07.03.12 Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite album entitled 'Get Up' coming Jan. 2013 (Vancouver Sun interview)
Ben Harper breaks free
By Francois Marchand, Vancouver SunJuly 3, 2012 2:49 PM
Ben Harper is saving the hammer for Walmart.
Reached via phone in Santa Monica recently, the Grammy-winning roots-rock singer-songwriter was debating whether he would make an appearance at a planned demonstration against the building of a new Walmart store in the heart of Los Angeles’s Chinatown.
The gathering generated quite a bit of media attention and was being directed by his good friend Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine fame), with whom Harper recently recorded protest song Save The Hammer For The Man.
“It’s historic Chinatown,” Harper said. “
I love it down there. It’s a special place with a special feel, it’s rich in historic value, and it should be preserved. Part of that preservation should be not allowing a Walmart there. There are so many other places it can go. Let’s not even get into free trade and labour laws.”
The music industry certainly has changed since Harper signed his 10-album contract with label Virgin Records in 1994, which yielded highlights including 1995’s Fight For Your Mind, 1999’s Burn To Shine (with the Innocent Criminals) and 2004’s There Will Be A Light (with the Blind Boys of Alabama).
Back then, CDs were the main way of consuming an artist’s music, and many, including Harper, built a following on fans buying whole albums to obtain the singles they wanted to hear (case in point: Steal My Kisses).
Now, one can just hop on over to iTunes or Amazon and buy a song for a buck without worrying about obtaining entire records.
“I think EPs are the future of rock ’n’ roll,” Harper said. “It makes you fine-tune and hone down your craft. Five songs for five bucks to me is the new math. I think people would be more willing and excited to spend five bucks, and a lot of people don’t make 10 great songs. Five will really give you a chance to shine brighter. I would like to go that way. And maybe I’ll do five twice a year.”
When the 42-year-old penned single Rock n’ Roll is Free last year, he wasn’t thinking about music’s monetary value, although many made that association, considering the crumbling state of the music business.
“When I wrote it, it was more about rock ’n’ roll having more freedom now than before because it’s not confined by industry standards or rules,” Harper said. “But then it was received in different ways and some figured I meant monetarily free. I sort of defended it on that basis as well. The impetus for the song is just the freedom that I feel being off a record label and the freedom music now has, travelling across the world at the press of a button.”
Harper’s latest album Give ’til it’s Gone, which features Rock n’ Roll is Free, was the last album on his Virgin contract.
And although his current band Relentless7 co-wrote a good portion of the material and played on the album along with guests Ringo Starr and Jackson Browne, Harper decided to release the album under his solo name.
The gesture was a symbolic way of closing the book on the long label chapter in Harper’s career, ending things on his terms rather than under the Relentless7 or Innocent Criminals band banner he used on previous records.
Harper agreed things were “immeasurably different” than they were 10 albums ago.
“And it’s so exciting,” he said excitedly.
Harper confirmed he just finished recording a new collaboration album with harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite entitled Get Up, and that release had been set for January 2013 via Concord Records.
"It is blues the way blues is supposed to sound and feel from where I sit. It’s definitely a unique deal and it leaves room for growth.”
The Musselwhite collaboration is the latest in a long line of partnerships with legendary artists that have included, among others, Taj Mahal, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Solomon Burke and longtime friend Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.
“Oh man, did I get off on the right planet or what? It’s nuts.”
For his coming Vancouver show, Harper will essentially be revisiting material spanning his whole career, much as he did at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park last year. The concert will once again feature Relentless7 as his backing band.
Asked if Vancouver fans were more prone than fans in other cities to “burn one down” — in reference to his song Burn One Down, which has become a “lighting up” anthem — Harper laughed wholeheartedly.
“Yes, they do,” he said, adding the biggest “live” joint he had ever seen was in Vancouver.
“It’s not just that they burn it down more than other places, but they burn it down finer than most places. The most extreme contact high I’ve received while playing was in Vancouver [at the Malkin Bowl]. By the second song I was gone. I hope the gig went okay.”