Ben Harper: One More Change
Photo: Jacob Boll
“There are so many different roads that excite me,” says Ben Harper, while contemplating his future creative direction. Although he remains an active, committed musician—who recently released his 17th studio album Wide Open Light—in this case, he’s referring to his potential role as an author.
In 2021, Harper wrote the foreword to his mother Ellen’s memoir, Always a Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints—My Story of the Folk Music Revival. The moving autobiography is also an important work of social and cultural history, which tracks her family’s struggles in the face of McCarthyism, leading them to relocate from their New Hampshire home to Claremont, Calif., where they founded the renowned Folk Music Center. In his introduction, Harper, who worked in the store growing up (and later purchased it to perpetuate the center’s mission) shares a pivotal moment following an early gig, when his grandfather encouraged him to explore a musical career rather than committing to the life of a luthier.
While musing on a possible literary venture, he notes, “I could fill up a hundred pages just on being a red grandbaby. It’s just been a wild ride that is still such a part of everything I do. There’s a lot there and I’m very excited about that prospect.”
Harper also recently extended himself into another new medium, appearing in the Apple TV+ series Extrapolations. He delivers a restrained yet potent interpretation of a character he has described as a mix of Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Malcolm X and Che Guevara. Harper reveals, “Film interests me and book-writing interests me, but acting scares me, which is why I jumped right into it. I took some shotgun acting classes and had a couple of incredible teachers in the process. I decided to take a simple route in playing that role—a more subdued kind of a calm within the rage.”
He found himself in another novel situation this past fall, when he opened 15 dates for Harry Styles at the Kia Forum in LA. Styles had previously solicited Harper’s guitar prowess in the studio for “Boyfriends,” which appears on 2022’s Harry House, and later extended an invitation to join the Forum residency.
Harper acknowledges, “Those shows were a great reminder that a guitar and a vocal is enough. There’s a reflection of that in Wide Open Light.”
While the new record showcases Harper’s gifts as a contemplative singer-songwriter, his preceding albums have highlighted the scope of his musical affinities and artistry. This has been manifested in collaborations with his mother (2014’s Childhood Home), the Innocent Criminals (2016’s Call It What It Is) and Charlie Musselwhite (2018’s No Mercy in This Land ), followed by his solo, lap-steel instrumental offering, 2020’s Winter Is for Lovers and then the fiery, funky, political and personal directives at the heart of 2021’s Bloodline Maintenance.
When asked whether his wide-ranging compositions are in dialogue with each other, Harper says, “Subconsciously, it’s hard to say, but consciously, I’m not so much in dialogue as in pursuit. I’m in pursuit of the best song I’ve never written.”
When you opened for Harry Styles, did you feel any responsibility to present your music in a particular way?
There is Prince’s theory of coming out in a G-string before The Rolling Stones—the theory that if you don’t love me now, your girlfriends are going to love me later.
Or there’s the kind of point, counterpoint—I went with that. I presented the songs in their most pure state, basically stripped-back solo. I didn’t go decibel for decibel with the headliner, but tried to be a part of a night that had an arc. I think it was the right choice—me and a guitar, then closing with some background vocalists to lift it up.
Can you talk about the decision-making process in performing “Boyfriends” during your set?
It was a unique situation. I don’t know that I’ve heard of it before in any other circumstance and I’ve certainly never been a part of anything close to it. Imagine opening for Pearl Jam and covering “Indifference” because it’s not in their set. It’s a tightrope.
Harry and I discussed, “What are we going to do with ‘Boyfriend?’” He told me it wasn’t in his set, and he suggested that I cover it. My response was: “If they don’t hear you do it, there may be mutiny in the moment.” To which he responded, “I’ve heard your version and I think the opposite. It’s not in my set. Maybe we’ll do it toward the end on my stage, but otherwise, it’s not going to make the night.”
He felt that a lot of people would know that I played guitar on the recorded version on his album. Then the ones who didn’t know would find out, which would give it some gravitas for them. He felt strongly that it would go over well and it did.
In the beginning, I thought it was the craziest thing I had ever heard. The opening act doesn’t play one of the jewels off the Album of the Year during the opener’s set. It doesn’t happen. But his confidence in me was super inspiring and his fans seemed to be very happy from the first notes. The reaction was insane. [Laughs.]
As the opening group, the only thing worse than being booed is being ignored. I remember the exhilaration post-show of it having gone well, landing on “Boyfriend.” It was unnerving ramping up. I knew my own set and I was comfortable because I wrote those songs when I was those kids’ age. So I was confident that those same sentiments would still emotionally land. But closing with “Boyfriend” was the great void for me, the unknown. So when we came off the stage, after having that be as loud a singalong as you’ll ever hear, it felt great.
You referenced opening for Pearl Jam in ‘96. Is there another memorable opening slot that comes to mind for one reason or another?
First, let’s flip it around. Jack Johnson opening for us consistently over the first year of his first record was magnificent. It was exciting to witness his ascension because I heard his music early on. I don’t often do session work for someone who I don’t know. I had kids and was touring 300 days a year, but his music was so arrestingly wonderful that I just couldn’t wait to do a session for this up-andcoming, unknown guy.
I was excited to be sidestage watching him and taking part, because whether Jack opened for me or not, his music was going to find its way to the planet. But the fact that I got to kind of be in the pilot seat of his introduction was as good as it gets on a certain level.
Then as far as my opening for groups outside of Pearl Jam, the early stage of opening for The Fugees was wonderful. It was me and The Fugees opening for Spearhead. Those shows were crucial in exposing my peers and people in my age group to lap-steel guitar and a genre they might not have ever seen. I felt like I was of service—it was a part of my core essence, and I was exposing something that may not have found a route were it not for me doing it in this way.
I felt the connection to something ancient. Someone in the first African country was able to stretch the gut of an animal into a string and skin a goat across a hollow drum. For that to have made it down through Black lineage to me in that moment felt like living history.
I’m also appreciative of PJ Harvey and Luscious Jackson, who took me on the road in the way that I took Jack Johnson on the road. It could be argued that if it weren’t for PJ Harvey and Luscious Jackson, it wouldn’t have lifted off in the way it did because the music that I was making was unexpected. It was subversive.
It wasn’t an obvious fit and the fact that it did fit was a big deal, not only for me at the time in proving what the music could do, but also for the label. The label didn’t know where to put me. So when they would see me in front of Pearl Jam, Luscious Jackson and PJ Harvey, they understood where the music could go.
Jumping to the near-present and your Bloodline Maintenance album, was there a particular idea, event or song that set it in motion?
Yeah, “We Need to Talk About It.” With the sort of modern 21st-century bookburning that’s going on in the South, I wanted to make that proclamation unflinchingly.
You discuss reparations in “We Need to Talk About It.” I can’t think of another song quite like it. Did it lead to the dialogue you hoped to initiate?
I had some interesting conversations in the street about it. People stopped me and couple of them said, “Listen, I hear what you’re saying with ‘Call It What It Is’ and ‘Like a King,’ but I don’t want to talk about slavery. I don’t think we need to talk about it anymore.” I said, “Opinion taken to heart. Now that you’ve initiated the conversation, is there anything else you want to say?” Then they would go on about why all lives matter. I’d say that while all lives do matter, if there were reparations made in the beginning, we wouldn’t need to have Black Lives Matter. That’s why we should continue to educate ourselves in how to better ourselves as a culture and a country.
Here’s my spiel. After the last slave was freed, if Black people didn’t have to pay taxes for a hundred years, that would’ve settled it. But instead, it was just like, “OK, now go on about your way” and that was never going to heal anything.
We continue to see any number of disconnects in the way people are disproportionately treated at every rung of the ladder socio-culturally. Whether it’s the death rate of children and mothers of color during child birth or the statistics when it comes to the biased mistreatment of people of color in so many different fields, to just not being safe in the streets as a Black person, there’s extreme cultural inequity in America. Now there are cultural equities in many different places, but because America is a laboratory of culture in a way that others aren’t, it’s incendiary in a way that other cultures aren’t.
Other songs on the record like “Need to Know Basis” demonstrate your gift for making a concise idea or sentiment seem expansive. Is that an aspiration of yours?
That’s kind of my life’s template.
That’s not how it falls on the page at first. I’ve culled from the pool that I pull from.
I circle this quite a bit, but simple ain’t easy. There’s a strength and power to it, though. You always want to grow as a songwriter. So as soon as I get caught in that web of metaphor, the older I get, the better I am at catching myself at being full of shit and the better I am at being able to filtrate that through wisdom. Hopefully, at least—that’s been my goal.
Sometimes I can hit the mark, but oftentimes, I end up having to scale back and edit. Songs for me are no different than long-form. Even my mom’s foreword, there were a hundred versions of it. There are often that many versions of a song until it’s distilled.
As you suggest, writing is rewriting. Has it become easier for you over the years to figure out when it’s time to stop?
The difference is when you’re young, you think songwriting is your Godgiven birthright. When you get older, you realize it’s your lucky privilege. So it’s not that it takes shorter or longer, but I’m so much more humbled and appreciative in the completion because some songs take five minutes and some take five years.
photo: Dean Budnick
With Wide Open Light, did you have a first song in, akin to Bloodline Maintenance?
First song in was “Masterpiece.” I had written it but then I held it because I knew I couldn’t put it on just any record. Then when I was producing the record for Rickie Lee Jones [The Devil You Know], we were short a song, and I said, nervously, anxiously, “I know I’m the producer but can I show you this?” After the first verse, she said, “Let’s record it.” At that point you just let it go, but I always knew I would do my version of it and have it surface on a record.
So that was early on, and then my biggest breakthrough on this record, creatively and musically, is the bridge on “Love After Love.” I couldn’t be more excited about that bridge. I’d been trying to write a bridge like that my entire career and finally landed on it. Many of the people who I revere, my comrades and peers, have called me and commented on that bridge. I’m getting feedback on this record in a way that I don’t often do. So that’s fun.
Did you go into this album with an overarching theme that led you to decide it was finally time to record “Masterpiece?”
I knew it was an album that centered around the human experience through relationships and through the arc of “one more change”—that proverbial one more change we need to make so we can arrive at our destination.
Earlier we touched on the question of whether “We Need to Talk About It” actually opened up the dialogue that I’d hoped. Well, in a larger sense, it didn’t.
For whatever reason, whether it’s the production, the marketing or the songs, my only pop successes have been magnificent industry accidents. “Steal My Kisses” wasn’t the main single but radio gravitated toward it. So the label said, “We’ll humor radio with this for now” because “Burn to Shine” was the single. There wasn’t any forethought; it just found its way.
I’ve never met any artist who didn’t think they deserved twice as much as they had, so I’m in a chorus of many. But I’ve always wanted my music to reach a wider audience.
Thank goodness for Europe. Europe has actually set the stage for where it could arrive as far as recognition.
“Like a King,” “Don’t Take That Attitude to Your Grave” or using Maya Angelou’s “I’ll Rise” for the first time—those were things I needed to say. That’s exactly what I’d otherwise be doing in my hometown open mic night or pub.
But as far as reaching a wider audience, I’ve always wanted my audience to reach into the Black community deeper than it has. Of course, I’m appreciative of every single individual who ever presses play. Melanin is an embarrassing dialogue for me to begin with because it’s absurd. Making so much about something you had nothing to do with feels uncomfortable. Maybe that’s because I am one of those rare Black Jews. There’s an absurdist nature that comes from being Black and Jewish.
But even in the early days, when we would do shows with The Roots and The Fugees and The Pharcyde, I noticed that the majority of those audiences were white as well. So I know it’s not just me.
I think I could open up for Jay-Z or Kendrick Lamar. I think it would be wonderfully exciting to do that in the future. I’m still not beyond the right opening slot.
I’ve been to hip-hop shows since I was in my teens—De La Soul, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Houdini, Run DMC. But pound for pound, the most consistently Black crowd I’ve ever played in front of or seen was opening for Gil Scott-Heron.
I’m at a place in my career where I can say that I wish more Black people were aware of my music. I can say I wish I had more of a diverse base. I can say that confidently and not worry about offending anyone. I’m honored to have any fans at all.
You mentioned your reception in Europe. Going back to the 1960s, European listeners were far more interested in the blues than American audiences. Do you think that’s a factor in what you’ve described?
To a degree. You would think with the advent of the internet and digital streaming platforms that would be less the case. But it’s not as much access as it is awareness. Every generation has to have its purveyors and traditional flag wavers of a genre in order to keep it alive and thriving. I’m excited to have potentially played a role in that conversation. It feels better than any award to be a part of a tradition that has you firmly planted within it.
I’ve just crossed into the threshold of that age where I’m entering into conversations about history and tradition and torch-bearing. It’s exciting.
I’m not a purist or a traditionalist with the snobbery, though. I don’t partake in that. There’s also high-quality pop music that I love as much as blues, like Adele or the new Harry record.
But you mentioned the blues and that’s where I live. Certainly folk and blues and singer-songwriter and songcraft, all of that is my stock-in-trade.
Someone could also be an American white artist and be suffering from the same plight. Any number of bands that we know and love—and who you have put on the cover—do not get any mainstream media attention. Relix has been a safety net for a very specific subculture that doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter comfort zone of popular culture.
Since you mentioned snobbery, I think Bob Marley rather eloquently summed up our ethos. Music is music, and when it hits you, you feel no pain.
Isn’t he something though? I mean we have to touch on Bob because it makes his accomplishment in the arts so profound that he was able to take reggae music to the height that he did. I’m a big Peter Tosh fan and Toots was my heart and soul and my brother—everybody’s got a place in the choir. But what Bob was able to do—I mean you want alternative music, reggae is alternative music.
I was in Florida once, and a pop station took a chance on my song “With My Own Two Hands” [which is built on a reggae groove.] I did a stop-by and I knew this was going to be a breakthrough song. Then the phone started lighting up and they answered one of the calls on the air. The caller started spitting the most vicious racial vitriol about that kind of music, so they had to take him off. Right then, I was like, “Oh, this song’s not going to get up the hill.”
One of the highlights on Wide Open Light is “8 Minutes,” which feels to me almost like the other side of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” Can you talk about the narrative perspective?
I love that you’ve asked because it’s one of my favorites on the album.
With that one, I’m a woman in a small town who had kids very young and her decisions locked her into a lifestyle with no other choice but to throw away the key. So it’s her life at age 33 to have an oldest who didn’t call and a middle who’s out of state. She’s living with her youngest in a place that she says is not just a town but a final resting place.
Then it explores how you can revitalize, even through the pain, in the places our hearts break. You can still burn down where we lost our innocence and have something come from that to make life more livable. Despite everything, it takes those magical eight minutes for the sun to hit your bones, no matter whether you are near or far from home.
What led you to explore all of that?
I had seen an exposé on young mothers. It was on women who have kids in high school but still finish.
There’s also the abortion thing in there with the “choices I refused to make.” That word choices. The choices that you refused to make—why did you refuse to make them?
Our choices shape us in ways that we might not realize while we’re making them. When you’re young, there are no long-term choices. There are choices of survival—short-term, immediate choices that we’re making from a youthful perspective.
Sometimes as a youth, I would mistake what seemed to be a choice for survival. Survival-based choices are different than comfort-based choices. There’s so much that influences both sides of that coin. I was just so moved by it.
Not to bring the pandemic into it, but I was sitting in the backyard and the world had stopped. It was such an equalizer. Then I thought to myself, “But the sun is still traveling from however many billions of miles away it is, and it’s hitting our bones, pandemic or not.” That’s when I wondered, “How long does it take for the sun to get here?” I looked it up, then I had my chorus and I learned something as well. [Laughs.]
You mentioned that this record is founded on the idea of one more change. In your song with that title, you sing about “one more chain to break, one more change to make.” Would you describe that sentiment as optimistic?
I’m still asking myself that question, don’t you know? [Laughs.] The ones that pose that permanent question perplex me, because one of these days, I’m going to have to answer it for myself.