Back in 1996 is when Australia’s love affair with Ben Harper began. As a relative unknown, Harper stepped up to the Bluesfest plate and blew people away, his raw passion and roots-drenched modern sound the tonic for a populace overloaded with three chord guitar, with grunge, with the thudding techno beats that seemed to emanate from every passing car. Harper and the Innocent Criminals, his band at the time, were something new. Sure, they were drawing from a rich, deep well, but they whipped it their own way and we paddled out and caught their wave.
Today sees Harper as a giant of his time. It’s indicative of his talent, his relevancy and his foresight that 15 years after he broke (which he credits to that ’96 appearance at Bluesfest) he’s such a worldwide name, a drawcard at any festival, an artist of great standing and respect. While we do see Harper in this position in 2011 though, it’s not – and never has been – the same as it was. For Ben Harper is a musician in the true sense of the word, in the sense of the men and women he draws inspiration from, in that he never does things the same way twice. As such, Harper is still as relevant now as he was back in the ‘90s before the ‘roots wave’ built, as he was at its peak, as he still is now that it’s all but crashed onto the waiting shore.
In fact, perhaps Harper is even more relevant now. He’s proven that he wasn’t just part of a trend; the fact he’s still making records almost twenty years after his 1994 debut, Welcome To The Cruel World, testament to that. He’s proven he’s a stayer, he’s proven he’s in it for the right reasons and he’s proven that no matter what he’s doing and no matter who he’s doing it with, it’s music for music’s sake, moving with his heart and mind, and this is why it still strikes chords. There aren’t many modern day musicians who can lay claim to these sorts of achievements and ideals, but Ben Harper is certainly one.
So what is he doing in 2011 that’s still so important then? Striking out and finding new territory is what, and obviously, this is no surprise. After 2007’s Lifeline album, Harper disbanded the Innocent Criminals and formed the more rock-oriented, Relentless7, whom he debuted at Bluesfest in 2009. They released White Lies For Dark Times that same year, and are still going strong. Then early last year, he hooked up with singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur and guitarist, Dhani Harrison to form Fistful Of Mercy, with whom he also recorded late last year (As I Call You Down); he’s on a mission, and it seems, even after 20 years, he’s at yet another creative peak.
“I’m so glad it looks like that, because as I grow older, I learn to appreciate peaks because there are valleys right up ahead of them,” Harper laughs. “I think you’re right, and I think I need to take in the view for a second. For longer than I have…there have been peaks where I didn’t recognise it for what it was, so this is a good conversational reminder to just embrace a peak, and as it is, I’m really enjoying the view.” Harper is in an ebullient mood when I catch up with him, and you can’t blame him; Relentless7 are charging ahead, relentlessly, and Fistful Of Mercy has offered him yet another avenue, one previously unexplored, to share his message, in a more stripped back fashion.
But it’s what’s happening elsewhere that has Harper the most excited, and what’s really driving home this ‘creative peak’ business. Late last year, Harper went into Jackson Browne’s studio in Los Angeles and laid down what will be his first solo record since 2006’s, Both Sides Of The Gun, a tremendously anticipated record, and one which sees this artist in his prime – moving forward, adding to what he has, creating anew, a true Ben Harper record. “Yeah, it’s a Ben Harper record for sure,” he says of this new one, Give Till It’s Gone, when I ask whether or not, technically, it’s a solo record, given there’s a band involved.
“I’ve always let how the record was made, define whether or not it was a band record or a solo effort. I let the songs on the record define that and how the record was made and what was going into it and where I was energetically. Every record I make, it’s not about the band so much, it’s not even about me,” he says emphatically. “It’s about the songs, I’ve always wanted it to be about the songs…my first record was Welcome To The Cruel World, that was my first statement, and this is my last record of ten studio records with Virgin/EMI, and so it was really important for me to go out as I came in. But that’s neither here nor there, that’s an aside to these songs being so hyper-personal that I could have worked with anyone…whoever I brought in on this record, it was gonna be a Ben Harper record from the start because the songs were just so personal.”
So Give Till It’s Gone is here. It is indeed deeply personal, and it is indeed a Ben Harper record. It moves from boisterous rock n’ roll numbers to slithery blues grooves, it whispers and it roars, it hits its own tangents and dares you to come along for the ride. In amongst all this though, is a cohesion; it’s not a slapdash effort, it comes across more as exploratory (again, the reason he remains as relevant today as he is), which as he explains, is just how he works. “Well at this point, if people don’t know that’s my stock and trade, I may as well sell soap,” he laughs. “I’ve insisted upon musical diversity within one album since the very first.
“So what I wanted to come out with here, lyrically and musically, is something that would play out, from first song to last song, and also hopefully, to people who listen to lyrics, something they can connect with and relate to,” he goes on. “What I hope people will get from this record…is non-conformism, being able to be diverse. I mean, good god, if by this time, with iTunes, if you don’t have eclectic tastes, I can’t help you. So yeah, non-conformism. This is my tenth record, and ten records later, I’m still not trying to do ten versions of ‘Steal My Kisses’.”
The highlight of the record, to my mind, is the instrumental, ‘Get There From Here’, a random jam, and one of two songs on Give Till It’s Gone co-written and featuring, Ringo Starr. “Man, I love you for saying that, thank you,” Harper laughs when I tell him that’s my standout on the record. “That’s what makes this record stand out as a brave record. It’s not for me to say whether I’m brave or not…but at some point, you do have to set your own standard, and in the name of setting my own standard, having that song on there in its entirety, was a shift for this record in terms of making a creative statement.
“And Ringo, he brought to the record…he really was the guiding force of these songs,” he then says on working with Starr. “So he came down and we spent the first hour just talking and laughing, and he said he wanted to do a song that had a specific feel and a sound and he wanted it to be optimistic…it was just extremely humbling, and it’s still sinking in by degrees.” The excitement is evident in Harper’s voice – not only from working with a Beatle, but from coming through this process unscathed and in fact growing in the process. Lets face it though, you wouldn’t have expected any less.
So 2011 sees Ben Harper at a creative peak. Relentless7 have proven themselves viable. Fistful Of Mercy is just getting started, but doing it well. And Ben Harper is back in the record arena courtesy of Give Till It’s Gone, and it’s revealed in him a wont to carry on even further. For this artist, even two decades in, there’s still plenty more, across the valley, onto the next peak.
Samuel J. Fell