammy Award-winning Multi-Instrumentalist, Singer-Songwriter Ben Harper is one of these tried-and-true musicians, known for his delicious Blues and sincere Folk offerings, and albums that run the gamut from his 1994 debut Welcome to the Cruel World to 2016’s collaboration with The Innocent Criminals, Call It What It Is. Over the past 25 years, Harper has continuously crafted his own, unique story, and its newest chapter, No Mercy In This Land, is poised to arrive on March 30, 2018. Easily one of the nicest, most candid men that you will meet in music, Harper recently sat down to discuss his latest collaboration with his friend Charlie Musselwhite, the sincerity of the Blues, learning how to find balance in such a lengthy career, and more.
CrypticRock.com – At this point in your career, you have over 25 years experience in music, you have won several Grammy Awards, sold a million records, and are beloved around the world. Does that inject a new fire into your veins for your music?
Ben Harper – Mmm, you know what? That’s a part of it, of course, because no one aims high to fail, at least no one I know. Though there is kind of a Punk Rock edict to aim high and then be miserable through success. (Laughs) Which, I totally get it! If critical success defines you then the opposite will break you. So I don’t, look man, I like to win at backgammon! When you can communicate with someone through your creative process, it is one of the greatest feelings alive. At the same time, I try to find a balance in appreciating the accolades and blinding myself from them, protecting myself from them.
As you say, after twenty-five years, if you’re not at that point striking a balance between the appreciation and the opposite of appreciation – being the discontent for what you do – it’d be too hard of a ride otherwise. In a way, you have to take both on-board – people who don’t like what you do and the people who’ve appreciated what you do – you take that on-board, right? You live that in their proper proportions, because the good stuff, it’ll turn you into something you don’t want to be, and if you just take in the hate, you’re going to wake up miserable. I’ll take any advice you’ve got! (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – (Laughs) You have to do it for yourself first and foremost. Anything that you get, as far as accolades, is great, but you can’t let that change who you are.
Ben Harper – There it is! That makes sense to me, but I want something to change me, because if I’m not changing I’m going to be stuck in the same old me and nobody wants to put up with that – not my family, or loved ones, or friends. So, I want to be constantly changing, but I don’t want those things to change me: I don’t want the awards to make me, and I don’t want the criticism to break me. Like you said, commitment to the craft and the instrument and a blank page and a pen, that’s where it’s at. Anybody who thinks they’re going to pick up a lap-steel guitar and be able to feed their pie-hole is insane! If you commit your life to something that you’re passionate about, twenty-five years later you can turn around and have a story to tell that’s worth telling.
CrypticRock.com – Kind of going off of that, Blues is one of those musical genres where you will never be able to get away with phoning it in or being insincere. Is that part of what attracts you to the genre?
Ben Harper – That must be what attracted me to it, because Blues was the first music that pulled me in and said, ‘You’re going to play this!’ Yeah, you cannot fool the Blues!
CrypticRock.com – Exactly! Now the new album, No Mercy In This Land, becomes available on March 30th. What do you hope fans take away from this collaboration?
Ben Harper – I hope they finish it, because they finish the songs! Fans add the last and final verse to every single song that completes them when they press ‘Play’. In the landscape that is modern music consumption, of all the music that’s out there, I feel highly-privileged that anyone would press ‘Play’ on the music that I make, especially, as you said, after this long. I get to do this! I get the privilege of doing this at this level still, and not a second goes by that I take that for granted. So, I don’t want to mandate what I hope people feel, but I hope people feel where I’m coming from with the music and the lyrics.
CrypticRock.com – No Mercy In This Land is a phenomenal collection that displays the stellar musicianship that fans expect from you and Charlie. What was the goal you had on the album, and do you feel you achieved that goal?
Ben Harper – My goal on the record was to surpass the previous record and I’m confident we did that. Again, it’s not for me to say, but I feel strongly, I just know how much I put into this record and I feel that I couldn’t have given any more, couldn’t have reached any higher. I’ve got nothing left to give! This record, in particular, was an absolute release of some sort that I’m still kind of recovering. Usually I have exactly what’s prepared next around the corner; for the last twenty-five years, I know what record I’m going to make before I’m done with the one I’m making. This record, it’s not the case. It’s the first time – I have no idea where I’m going next, none; I’ve got nothing on deck, no plans. Which is kind of scary, but I’ll embrace it for whatever it means in the future. I left it all on the table with this record in a way that is new!
CrypticRock.com – Maybe that is a good thing, maybe that is your evolution right there!
Ben Harper – It does feel like an arrival on this record!
CrypticRock.com – It is a great record and, together, you and Charlie have an organic chemistry that translates brilliantly to record. Do you think your friendship boosts the music, or does the music amplify the friendship?
Ben Harper – Oh, that’s a great way of asking that! I think it’s a left and a right hand. It started with the friendship, so if there was a chicken and an egg; it’s the friendship that came first. I opened up, John Lee Hooker was doing a week or more of shows at a small club in Marin called The Sweetwater. They were struggling to pay their bills so Charlie, I’m sorry, John Lee Hooker, this was in ‘93. So, John Lee Hooker said, “I’ll do a bunch of free concerts to help you pay this year’s rent.” For the club, John Lee was doing it for free! John Lee reached out to me, I was nobody, but somebody handed off my music and John Lee dug it enough to ask me to open up those shows, right? Charlie happened to be sitting in with John Lee Hooker that night, and at that point I was a student of the Blues. I had John Lee’s records, of course I had Charlie’s records, so imagine me at the age of 23 finding myself in a room with John Lee and Charlie. From that moment on, we struck up a friendship before we even hit a note. John Lee and Charlie were so good to me, and even excited that there was this youngster who was immersed in the Blues like I was – am, like I am.
CrypticRock.com – Okay, to talk quickly about specifics, “No Mercy In This Land,” the song, really hits home for 2018 America, making it a superbly powerful track. What inspired that particular song?
Ben Harper – That song, hopefully, will speak to the personal as well as the political, in my ideal vision of how that song communicates. Thank you for that!
CrypticRock.com – You are very welcome, and you absolutely achieved the end goal. Now, the last question is light-hearted and fun, no politics. At CrypticRock, we cover music as well as films, especially Horror and Science Fiction movies. Are you a fan of either of these genres and, if so, do you have a favorite Horror and/or Sci-Fi film?
Ben Harper – I am! I kind of run the gamut from A Clockwork Orange (1971) to, most recently, Get Out (2017). I’m old-school, I saw all the Friday the 13th and Phantasm films. My kids are obsessed with Horror and Sci-Fi, I’m just in the wings checking it out.
BEN HARPER + CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE TOUR:
March 30 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
March 31 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
April 3 – Glasgow, UK – Oran Mor
April 6 – Manchester, UK – Academy 2
April 7 – London, UK – Shepherds Bush Empire
April 9 – Amsterdam – Paradiso
April 10 – Berlin, Germany – Huxleys
April 11 – Cologne, Germany – Live Music Hall
April 12 – Luxembourg – Den Atelier
April 14- Brussels, Belgium – La Madeleine
April 23 – Milan, Italy – Fabrique
April 25 – Geneva, Switzerland – Salle des Fetes
April 27 – Barcelona, Spain – Barts
April 30 – Lisbon, Spain – Aula Magna
May 3 – Madrid, Spain – La Riveria
May 7 – Los Angeles, CA – Troubadour
May 8- Los Angeles, CA – Troubadour
May 12 – Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up
May 13 – Solana Beach, CA – Belly Up
May 28 – Toronto, ONT – Mod Club
May 29 – Toronto, ONT – Mod Club
June 3 – Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair
June 4 – Cambridge, MA – The Sinclair
June 8 – New York, NY -The Bowery Ballroom
June 9 – New York, NY – The Bowery Ballroom
July 29 – Detroit, MI – St. Andrews Hall
July 30 – Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall
Aug. 1 – Saint Paul, MN – Palace Theater
Aug. 3 – Denver, CO – Gothic Theater
Aug. 4 – Denver, CO – Gothic Theater
Aug. 27 – Santa Cruz, CA – The Catalyst
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