Guitarist and singer-songwriter Ben Harper is on the phone from Los Angeles, where he’s rehearsing for a “small gig” at a benefit show hosted by his friend, actor Ed Helms. Harper’s contribution to the concert will be “three or four songs,” and when asked if Helms will be doing something comedic on stage — his best known role is probably in the “Hangover” film series — Harper demurs: “Ed is a badass banjo player, actually.”
That is probably one of the highest compliments Harper could bestow on someone, since he’s made a career out of promoting styles of music that tend to sink or swim on an artist’s command of what jazz musicians used to call “chops.”
Harper himself is one of the most accomplished acoustic, slide and lap steel guitarists in the business, playing his instruments in the service of what is generically called roots music, a wide category that includes blues, folk, reggae and soul, genres he has moved among with ease and confidence ever since debuting in the early ’90s. He’ll be bringing the whole mess, along with his longtime backing band, The Innocent Criminals, to Japan in March for his first tour of the country in 14 years.
“Yeah, it’s been way too long,” he says. “I don’t know how that got away from me. The first time I came to Japan was in 1995, Club Quattro. It was the furthest I’d ever been from home at the time, and it opened my eyes to the cultural awareness inside me, something I hadn’t known was there. I just realized how vast the world was.”
Harper was still a cult artist in 1995, despite having released two major label albums that sold relatively well worldwide. He was the youthful embodiment of the roots movement during a decade when indie rock and hip-hop were becoming mainstream; a dedicated technician who was also an excellent vocal student of various styles that demand both facility and deep reserves of feeling. Moreover, he wrote songs that reflected an engagement with the world on more than just musical terms. By the dawn of the millennium, he was a star, especially on the jam band scene among aficionados of what is sometimes referred to as “authentic” music, but it allowed him to explore further and move into world beat, gospel and even hip-hop.
But that was 20 years ago. Harper has just turned 50. He still releases music regularly and tours in various configurations, thanks not only to his popularity but also to the resiliency of roots music. In fact, he probably has something to do with that resiliency in the 21st century, and not just among boomers who tend to fear and loathe anything new. His fans represent a wide age demographic, and just as he benefited from the mentorship of great roots musicians that came before him, like John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal, he’s now at the age where he can shepherd a new generation of artists toward their own audiences.
“My relationship with the blues has definitely deepened with age,” Harper says, acknowledging that, when performing a style directly associated with experience, one tends to be a better blues interpreter the older one gets.
“I continue to work my way into the blues,” he says before pausing, apparently caught by the realization that he’s speaking generationally. “Actually, I wish rock ‘n’ roll was youth music again. It isn’t resurgent at the moment, not like hip-hop and R&B. Everybody and everything has their time and their reign, but it would be nice to see rock ‘n’ roll come back on the scene again in a big way.”
Nevertheless, Harper’s most famous act of boosterism has probably been Jack Johnson, the Hawaiian surfer-filmmaker-singer-songwriter whose popularity outstripped even Harper’s, improbably filling arenas with his preternaturally laid-back acoustic pop.
“I think I’ve done my fair share of (mentorship),” Harper says. “With Jack Johnson and other people, I’ve seen they could have an influence. I’m always looking around.”
He mentions that he recently produced a new record by Christopher Paul Stelling, a furiously talented folk guitarist who also writes cutting songs on social themes; the kind of music that fits snugly into Harper’s wheelhouse.
“I think I was able to bring him along in a special way,” says Harper. “That’s what I’m always looking to do.”
While Stelling’s career prefigured Harper’s involvement, a newer artist called Birdthrower is a complete discovery.
“When I met him he was crawling through Manhattan,” says Harper. “I mean literally crawling, on his hands and knees, people walking around him. I tend to gravitate toward people who are crawling through a major city in a blue business suit for no apparent reason.” Harper talked to the man (actually named Robert O. Leaver) and found that, in addition to being a performance artist, he was a musician and songwriter.
“It became a mission of mine to help him explore his own sound and get it out to the world the best I could,” Harper says, describing that sound as “one part Johnny Cash, one part Lou Reed and 100 percent Birdthrower.”
In terms of his own development, Harper says he’s about to release a new album with no vocals. In fact, his lap steel guitar is the only instrument. It’s called “Winter is for Lovers” and, like a classic LP, it’s designed with an A-side and a B-side in mind.
“It’s all one suite, with each side broken up into different movements,” he says. “I’ve been working on it for 20 years. It’s not improvised, it’s all written down. I’ve been playing pieces of it live for years just to experiment with it, but now it’s in its finished form. I had it orchestrated with percussion and strings and then I stripped it all back to just lap steel. I haven’t felt this vulnerable about releasing a record in a very long time.”
In 2014, Harper made an album with his mother, Ellen, a folk singer in her own right. Both wrote original songs for it that highlighted their vocal skills. As with the blues, Harper sees himself as growing back into the folk music he was raised on. His grandparents ran an acoustic instrument store-cum-museum, and he has said in the past that when he retires he hopes to take over its operation, though that doesn’t mean he will stop making music.
“Of course not, but I will definitely retire from touring,” he says. “I’ve got another 10-year run, but I don’t see myself at 60 running around the world like this. For now, it’s where I want to be. Every gig still feels like the first one I ever played.”
Part of that freshness of feeling probably comes from working with The Innocent Criminals, three older musicians who are so conversant in rock, reggae and funk that they allow Harper to indulge his obsessions.
And while he feels blessed at being able to pursue music on his own terms, Harper is realistic about the industry’s role in that good fortune.
“Anything that happened well for me in the mainstream has been an accident,” he says. “It’s mainly been a combination of something I’ve written and good timing. You can have a great song on a s——y record label and then you’re done. I just happened to have a couple of songs that connected at the right time with the right record label which invested in me. Hit songs are as much about marketing as they are about music.”
And, in the age of streaming, even that dynamic has gone by the wayside.
“It’s the Wild West right now,” Harper says with a laugh.
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals play Bigcat in Osaka on March 2, Diamond Hall in Nagoya on March 3 and Toyosu Pit in Tokyo on March 5. For more information, visit www.benharper.com.