He sprang from the steamy Los Angeles suburbs, a skateboard punk whose very first release — in 1994, when he was a mere 24 years old — came out on a major record label hand-picked by the artist himself. Yep, Ben Harper turned down offers from several other major labels before settling on Virgin Records to release the acclaimed Welcome to the Cruel World. He chose Virgin because of that company’s reputation for allowing its musicians creative freedom. Since that fateful decision, Harper has sold more than 2 million CDs, and his first three discs enjoy gold and/or platinum status internationally.
Harper takes his early, nearly unheard-of success in stride, however — noting that he’s simply doing what he loves. “I never had a moment where I felt, ‘Wow, I can make a living [playing music]’,” he noted in a recent telephone interview. “There was never a time when I said, ‘I’m going to make money doing this.’ There was a time where I said, ‘No matter what happens in my life, I’m going to be making music.’ I mean, if I were working some 9-to-5 job, I’d still be making music.”
Of course, the chances of the powerhouse singer/guitarist’s ever working a 9-to-5 job are about the same as the odds of this reporter’s, well, hand-picking a major record label on which to release her stunning debut CD. In a world of cheap knockoffs (does the name Chris Gaines ring a bell?), Harper is a blazingly gifted original. He’s often described as an amalgam of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley, and Harper reveals that he owns “everything both of them ever recorded.” But his formidably distinctive voice — and the vaguely haunted, yet decadently resonant, sound of his vintage Weissenborn acoustic guitar — exalt Harper to a musical stratosphere that’s his alone. He’s a mesmerizing live performer, too, blending grace with grit and evoking heady, deliciously illicit sensations with his potent blend of politics and sensuality. And oh, that voice — poised between a whisper and a shout, breaking beautifully at times, then sliding into smooth, soulful flights that border on unearthly. (After I saw Harper perform for the first time, some four years ago in Salt Lake City, I descended on the record stores, ready to buy everything he’d ever recorded. But everyone else in attendance, it seemed, had had the same reaction; not a record store in town had a single CD left, the day after his concert.)
The hollow-necked Weissenborn lap-slide guitar — built by Herman Weissenborn for only a few years from the mid-1920s to the early ’30s — has become Harper’s signature. “I just like the sound of it,” he reveals simply: “That’s why I play it. It’s sort of like, why would anyone play the trombone? It’s just for the sheer, pure sound of it.
“If I picked up a [Stratocaster] all of a sudden and disregarded the Weissenborn, then started playing with a couple of keyboards and maybe some horns, I’d be in trouble,” he told one music writer. “I’d be far from the root. I stick with the Weissenborn. It says something new to me every day. Every time I pick it up, it sings something new. As long as I keep close to the root — whether it’s acoustic-ballad songs, harder rock songs or something in between — as long as the music stays close to the root, then it’ll stay sweet fruit.”
Harper’s “sweet fruit” marries folk, funk, rock, Delta blues and a host of other styles (he claims influences ranging from the aforementioned Hendrix to Hank Williams to blues legend Robert Johnson) in sometimes-ornate, sometimes gorgeously stripped-down ways. He’s released a total of four CDs on Virgin Records over the past five years. My favorite, 1996’s Fight For Your Mind, is a gritty-yet-voluptuous cornucopia of tunes that range from the unabashedly political (the title track, “Oppression” and the pro-marijuana manifesto “Burn One Down”) to the deeply personal (the exquisitely sexual “Please Me Like You Want To”), snaked together with hypnotic rhythms as disparate as the songs themselves.
His brand-new release, this year’s Burn to Shine, sounds far more studio-polished than his previous works — but it’s no less an eclectic tour-de-force. Backed by his band, The Innocent Criminals (Juan Nelson on bass, Dean Butterworth on drums and David Leach on percussion), Harper blends tender ballads like “The Woman In You” with anthemic rockers like the title track; pure soul scorchers like “Beloved One” and “In the Lord’s Arms” with the playful, up-tempo folk of “Steal My Kisses.” Acclaimed slide guitarist David Lindley sits in on “In the Lord’s Arms,” and the Suzi Katayama Quartet provides a lush string arrangement on “Beloved One.”
Getting Harper to discuss the specifics of his music is pretty near impossible. As he told one reporter: “Talking about music, you run the risk of sounding like a complete idiot. What more can you say about something that has already been stated in the best way you’re able to say it?” When I asked him about a statement of his that’s emblazoned on his press bio — “Sometimes I think to talk too much about music almost cheapens it.” — he groaned in mock agony. “I’m famous for that quote now,” he says with a weak laugh. “It’ll follow me to my grave.” And? Is there anything else he’d like to say? Nope.
Harper claims to have little interest in what anyone else (i.e., music critics) says about his music, either. “I just don’t read my press,” he asserts, “so what people say doesn’t affect me or what I do. Sure, I get excited when I see myself on the cover of Guitar Player magazine or something, but that’s about it.”
Harper has no problem talking about music in general, however, telling me he believes “music can play a part in change and transformation for a person. It has certainly changed my life.” He went a little further with Heckler magazine reporter Sonny Mayugba, though, proclaiming: “Music is the lowest common denominator of humanity. It’s a thread among and through all of us that’s understood beyond language, age, time.
“It’s boundaryless and barrierless.” Hmm. Sounds like Harper’s dangerously close to describing his own music.