05.11.11 Q&A: Ben Harper
Q&A: Ben Harper Kathy McCabe From: National Features May 11, 2011
IT ONLY takes a pebble to bring down the roots-rock king, writes Kathy McCabe.
You pulled a bit of a surprise at Bluesfest. Everyone was expecting Relentless7 and you rocked up with the Innocent Criminals.
I was a bit surprised. I think there was a miscommunication because I had asked it to be billed just as "Ben Harper", so it could go either way.
Is that the same reason your new record Give Till It's Gone is credited as just a Ben Harper album?
Yeah, that's an offshoot of that. My first record on Virgin (EMI) was called Welcome To The Cruel World and this is my last EMI record. It just made sense to go out as I came in.
Why is it your last record with EMI?
It was a 10-record contract and I've made it to the end of that particular line.
Ten records in about 17 years, right?
Isn't that crazy?
You would be one of the very few artists in the world right now to have made 10 records with the one label.
In the blink of an eye, too. So quick.
There is a perception of doom and gloom about how to go about a music career, yet almost 20 years down the track you're surviving and thriving.
It's still so fresh to me and urgent. I still don't feel like I've broken the mould or cracked the code.
Were you being ironic calling a song on the new album Rock N' Roll Is Free?
If you are going to title a song Rock N' Roll Is Free, there better be a little irony in it. At the same time, there's a straightforwardness and undeniability to the sentiment.
Why take on the challenge of writing a song that draws its inspiration from Neil Young? It would be daunting looking at that blank piece of paper.
Every song I write is a tribute to Neil Young because I am a huge fan. But as much as it is a tribute, it was just a moment of inspiration that could not be denied. We opened up for him in Hyde Park and he was singing (Keep On) Rockin' In The Free World, and when a song hits you in a wave, it's as if you are in a time warp, as if you have gotten into the Back To The Future DeLorean automobile. Things start to spin around you in a specific way, and while he was singing it, I was hearing "rock" and "free" and "rock is free". Not only are we rockin' in the free world, but rock is now, for all intents and purposes, free. Don't get me wrong, rock is still well for sale, and I do believe in respecting an artist's creative copyright. But if you're a kid in Broken Hill, you're 15 and don't have any money and can't afford Ben Harper music, I would rather you take it than not have it.
This is an interesting record also for the people who contribute to it. Do you seek collaborations with Ringo Starr and Jackson Browne, or do they just happen to you?
I have never sought out one collaboration in my life. They have been in front of me and the timing has been right. Jack Johnson used to come to my shows, I'd see him there, and he had some heavyweight friends - Rob Machado, Kelly Slater. But I was intrigued with him just from his vibe and he was a nice guy, regardless of me not hearing a note from him at that point. This was well before he put out a record. Through that meeting and getting an early demo tape of his that was extraordinary, it came to pass I would play on his record. It made sense.
What antenna do you have to attract these musical meetings of minds that others don't?
You know, the second you put yourself in a position to say you deserve an opportunity like that, you have spoken out of turn. So I don't want to sit here and act as though I am worthy. It is also important to recognise where you are at in your life, and I am at a point where I never know who's gonna be on the other end of my phone when it rings. It could be B Real from Cypress Hill - we're talking about doing something. One of the most exciting aspects of my day is: "Who the heck is gonna call?"
When Ringo Starr is in the room, how do you keep it together?
Well, you have to be worthy of the request, so I hold my composure together pretty good. But when I don't, Ringo and Jackson are so sympathetic towards me. They cut you some slack and they are used to people getting used to them.
It sounds as if you may have gone through a long dark night of the soul to come to the songs on Give Till It's Gone.
That could be. When it comes to my own self-objective analysis, whatever you call it, of my output, songs like I Will Not Be Broken, Rock N' Roll Is Free and Spilling Faith seem so optimistic. Then there's Waiting On A Sign, Do It For You, Do It For Us and Dirty Little Lover that may be a little more aggressive.
What about Clearly Severely?
That's actually about skateboarding. The songs you wanna write should not only represent different things to different people, they should also represent more than one thing at a time. That's a song that deserves to be stamped "Approved" on the record.
When did you last face-plant while skateboarding?
(Laughs) It just takes a pebble to bring down a good man. The last time I took a really solid tumble was making an attempt at this pyramid at my home skate park. I was trying to front or backside it, 50/50 grind the whole thing, and I was just slamming to the point I was like, "Forget it". And the guy filming me was, "Come on, man, just a couple more times ... "
After about the 12th go, I came close, but then I bailed after I got bucked a couple of times and went straight to the hip. Oh, the hips. On the final one, I locked in the front truck and grinded the whole thing. Yay. I suppose it's worth it, but, boy, it'll put me in a padded cell.
Do you get teased by the kids at the skate park?
Every once in a while there's a, "Hey, old man", but when they see me pull a move they can't do, it's all equal. It's proved itself to be quite an ageless sport.