BEN HARPER: Role Models

Written by July 8th, 2009 at 8:00 pm

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With White Lies for Dark Times, Ben Harper finds his genre-defying hybrid taking root in rockier plains—and that musical immediacy creates a tension that ratchets up his always on-point lyrics. Working with Relentless7—the latest incarnation of a Cinderella moment with a promoter’s runner Harper met in Austin, Texas—the impact isn’t just immediate in terms of attack, but also in grounding his always far-flung folk/Hendrix/world/jazz/beat-box songs.

“Keep It Together (So I Can Fall Apart),” “Lay There and Hate Me” and “Why Must You Always Dress In Black” bristle with an urgency that captures the ear with their razor-wire electricity, while the halting “The Word Suicide” is a meditation stretched taut over doubt and minimalism. It’s that how-now arranging, the leanness and the thrust that gives this far-flung collection a new kind of cohesion from the man who seems comfortable so many places he defies categories.

Can you quantify music’s role in your life?
My life without a soundtrack is stripped bare. To me, music’s not to be trivialized. Do not try to minimize or commoditize it.

How does that give you a [creative] foundation?
It’s never about anyone or anything… it’s really more a psychological or emotional necessity. [As a songwriter] you work from instinct, intuition and reaction. The songs will tell you: “Burn To Shine” has to be a rock song.

So you let the songs tell you…
What’s unique is the diversity of the songs, but it can also be my Achilles’ heel. You know, you’re not handing the record company 10 of one kind of song that they could market. So I’ll see mohawks, piercings, tattoos and yuppies… I’ll see the gentleman who signed me’s 80-something-year-old father, who’s a real old school Santa Monica nonconformist.

Sounds tricky.
Going hand-to-hand, ticket-by-ticket, show-to-show has given me a real appreciation of how you find your fans… I am loyal to my creative process, and you realize the music we love, when we put it on, something else enters the room.

How does that reflect your working with Relentless7 and the evolution from the Innocent Criminals?
In some ways, it’s a reckless abandonment of my past… but I’ve never landed in my past, as my fans know, I toured Both Sides of the Gun with the Innocent Criminals, we wrote Lifeline; but Relentless7 represent something I’ve been trying to do my whole life. It’s a scary place to be, and yet… how can I not [go there]?

In those times when I’ve not done that—and tried to chase commercial connection—the business has always given me such a consistent smackdown, I can’t help but notice. Lessons like that, it doesn’t take an ass-whupping to figure out.

Can you explain the change?
Well, it feels like I’ve been trying to write these songs my whole life, and the evolution of a lot of it is connecting with Relentless7. I’ve never been satisfied with my own work, never felt comfortable with a creative arrival… What do I do with an exterior reality that gets me there?

And you heard the previous band’s demo tape on a ride from a hotel to the gig in 1998?
Yeah, I didn’t want to be the guy who says “No, I won’t listen,” even though to get onstage in front of 5,000, you need to be in a certain place. But when he puts it in, I’m floored: it’s the best rock record I’ve heard—and it stuck with me.

I kept thinking back to ?uestlove and John Paul Jones… that experience kept coming back to Serve Your Soul. So I trusted it. We just played Austin City Limits and the fact they heard this record and wanted us the day they heard it was such a musical high. The things they get, the way they put it together—I knew we’d connected.

More concretely, what about lyrics?
I’m really trimming the fat now. You don’t do that unless someone’s over your shoulder at a younger age. You grow into it. I can feel the change aesthetically, genetically. If our species changes over time, it’s happening while we’re alive and making music. For me, it’s sparer.

Can you explain?
When John Prine writes “bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down… and won,” it’s simple. It is. Or it is not. You can’t negotiate a color, a moment, a feeling. John Prine is so good at that. He’s my Leonard Cohen.

How do you apply it?
We start breaking it down: like autobiography or journalism. It gets tricky, because it’s not always about something that happened, but the moment you sing it, you have to own it. Take it on.

Are there things you always use as you make this kaleidoscopic music?
Fearlessness, absolutely. Discipline. You also need open-minded creativeness that lets everything in. You never want to lose a word or a phrase, yet every one should count. Always the best language possible. And, finally, knowing when to leave it alone. Stop when it’s done.

Ben Harper and Relentless7’s White Lies for Dark Times is out now on Virgin Records.

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