10.25.12 Sydney Morning Herald Article/Interview
Minimal to the max
Date October 26, 2012
Samuel J Fell
Ben Harper is bringing his most intriguing musical turn yet to Australia.
In the early 1990s, while most of the musical world was neck-deep in the punk-rock conformity that grunge had become, a youngster from southern California emerged with a record that began a modern roots-music revival, introducing a new generation to blues, folk, soul and reggae.
With Pleasure and Pain in 1992, Ben Harper, a happy-go-lucky twentysomething, born at the tail-end of the Swinging Sixties, tapped into something that, 20 years later, makes him a trailblazer, lauded by the Blind Boys of Alabama, Jack Johnson and Charlie Musselwhite, among others.
''It seems like, about, 20 hours at the most,'' Harper smiles when asked if it seems as though it's been 20 years since he began this epic journey. ''I tell you what, I'm a lot fitter now than I was then, I'm getting my Benjamin Button on. But it went quick, I tell you that much. If the next 20 goes as quick as the first 20, I gotta hang on.''
The fact Harper has been around for so long, in a time where the music industry - not to mention the world in general - is shrinking rapidly, is an achievement in itself. ''It's been beyond my expectations as to how far a lap steel guitar player and songwriter out of a folk-music store in southern California [can go]. It's gone far beyond my wildest imaginings,'' he says. ''And that's only due to the fans and their reception and connection.
''And they're the bravest fans, because I go from a ballad to a rocker, from reggae to blues, soul, folk, rock and they've just rolled with those punches in a way that has never been seen in the music industry, and I'm proud of that. If there's any mark I've made, that's the one, and it's only due to them and their reception to the music I make.''
It seems fitting, then, with Harper talking about how his music has evolved over the years, that in his current guise he's going back to where it all began: just himself and an acoustic guitar, which is how we'll see him touring Australia this month. It's interesting, too, that this format is where a lot of his songs, usually performed with a band, would have been born. This is Harper going full circle.
''It really lets the song be the song,'' the 42-year-old says. ''It lets the lyrics … lead the charge, and these songs are redefining themselves to me for that reason. I love the challenge of it [too].''
If his laid-back demeanour during this interview and his penchant to laugh is any indicator, Harper is in a good space.
He has released his most recent record with long-time label Virgin Records, By My Side, a collection of his ballads from the past two decades, and he's just finished recording a blues album, Get Up!, with harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite, with whom he'll tour next year for Bluesfest.
''Charlie and I connected in 1995 when I was opening up for John Lee Hooker,'' Harper says. ''Then we met again when John Lee asked us to perform on the same song on an album of his in 1998 … and so we became friends, and we've been talking about making this album ever since [then]. So it's been damn near 20 years in the making.''
It is not looking likely that Harper is going to slow down soon, either.
''Yeah, I'm good for another 20 before I sail off into the sunset.''
November 12, 8pm, November 13-15, 8.30pm, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay.
TICKETS 9250 7111, limited tickets available from $118.
TRAVEL Buses, trains and ferries to Circular Quay. Taxis to steps or use the parking station.
LIVE Modern fusion of blues/soul/reggae/rock, this time in solo mode.
BEST TRACK Another Lonely Day from Fight for Your Mind.