Ben Harper just had a great week. First, the singer/songwriter and master of the acoustic slide guitar spoke with Andre 3000 of hip-hop heroes OutKast about going into the studio together. A few days later, guitar legend Ry Cooder called about collaborating. Then blues great Taj Mahal called with a similar request. He had also just performed on Austin City Limits, a long-standing music showcase on American Public Television.
Growing up “on a steady diet of Austin City Limits,” Harper first appeared on the show 10 years ago, backing Mahal on acoustic slide. Now, he says, performing on the show with his own band, the Innocent Criminals, is a great honor.
Talking from his home in Southern California, his voice rises in volume at the prospect of the next call. “Let the phone ring!” he says.
Not that he would be there to answer it. Averaging around 200 shows a year, the 34-year-old Harper is constantly on the move. Before his four-date Japan tour next month, he’ll perform songs from last year’s release, “Diamonds on the Inside,” on the radio in Paris and on TV in New York, including slots on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “The Late Show with Conan O’Brian.”
A schedule like his would strike fear in the vocal chords of some artists, but Harper embraces it. He believes in putting himself into situations where you “sing your ass off or sink.”
One such situation, he said, was participating in the 2002 R&B documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” where he performed alongside Chaka Khan, Gerald LeVert and Me’Shell NdegeOcello.
Harper said the constant touring has had a big influence on his voice. Recent recording opportunities with gospel icons the Five Blind Boys of Alabama also affected his singing style, he says, but it was the touring that made him grow. “That’s what’s pushed [my voice] to where it is. That’s absolutely what’s brought it to the point of where I’m discovering new confidence. I’m just coming into my own as far as discovering my voice and where it can go.”
Harper once said that his first three records were more like one long debut. He still feels that way, adding that the album presently in the works will complete his second trilogy. It’s easy to see the progression. While the social and political convictions in Harper’s work have remained solid (his lyrics are consistent protests against prejudice, oppression and environmental neglect), his vocal and music arrangements have expanded in multiple directions. For example, the intimate folk and blues feel of his 1994 debut, “Welcome to the Cruel World,” differs dramatically from Diamond’s mixed bag of falsetto-laced reggae, Zeppelin-style wailing, groove-laden funk and a cappella spirituals.
Many longtime fans take issue with this growing eclecticism. Harper’s mail often includes pleas for a return to the rocking chair he uses to perform more traditional work. “There’s a lot of fans who want it all acoustic,” he says. “They want it to sound a certain way or like a certain record, and then there are those who embrace the growth, but I’m not going to abandon the rocking chair, and I’m not going to abandon” — he pauses — “the rock.“
As for the upcoming album, Harper hints that the Blind Boys will definitely play a part. “What started as me producing a couple songs on a Blind Boys record has possibly morphed into a ‘Ben Harper featuring the Five Blind Boys of Alabama’ record,” adding that it could be finished soon after his Japan tour. “They are the last standing gospel temple of that era,” he says glowingly of the quintet, “And this will give me a chance to produce and play with them.”
Life on the road still trumps the studio, however. “Touring to me is like . . . ” Harper says, searching for the right words ” . . . it’s the most vital part of the music and the most honest part of the music, really. It’s that moment where you’re in front of people and . . . you’re pulling it off! It’s a high-wire act. High risk!”
Obviously it’s a risk he’s willing to take. “My first five records are my beginning,” he says, his voice crackling with excitement. “I’m just getting started!”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.