"Living Blues Talks To Ben Harper" by Brett J. Bonner
(Originally published in Living Blues Issue #253 Vol. 49, #1)
Multi-instrumentalist Ben Harper has once again paired up with harp legend Charlie Musselwhite for No Mercy in This Land on Anti- Records, the follow up to 2013's Grammy-winning Get Up!. LB talked with Harper just before Christmas about the upcoming release.
You mentioned to me that this new CD is the blues album you have always wanted to make. Why is that? What guided you to the point of being able to do this album now?
This record, to me, feels like it is the album I have been trying to write, the depth I have been trying to reach as a musician, as a producer, as a writer in all different fields. This feels like it represents all of them the strongest and the clearest.
Age and time and experience and maturity. It is a record that I have had to grow into. And it is a return to form. My earliest work was all blues. The first gigs I ever did were all solo blues gigs. This is a record I had to live into. I had to grow into the blues. I had to mature into the genre to where I wouldn't be bullshitting you. If you are even gonna call it blues, it's got to bleed a little.
How did your early blues experiences affect this album?
Blues is where I come from. Mississippi John Hurt's Hey Baby, Right Away was why I picked up the guitar. I asked my grandmother who were these guitarists playing. She said, "That's one guy." I said "No!" The next morning I woke up in the family music shop with a guitar in my hand. I stayed up the entire night and worked that out. It was a revelation to me.
Everything I have ever done is blues based, especially the penmanship—the lyrics. The majority of what I listen to is blues. If I put together my earliest influences, playing blues and seeking it out, I fell in love with the blues and knew my life was going to be devoted to the blues. I made it my life's work to go hang out with some of these guys. I was not going to compromise. Going and hanging out with Louis Myers and Brownie McGhee, that led to having some maturity in the genre. But I was so green when Taj Mahal asked me to join his band he asked, "Do you go on the road?" I was so green I thought he meant when I drive! I said, "Yea, I drive on the road!" After touring with Taj, that is when people began to take my original music seriously. What I was doing back then directly influenced what I am doing now because it is the foundation.
What do you feel is the difference between No Mercy in This Land and Get Up!?
I think I put the most discipline into completing these songs on this album as I ever have. I just didn't let go. I was brave enough to measure this album against my blues heroes. I went as deep into the well for this one as I ever have.
The minute I walked out of recording Get Up! I knew this was its own lane. This is something and this works. I knew where it could point us given the right attention. The way it was received by the blues community meant a lot to me.
How much of the material was complete before you came to the studio?
All of it. This record we came in holding. Sometimes you can let the unknown glorify a record in your favor but sometimes it doesn't. I went in knowing I got it.
How did your relationship with Charlie Musselwhite start?
In 1993 I had completed my first record, Welcome to the Cruel World. I decided I wanted to be with the same agent that booked John Lee Hooker. And that lead me to the Rosebud Agency. After Mike Kappus played him my record, John asked if I would open for him at a series of gigs he was playing to help save the Sweetwater Club. And Charlie was in the band. They welcomed me into their circle and that is how I first met Charlie and it just grew from there. We spent the better part of 20 years threatening to record together. Finally it happened for Get Up!. We had recorded together in 1998 for John's And Friends album. That led us to want to record together. At some point I started holding back material I wanted to record with Charlie. So Get Up! is maybe 75 percent material I had held back. That album was an explosion. You could hear the spontaneity in that record.
On this record, though, I sent all the players every track in advance. So they had heard it all. Except for Love Is Not Enough. That was just one of those bursts that just happened.
There is a spiritual tone that weaves throughout everything you do. Talk with me about your own spirituality and how that impacts your music.
I've always found the beautiful thing about music is it gives the opportunity to present the spirit without saying that is what you are doing. I consider myself a believer at the deepest level, but I am not sure in what. It stems from that spirit of things and a belief. Without belief it wouldn't sound the way that it does.
There is something to belief that is dogma free. There is a piece that comes from surviving pain that comes right up the middle of all of it. If you are gonna get through some shit and survive, and not only survive but tell about it, there is gonna be a frequency to that...a texture to that sound.
Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite — No Mercy in This Land
When Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite met up in the studio in 2013 to record Get Up!, they hardly expected that it would win a Grammy for Best Blues Album in 2014. The pair first met when John Lee Hooker brought them into the studio to play on the song Burnin' Hell. Harper and Musselwhite discovered then a groove, a similar love for the blues—and for searching for old records in dusty record bins—and passion for digging deep into the soul of a tune.
No Mercy in This Land showcases the deep-in-the-blues partnership that Harper and Musselwhite continue to develop. Harper masterfully commands a vocal range that soars from blues moan to soul-stirring shouts, and Musselwhite bends and blows his harp as he weaves mournful phrases into some tunes and jumping and joyous trills into others. Harper's blues moans in the first four bars of the album's opening song, When I Go, move slowly into a classic, slow-burning tune of loss and the things you leave behind and the things you take with you in order to survive. Bad Habits is a bright jump blues tune that delivers a down-and-out theme of the unraveling of love; the singer cries at least once a day, declaring that his lover, or his bad habit, is "like a puzzle in a box / but I'm the one coming all apart." A classic soul song, Love and Trust, recalls the best of Curtis Mayfield and Mavis Staples. With its Muddy Waters vibe, The Bottle Wins Again, which may be the best song on the album, masks its message about the mixed joys and anguish of drinking in a shimmering, shouting tune. A gospel piano opens the ballad When Love Is Not Enough, which recalls the Stones' I Got the Blues from Sticky Fingers, and Harper's just-right phrasing reveals the aching, regretful feeling of the song. The title track features Musselwhite's gravelly vocals in a song that could almost be an anthem for today's troubled times: "What would be the first thing you would say to the Lord / won't you please help me to understand / is there no mercy in this land?" Yet, at the very end of the song, the music stops for a moment as Musselwhite asks plaintively whether or not mercy exists for his murdered mother, buried beneath the headstone at which he gazes.
Harper and Musselwhite sound as if they've been playing together for a lifetime; the songwriting and playing set No Mercy in This Land in a category by itself, and it's not too early to say that this is one of the best albums of the year.
—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.