01.09.13 Ben Harper interview from Hey Hey My My (Australian music blog)
Hey Hey My My
Music For Adults
January 6, 2013 by Andrew Watt
Ben Harper is a regular visitor to Australia. This interview was conducted just before he toured here in solo mode in late 2012 and in March 2013 he’ll be back with a full band for Bluesfest.
AW: Last time you were here it was with Fistful Of Mercy, this time it is solo, and now you’ve been announced as doing Bluesfest with a full band. How important is it for you to keep changing things around to keep it interesting?
BH: For me it seems obvious and it’s vital. It seems like the natural thing for anybody whose made music for the length of time I have; it’s a necessity as much as something I want to do.
AW: You’ve got a lot of freedom to do that too. It’s not like you’ve been totally identified with being a member of a particular band like if you’d been in Radiohead or something!
BH: That hit the nail on the head. I’ve been a solo artist with a band; a solo artist with a band called the Innocent Criminals, a solo artist with a band called the Relentless Seven. So I guess every band I have been in other than Fistful of Mercy and been me…. and that band name. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is still Tom Petty. That can be navigated in any number of ways, depending on the lens that you look through.
AW: When you sit down and go through the catalogue before a tour with a new band or solo, do you find that certain songs translate better in certain configurations?
BH: You do that and you try and find some that naturally fit and some that you actually have to work with to bring into focus, which is also fun. And some just don’t translate to different bands and even to solo. But most do translate to solo because that’s often how they are written.
AW: Some of the venues for the solo show have been quite big and you’ve been doing some festivals. Has it been a challenge to do what is an intimate show in a big location?
BH: People are so attuned musically to different sounds and styles that its not so much of a left turn or sliding on the breaks as it may have been ten or fifteen years ago. There’s been so much different music at so many different festivals all over the world, from solo artists to bands as big as Arcade Fire, I’ve found it to be intimate regardless of the venue.
AW: You are playing at the Opera House down here? Is that the first time you’ve got to play at the Opera House?
BH: Oh you’ve heard of it? (laughs) It is the first time that I’ll be playing there and hopefully not the last. Can you believe it’s the Sydney Opera House. It’s a ‘dear mom’ kind of thing. It’s one of those “look at me now mom’ moments. Man alive, I’ve got to think of something outside the box, that can’t just be another gig.
AW: The other bit of news is the release of By My Side. It’s an interesting selection of songs. How did you go about putting those together?
BH: They came to me and wanted to put out a Greatest Hits and I felt I had as many greatest misses as greatest hits. So I wasn’t altogether enthusiastic about that. It could have come together but maybe at a different point in time. So I said, “If you want my input I’d like to do something different. I’d like to put together a record of ballads. That excites me and I’ll give you a new one as well to kind of liven it up”. And they went for it.
AW: I read recently that you are thinking that albums are not necessarily the ideal configuration in the age when people are down loading song by song and that a body or work of five songs seemed to be the right number. How did you arrive at that number?
BH: I put some thought into it. I took into consideration the journey and depth that you can reach as an artist from a body of work and at the same time took into consideration modern times and the modern musical creative attention span. A lot of people are going by song-by-song now. I arrived at that number. I think with five songs you can still stretch out as a musician, as an artist and as a songwriter, but at the same time…. When is the last time that you have excitedly got to the tenth song on the record?
AW: Funnily enough the last album I say through because it was a real journey was Dhani Harrisons’ new album.
BH: Isn’t that a great record? He really has made a career defining record. I am so excited for him. He’s like a brother to me and I feel like the proud older brother.
AW: So do you think that you might be able to work in clusters of five songs now that you are not constrained by the label model.
BH: Possibly. Now don’t get me wrong. I sat through the Adele record; I sit through Radiohead records. I sit through records, I’m a record listener and I love them. And if I feel like I’ve got ten songs and I’ve hit that mark, I’ll commit to them. But if five feels right I don’t want to shy away from doing that.
AW: last year a song that got a lot of attention was Rock n’ Roll Is Free. Was that your way of saying goodbye to the stage of you career when you were attached to record labels?
BH: By default. I wasn’t leading into it when I was writing it, but boy it ended up knocking out a couple of birds with a stone. Poor birds.
AW: I guess the situation you now find yourself in allows you to do what you’ve always wanted to do, and that is collaborating with whoever you want to.
BH: Ohhh, for a cat like me could it be any other way? Really? So many people have nightmare stories with their label, but I really don’t. I had a great time being on EMI. Man, we surpassed both of our expectations as far as where the music I make could reach. It was great, but it is also great now to set sail in another direction. Like you said, I can put out five songs and release them any which way I want to. It can be web only. I can name the price. There is so much creative opportunity out there these days, it feels great to have those options.
AW: You’ve just done a record with Charlie Musselwhite who is a wonderful musician and a wonderful man. How did that come about?
BH: Charlie and I first met when I was opening up for John Lee Hooker at The Sweetwater, in San Francisco in 1995, when Charlie was playing with John Lee Hooker. Charlie and I hit it off so well. Then at the end of 96’ I met Charlie again in Byron Bay and we hung out then. Then in ’97 John Lee Hooker called Charlie and I in to record for what was to be his last studio record. Our friendship has been going from then and we have been threatening since the John Lee Hooker sessions to make a record. For fifteen years plus, we have been talking about making this record and we finally got to it.
AW: Where did the songs come from?
BH: The songs came from my archives and from co-writing with the band. It was a mix of songs that I had as well as ideas of songs that I bought to my band R7 and we filled out with Charlie.
AW: I believe you are bringing Charlie to Byron Bay next year?
BH: I’d have to say Charlie is bringing me!
AW: You’ve got a pretty good relationship with Byron Bay.
BH: It’s a pretty good one to have a relationship with Every time I get on the plane I think, “Why are you leaving, what’s so important that you have to leave here right now?” Every time I’ve been on the plane I’ve felt like that.
AW: Has it got to the point with you now that genres don’t mean anything anymore and it’s just the music that you play?
BH: I think is has… I really think it has… It’s taken this much time to recognize that it might even be a genre within a genre. That’s not for me to say, but I love that you have even broached that as a question, because it means it’s at least being thought about. Through collaborations with Tom Morello and Solomon Burke … name anyone else who has collaborated with Eddie Vedder, John Lee Hooker , Solomon Burke and Rickie Lee Jones….
AW: Hmmm, I can’t think of anyone right now…
BH: (Big laughs): Ha ha ha, I cant think of anybody right now…that’s funny man…
AW: It’s true though…
BH: That’s the best part, when my phone rings and I’m thinking “Solomon Burke is calling me on my phone?” Oh my god, Taj Mahal…this is crazy. My life is just nuts. You couldn’t write it because you wouldn’t believe it could be done. It’s crazy.
AW: You’re on the verge of an exciting time. Where do you see the path leading from here?
BH: I have my own studio, and the combination of having my own studio and having the freedom to release music in any which way possible… I don’t know where that is going to take me or what it’s going to mean, but I know it’s going to mean exciting conversations about the opportunities. I can’t wait to have those conversations and I’m gonna take it a conversation at a time.