Two Trains Running: Ben Harper

Dean Budnick on October 9, 2020
Two Trains Running: Ben Harper

Our latest cover story features interviews with Ben Harper and Rhiannon Giddens. After traveling down parallel tracks for many years, the two musicians finally crossed paths on a new, socially distanced collaboration.

Here is our conversation with Ben…

On Oct. 21, 2019 a chance encounter took place at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

Although Ben Harper and Rhiannon Giddens were both leading advocates and exemplars of American roots music, they had yet to meet face to face. That is, until Harper attended Giddens’ performance with her personal and professional partner Francesco Turrisi. The pair were presenting material from the aptly named There Is No Other, a dynamic project that emphasizes the impact of African and Arabic sounds on the music and culture of Europe and America.

Harper was taken with the performance and, when he finally struck up that belated conversation with Giddens after the show, he suggested that they record together. What eventually ensued was a transatlantic collaboration. The California-based Harper laid down tracks for a take on Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog” and then sent those files to Giddens, who is based in Ireland, resulting in an engrossing, contemplative offering that’s built on lap steel, banjo, viola and vocal harmonies.

“Nick Drake is kind of hallowed ground,” Harper declares. “His lyrics and writing, his presentation, his singing, have a very particular embrace—unlike any songwriter either modern, or from back in the day.”

Despite the pandemic, both musicians have also remained active in recent months. Harper has just released Winter Is for Lovers, a new album in which he shapes 15 tracks into a sublime instrumental piece that focuses on his lap-steel guitar. He also recently launched a new label, Mad Bunny Records, and issued Birdthrower’s self-titled debut. Meanwhile, Giddens has continued work on her forthcoming opera Omar. She also recently started her tenure as the artistic director of the Silkroad Ensemble and has offered a variety of online performances, some of which have appeared on the Patreon page she created with Turrisi.

“There are different ways you can record,” Giddens notes, in describing her contribution to “Black Eyed Dog.” “You can record with your brain on, and say, ‘I want to give somebody this thing,’ or you can record with your brain off, which is, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to come out, but I’m just going to fully immerse myself in the song.’ And that’s what I did for this. There was no other way of doing it. I just slipped in and things happened. That’s where a recording can sometimes capture the magic. And it’s a special thing.”


What led you to select “Black Eyed Dog” for this collaboration with Rhiannon?

I find it fascinating how music comes through us and speaks to us and informs us—and the timing of it all.

I went to see Rhiannon and Francesco at a show, we talked backstage about the possibility of collaborating and that opened a door for something to happen. So, I picked up a guitar soon after and this is what came out. Now, you would think that I would go home and write a song for us but, again, it’s the mystery of how music moves through us.

I had been on something of a Nick Drake tear before going to see them. I’ve always held him in the highest of esteem. He’s a songwriter whose songs feel as natural as water. I don’t know the history of whether he belabored over his lyrics or if they taunted him; I don’t know any of that. But I do know that the way that his lyrics feel to me is as natural as something you’d stumble upon in a forest.

I had been listening to Pink Moon, in particular. I was probably also listening to “Black Eyed Dog,” if not that day, then the day before. When I got back to my instrument, after having seen them, I just started tooling around with the guitar and there it was.

What expectations did you have when you gave it to her?

What was odd to me is that I had been approaching “Black Eyed Dog” as a cover for years and I couldn’t find the voice. But in that moment, I felt like I had found the foundation of what could be a new voice for that song. I thought to myself: “I’m going to send this out to Rhiannon. I think this might be an entry point for us to do something together.” So, I sent it off with absolutely no expectations, but hoped that she would like it. If anything, the expectation was only that she would dig it and throw down on it.

I didn’t hear back from her for a little while and this was even before the quarantine. But then it arrived and what a great moment that was. There was this lush landscape of viola and vocal harmonies and fretless banjo. It was exciting. It was special for me. I’ve been at it and in it for a while now, so catch me off guard like that kind choked me up. It landed at the right time, when I wasn’t expecting it. What she did was so powerful.

It took everything I had not to take that track and put it out on some social media platform right away. I wanted to send it straight to the mastering lab. I didn’t even want to touch it. We ended up mixing it one track at a time and I was able to hear that as well, but I left exactly what she did. It was perfect.

You’ve characterized Nick Drake as a singular voice. Another artist who certainly merits that description is Mavis Staples. You produced her last album [We Get By] and wrote all the songs on it. I’ve heard her say that she needs to be able to inhabit a song before she can properly sing it. How did you approach writing for her?

That sounds like her. The biggest challenge was that because she is Mavis and because there is so much wonderfully heavy history in her music and because her contributions to music are so significant, you’re holding an egg on the opposite side of the spoon. Every syllable, every word, has that with it; yet, at the same time, she’s as humble and hardworking as anyone I’ve ever worked with.

I immersed myself in Mavis—I spent the better part of half a year doing nothing but trying to embody what Mavis would be comfortable singing. It’s almost as if I was a ghostwriter for someone else’s book.

On a song like “Sometime,” I was not only listening for her voice, I was listening to Pops [Staples’] voice in my head as well.

Since you mention books, your forthcoming album, Winter Is for Lovers drew some inspiration from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Can you talk about that connection?

This record is something I had been working on and crafting for a very long time. I knew it would be an instrumental record but I wasn’t sure how I was going to bring it to life so that it was singular and unique to me and, hopefully, a unique contribution to music. What artist doesn’t hope for that?

Around the time that I was looking to define this body of work, I was reading Infinite Jest. I was a third of the way through the book and, once you lock in, there is no book before; and once you finish, there is no book after. Infinite Jest does that to you, at least for a while. After Infinite Jest, I couldn’t pick up another book for at least six months.

I needed to understand it better. I needed a little context about how this book came to life because it was so wildly unique and beamed down from outer space. So, I went online and I found an interview where DFW discusses the fact that it began as a series of individual stories that he was writing at the same time. Then, once he realized that they were all part of one story, one book, he started weaving them together.

Then it hit me: That’s what I was trying to do with Winter Is for Lovers. I was trying to make a larger statement but, for whatever reason, it wasn’t clear enough—or, more to the point, I wasn’t being brave enough. So, I heard that interview and I went, “That’s it; that’s what I’m trying to do.” And it set the course for this record.

Was Infinite Jest sitting next to your bed for a while before you cracked it open?

Not only was it on my bedside table for two years, it was in my personal library for long before that. And then it worked its way from the shelf to the bedside table. [Laughs.] I’d read a little bit, and then I’d ask someone: “Have you read this?” Most of them would say, “Oh, no, man, I put that down.” But, every once in a while, every 10th person would say, “Oh, yeah, don’t make the mistake of not having the fortitude and tenacity to get all the way through that. You will be greatly rewarded.” And the people who would tell me to stay the course really meant it. So that’s what I did, and I don’t think I would have had the court vision to see the entire landscape of what I was trying to do were it not for that book.

David Foster Wallace was a debate partner of current Delaware Senator Chris Coons at Amherst. He was something of a legend to certain students because he majored in both English and philosophy, wrote two senior theses and graduated double summa cum laude. Not only that, but he was supposedly a physics whiz, so some people viewed him as an oracle.

 Interestingly enough, I’d walked past him numerous times. He taught literature in my hometown of Claremont at Pomona College where he was a professor. And to your point of someone knowing it all, have you ever seen a more sensitive soul? When you hear him speak you are hearing what life is doing to him in real-time. I’ve always lived my life at the edge of tears, so I recognized that in him.

Another name that you’ve referenced in the context of Winter Is for Lovers is Taj Mahal. What role did he play in the process of formulating the material on this record?

Taj is one of the rare handful of guys who would get up onstage in front of thousands of people and play instrumentals. I experienced that early on between seeing Leo Kottke and Taj. I also have a history with John Fahey. John was friends with my family. He was part of the community of musicians that my family built, and is still building to this day, at the Folk Music Center in Claremont. We have a music store that’s way more than a music store. It’s also a museum and a cultural-political center. We’ve been open for over 60 years, through five generations.

And Taj is one of the brave folks who has always spearheaded and shepherded instrumentals in an incredibly soulful way. I remember seeing him as a five-year-old kid and he would be playing “Fishing Blues,” “Corinna” and “Giant Step.” But then he would break down into a 10-minute instrumental. And even as a five year old, I would be transported. So, he’s played a huge role in that. And again, between Taj Mahal and David Foster Wallace, those are pillars in getting a record like Winter Is for Lovers made for me.

You mentioned your family’s connection to John Fahey. Can you talk a bit about him for people who have yet to discover his work?

He released a record called The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, which set the course for anyone who wanted to fingerpick like a blues musician but perhaps had Irish, Celtic, folk or classical sensibilities. What the blues took from Africa, John Fahey took from the blues. Another contribution he made was unearthing some of the original blues cats who had kind of taken shelter in the deep South where people didn’t know if they were even still alive. There’s a great documentary on it.

[Ed. Note: Two Trains Running, which Harper references, is a compelling film and an important story because 1964 was Mississippi Freedom Summer, where young activists from the North traveled to the state, attempting to register Black voters. It was an exceptionally dangerous situation for anyone who was not from Mississippi, and a few students lost their lives in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, two teams of young blues enthusiasts were also traveling through the state hoping to locate their heroes. Fahey found Skip James, while a group from New England contacted Son House.]

Did you ever sit with John Fahey for a lesson while you were growing up?

No, although my mom, grandparents and aunts were all around him. I think alcohol played a role in him being unapproachable during his later years. I don’t want to paint him with a brush— that’s unfair. I just know my family’s stories about him being a bit mercurial, to put it politely. Still, my grandparents had a coffee house called the Golden Ring back in the day, and they continued to book him. They would never fail to bring him through town.

Jumping back to Winter Is for Lovers, what approach did you take in assembling and sequencing the album?

There are times when I feel like a classical musician trapped in a lap-steel player’s body. Here, I had a chance to exercise a classical consciousness in being able to compose a larger body of work. And having been at this as long as I have, still having challenges like that is a great prospect. It’s motivating for me to be able to look at music differently—not because I want to try to do something differently, but because I’m being informed in a different way, I’ve been composing this record for the majority of my adult life. And every once in a while, I’d send a piece out into the world. When I was making a Blind Boys of Alabama record [There Will Be a Light] I said, “You know what? This record means enough that I’m going to go ahead and put a lap-steel instrumental on it [‘11th Commandment’].” Otherwise, I knew I was keeping them to myself for a reason.

There were also a couple of pieces that I’d play consistently live because they tend to connect with people immediately. But for the most part, I’ve just been writing them and holding onto them. And again, until the Infinite Jest revelation came about, I wasn’t sure how I was even going to bring them to life. When it was clear that it was going to be one piece, I was able to start composing and orchestrating them in view of the entire piece. It did carry me away, though. There was a point when I went into Capitol Studio A and added orchestration—strings, upright bass and timpani drums with brushes. I invested a lot of time into that, scoring it and having it written down.

Then, I played a gig at the Hollywood Bowl. I would often break down shows with a lap steel—just one or two pieces in the middle of the show, as kind of a reset for the second part of the show. I was going to play one of the movements from Winter Is for Lovers, and I started with “Istanbul.” This was after the record was done, as far as I was concerned. All I needed to do was mix it—the strings, everything was on it. I started with the first track on side A and, by the time I looked up, I had played the entire A side. I didn’t hear one cough, cellphone or even a hoot.

Afterward, everyone was asking me about that one moment in the show. I remember talking to a few friends who I trust about that piece. One of them said, “Wait a minute, it’s done? And it’s got an orchestra behind it?” I said “Yeah,” and they said, “Don’t you dare. The way you just played it is exactly how it should be.” And I went, “No, no, no, you don’t understand. It’s orchestrated; I’ve got a score.” Then they went into the mode of “That’s fine, but did you record the show tonight? Send me that.”

I am currently of the age where I take criticism—or what I should call constructive dialogue—better than other time in my life. Hopefully, that will contribute to my third and final marriage. That’s neither here nor there, but so far, so good. [Laughs.]

So, I listened. Then I reassessed and I realized that the John Fahey component had been stripped away. It was gone. It was no longer as much about me and the guitar as it was the production. The production stole the piece. So, I took everything out and that’s what you hear.

There were a couple of pieces with Robert Glasper on keyboards—that’s how deeply I had gone into producing this. But I had to spare those pieces, so those are now B-sides. Otherwise, it’s all stripped down.

You recently launched your own label, Mad Bunny Records. What prompted this decision?

What prompted it was looking at the landscape of where the industry was going and seeing a disregard for artistry that may be outside the pop realm, or even way outside the pop realm. But even that overstates it. I just saw a void, which I’m hoping is a vacuum of great artistry falling by the wayside without being able to get any traction. So, I just couldn’t sit still.

It was a combination of that as well as my experience with one particular artist, Birdthrower, whose commitment to artistry and songwriting is unparalleled. I had to do whatever I could to ensure that people would have a chance to hear him. There were numerous artists on my radar and it pained me to see that they were not getting the proper attention but Birdthrower was the tipping point for me.

You first encountered him in a rather atypical setting.

He was crawling up the street in Manhattan. Where the rest of us go out for a morning walk, he was going out for a morning crawl. And, at first, I thought, “OK, this is really sad. He’s had a rough night.” What shocked me the most is that people were just walking by this guy crawling up the street. There’s video of it. And that’s also a metaphor for the current state of the music industry. People are just walking by.

But how could I not take notice? And while I will admit that there can be moments when I’m in some type of a hurry, I wasn’t on that day. I decided to look a little closer, dig a little deeper. That’s when I realized he had industrial grade knee pads, steel-toed boots, and he was wearing a suit.

So, I went, “There’s something more to this picture.” And, I’m the type who talks to people who are crawling with a purpose, which is what I did. He turned out to be a songwriter. So, I got a hold of his music and started to understand who he was as a person.

Listen, I understand that there’s only so much art that you can see while you are walking through the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay or the MoMA. You end up walking by more masterpieces in those museums than you see. But at the same time, what I saw was someone’s commitment to something and I had to know what that was. As it turned out, his commitment was to art, growth and, as fate would have it, songwriting. Who knew? But if you take that extra step, you might find something that you were supposed to find. So there he was, and what a journey it’s been with him.

You announced Mad Bunny Records in April. Was there any thought to holding off the launch?

The first thing I thought when we were trying to decide whether to do this now was, “Well, we’ve come this far.” The second was: One thing that people can do from home is take in music new and old on a consistent basis. And third, I felt that Birdthrower’s artistry, musicianship and songwriting speak to these times. So, we decided to move forward.

Your own record Winter Is for Lovers is all instrumentals. Given this charged political moment, did you consciously decide that rather than commenting on the current situation, you’d rather offer this music as a salve?

If it can provide a moment of relief or a salve, then lucky me. We’re fortunate if music can do that at all for any length of time, whether it’s three minutes or 30.

But no, it wasn’t by design. I’ve written so much music that was almost written forward and could be applied to this moment. I don’t need to sit down and react in that way. Although I am now filtering it in a manner that will come out down the road. But that statement for me in my life has already been made—and will continue to be made for as long as I feel America is worth fighting for.

As you phrase that, are you intimating that we’re approaching a moment where maybe we’re too far gone?

Ask the Native Americans. They’re probably sitting on the sidelines going, “Y’all are still trying to change them?” And the fact that it ever comes down to us and them is despicable because I’m one planet, one love, one blood.

My brother-in-law is a brain surgeon. He once said to me: “Ben, I don’t talk about race because I cut people wide open and, if I were to peel the layer of skin that is pigment, I could fit it in a Dixie cup. We’re out here battling about a Dixie cup full of flesh.”

When you mention Native Americans, I think of the recent Supreme Court decision that said most of eastern Oklahoma is actually Indian reservation land [McGirt v. Oklahoma]. It brings me back to the idea that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

My challenge is that it’s one state, but it is progress. It’s just such a fine grind. So, I’m holding out hope right along with you. I remain a hundred percent hopeful at all times. I wake up hopeful.