A Conversation with Ben Harper
Mike Ragogna: How are you, sir?
Ben Harper: Good. How are you, sir?
MR: I'm pretty good. Ben, you have a new album, Give Till It's Gone, and it features your single, "Rock 'N' Roll Is Free."
BH: Oh, yes.
MR: Can you tell us the story behind, "Rock 'N' Roll Is Free"?
BH: I was standing sidestage at a Neil Young concert--we had opened up for him at Hyde Park, in London, which is a great concert series overseas every summer. He launched into "Rockin' In The Free World," and it was one of those moments where time starts to bend and things start to slow down around you--that usually starts to happen when I write a song, as everything tunes out except that moment of focus. The song came in one bolt. He was singing, "...keep on rockin' in the free world," and all I kept hearing was, "...rock and free, rock and free," and that translated to me as rock is free because that's kind of the modern day sentiment of "Rockin' In The Free World," in a way.
MR: It is. Another implication, of course, is that all music is free too.
BH: You know, it sure is leaning in that direction, and I've always found that "free" is non-negotiable.
MR: Especially with artists that are constantly, financially pinched--especially new artists.
BH: Here's how I look at it...tell me what city you're in?
MR: Fairfield, Iowa.
BH: If there's a kid in a suburb or the outer reaches of Fairfield who just doesn't have the dough, doesn't have the money (thinking), "I'd listen to Ben Harper, I just can't afford it,"...I'd rather have him rip it for free than not have it at all. Now, if you can afford it, it's great to respect and honor creative copyright, but if you can't, I'd rather have you have it than not have it.
MR: Wow, that's very considerate. Also, especially with new bands, a free recording serves as a device or promotional tool to spreading the word on that act or project.
BH: Absolutely. The industry is shifting more rapidly than we can keep up with.
MR: I know, it's wild, with technology and business models shifting so rapidly, it's like "Hold onto your hats!" all the time.
BH: Yeah, all bets are off. The only way that you can find any semblance of a rule, or make any semblance of your own rule, is to tear up the rulebook. Throw it out, burn it, throw it away, and make your own rules.
MR: I usually wait until the end of an interview for this question, but given our conversation so far, what advice do you have for new artists?
BH: The advice I have for new artists is this--write great songs and play them live as often as possible. Get residencies all over town and crush it. You've got to have the discipline to rehearse the songs--get them down--and if you build it, they will come. If there is a band that I'm hearing is hot and they're playing around live, I will go--you go.
MR: Are there any acts out right now that you're looking at and going, "Hey, that's cool"?
BH: Well, there is a woman named Grace Woodroofe out of Perth, Australia. Now, it so happens that I produced her debut record--fine, I'm biased. But even if I didn't (produce it), I was a fan of hers before and that's what brought me in to collaborate with her in the first place. Her name is Grace Woodroofe, she's 20 years old, an incredible singer, incredible guitar player, and songwriter.
MR: Great. Okay, let's get back to your album. This is your first "solo" album since Both Sides Of The Gun. What went into this album that is different than the rest of your records?
BH: It's not so much what's different than the others...all my records could be solo records, or all my records could be band records. It's just a matter of feel at the time I'm making them. Also, this is my last record with Virgin EMI--the tenth record of a ten record deal, lo and behold. My first record, back in '94 was, Welcome To The Cruel World, and that was a Ben Harper solo record, and this is my tenth and final one. It just felt right to go out the way I came in.
MR: It seems there is something going on that's threading all of these songs together.
BH: I hope so and I felt that in the song selection.
MR: Can you go into that? Are you looking at this as maybe a song cycle or...?
BH: ...I would, but I've got to tell you, I'm making this up as I go along. I wish I could take credit and look really smart for it being as cohesive as it is.
MR: If there were a general theme to the record, what would you say it is?
BH: I would say the theme is in the titles. The theme is that there is liberation in "Rock 'N' Roll Is Free." Let's take the titles, from one to eleven. "Don't Give Up On Me Now"--not giving up and either asking someone up above to not give up on you or asking a friend or loved one, "Don't give up on me, I am working on myself." Next would be "I Will Not Be Broken"--steadfastness, commitment, perseverance. Third, "Rock 'N' Roll Is Free"--freedom. Fourth, "Feel Love"--all that that encompasses, with the love that you have to give and the love that you receive. I got the new Seasick Steve record, which is great, and it said--I'm gonna butcher it and it's such a great line-- "If you want to be loved, make yourself someone to be loved." Anyway, fifth is "Clearly Severely"--can speak for itself. Then there's "Spilling Faith" and "Do It For You, Do It For Us"--So, the titles kind of go out on a limb in defining what is being sung about on this record.
MR: You recorded the album at Jackson Browne's studio?
BH: Great studio, Groove Master in Santa Monica, one of the best.
MR: So, you recorded at Jackson Browne's studio, and I don't want to call you pals because I don't really know that, but I imagine you're...
BH: Yeah, we're really good friends.
MR: Okay, so then him singing on, "Pray That Our Love Sees The Dawn" was a cool thing, huh?
BH: It was right top shelf with some of the greatest honors I have been involved with musically.
MR: Speaking of great honors, you also had a certain Beatle on this record, and he even co-wrote a couple of songs with you.
BH: Exactly. If you would have bet me, in '94, that A: I would be making ten records, and B: That on my tenth, Ringo and Jackson would be playing on them, I would have bet against myself.
MR: What was it like co-writing with Ringo?
BH: The creative process was--I had some ideas with him coming in, but I really wanted it to come from him and us collectively. Me and my band had been his backup band for a bunch of shows and promotions, and the fact that he was willing to come in and do that on my record in the first place was huge, but we wanted it to be a co-write. We wanted it to be something that was of equal contribution from myself, my band, and Ringo.
MR: Very nice. Personally, I love the psychedelics going on in "Spilling Faith."
BH: Thank you very much. He was one of the four corners of creating psychedelic rock.
MR: Interesting, that's a good point. Okay, let me go back a little bit. You're in the documentary, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.
BH: Speaking of musical honors.
MR: I need to hear what that was like?
BH: That was like planting a seed and coming out in the garden the next day to find a giant oak tree.
MR: You covered some great material on that.
BH: Thank you very much. Joan Osborne was incredible, along with Chaka Kahn, but mainly The Funk Brothers.
MR: But Ben Harper doing Marvin Gaye...
BH: Man, I was living those songs, as well, at the time. To be able to step up with that band, at that moment in time, was a benchmark for me. I really looked around when that session was done, and it hit me quite hard that this was where I was at in my musical career. It was wild. It's the same playing with Jackson and Ringo. Those moments are not lost on me at all.
MR: Obviously, you listened to The Beatles and Ringo when you were younger. Did you also listen to Jackson?
BH: Oh, yeah.
MR: What is your favorite Jackson album?
BH: Favorite Jackson album...
MR: ...I'll throw one out there. What do you think of Late For The Sky?
BH: Okay, I was going to say Late For The Sky, but also, Saturate Before Using.
MR: Yeah, both great albums. So, you win a couple of Grammys for Best Pop Instrumental with "11th Commandment" along with The Innocent Criminals, but you also won a Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album with Blind Boys Of Alabama.
BH: Yeah, yeah.
MR: How did that gospel award hit you when it happened?
BH: I grew up with the Blind Boys' music. My family owns a music store in Claremont, California, called The Claremont Folk Music Center. I grew up with a heavy diet of gospel, folk, and blues because those are kind of the cornerstones of traditional American music. So, I grew up with The Golden Gate Quartet, Blind Boys Of Alabama, and The Soul Stirrers. So, lo and behold, the Blind Boys cover a song of mine called, "Give A Man A Home."
BH: I'm going to overstate my point to make the point, and I am not making any unconscious comparisons of grandeur, so please don't take them as such. The first time I heard "Give A Man A Home" played back to me by the Blind Boys Of Alabama, I kind of got a splinter of what Dylan must have felt like when he heard "All Along The Watchtower" by Hendrix.
BH: I mean, it laid me out. It laid me out, and from that point on, we forged a friendship that led into "There Will Be A Light."
MR: From that, I want to ask you what you think of the latest trend of everybody releasing R&B or soul records now?
BH: Oh, it's great. Why not, man? The fact that it even gets a fighting chance in the pop world is even better. It heightens our creative IQ, and our musical IQ in pop culture. I think it's great.
MR: The interesting thing is that it's not exactly a retro thing, either. It's just using production elements, but the songs really wouldn't fit as "'70s" songs.
BH: No, it's got its own thing. It's got its own sound.
MR: When you create songs, what's your process?
BH: My process is to either try to catch lighting in a bottle like with "Rock 'N' Roll Is Free," having something that is completely fleshed out, and then completing it in the studio, and then "Spilling Faith"--that's the two bookends and the middle. One bookend is lighting in a bottle, the middle is having an idea that is semi-accomplished, and then you flesh it out. The far right bookend is writing on the spot, as we did with "Spilling Faith" with Ringo.
MR: When in the studio, do you translate what you hear in your head arrangement-wise or are you allowing songs to take on their own identities?
BH: You have to be spontaneous. It has to be urgent, spontaneous, and improvised to varying degrees. You can have a road map, but it's just a rough guide. I've never made a record that didn't sound better than what was in my head--that's sort of my rule.
MR: Are there any songs on this album that have a particular storyline or sentiment that maybe hits you more than the others?
BH: Well, "Spilling Faith" is hard to get away from. With "Spilling Faith," we had worked out the song structure--the song was between three and four minutes--and Jesse, the bass player in the band, sat down at the piano. Ringo loved what he was playing, sat down on the drums, we all went to our instruments, worked it up, and the next thing you know, it's swirling around the room. We worked out the structure and format, pressed "record" and went. We get to the end of the song, we look up, and Ringo is still playing. We're all thinking, "Okay, that's where it was supposed to end." You can kind of hear the song kind of dip as we're all looking around, ready to bring it down, and Ringo looks up and just waves the stick like, "Come on, boys!" Then, we just ventured off into this uncharted territory. We'd check in every couple of minutes, and he had his head down, crushing it, so we would go back to putting our heads down and just feeling our way through it. Let me put it this way...if he was still playing right this second, we'd still be there playing the world's longest song.
BH: Finally, we look up and see him give us the "wrap it up" signal, and we landed, and that is one take.
MR: Is that the kind of spontaneity that also happened on "Get There From Here"?
BH: Yes, "Get There From Here" is the instrumental and what happened after "Spilling Faith." That was the improvised moment, and that is the most improvised moment that I've ever had on record. It took me ten records, and I couldn't be happier. It's the most important song on the record--it anchors it.
MR: From all the songs, what is the most important lyric to you personally?
BH: I was just talking to a friend about this. The one I'm fondest of, for whatever reason, is "Time opens all wounds." It seems like the kind of thing that would be obvious, and I would have said it a long time ago, but it took me this long to get to it.
MR: You know, Nick Lowe has a funny twist on that thought with his song, "Time Wounds All Heels."
BH: (laughs) That's good too.
MR: Hey, what do you think is your best playing on Give Till It's Gone?
BH: The solo on "Pray That Our Love Sees The Dawn."
MR: Ah, nice.
BH: Thank you.
MR: What do you think is your best vocal?
BH: Um, "Feel Love." That's a one take vocal. I walked to the mic, sang it, walked away.
MR: Let me throw in I also love your vocal on "I Will Not Be Broken."
BH: Thank you. That song is in a key that I rarely, if ever, have sung in. So, it pushed me to a different place, vocally, that really surprised me. Thanks for checking that out.
MR: My pleasure. Also, the sentiment of that song is beautiful. So, you're going to be touring for this album?
BH: We are going to tour this record long and strong.
MR: Where are you heading?
BH: Man, I want to go everywhere, I really do. I want to tour this record as I think it's worthy of being toured--as far reaching as possible. I'd like to get to Eastern Europe...never been there before except once, opening for Pearl Jam in Poland. It was a great experience, and I'd like to get there more. I'd like to get back to Chile. I'd like to get to Brazil with this record, and Australia, New Zealand, and Japan--when the time is right, to go back to Japan, obviously.
MR: Well, Ben, you might say that you're going to Give Till It's Gone?
BH: That's it. Fair enough.
MR: Sorry, I love the corny.
BH: Hey man, are you kidding? I live there.
MR: (laughs) When you look at the music industry as it is today, is there anything that you see on the horizon that makes you go, "Yeah, that's pretty cool. I can't wait until that fully develops"?
BH: You mean, as a medium to communicate music?
BH: I can't wait for things to get more basic. It's just great that people aren't spending more money on a video than they are on a record now, and there aren't a lot of A&R guys left to tell you how you should sound--no offense to the A&R guys, I know some of them are great. It feels great that musicians are now back in control of what they want to sound like, and what they want to do with it.
MR: Well, I think in the singer/songwriter era, A&R folks were more like hand holders and cheerleaders when it came to an artists' material. They weren't dictating creativity, at least in that genre.
BH: I hear that. Listen, without some A&R guys, some bands would sound awful. Thank God for A&R guys in some cases. The problem is, there is a difference between an A&R guy and producer. I don't think Jerry Wexler was really trying to be an A&R guy. There is a difference between a great producer and somebody who is a big advocate of your music. Just because you're a big advocate for a band doesn't mean you need to be in the studio with them, and at the same time--we don't need to get into this conversation--you can write a hit, but it might not hit. Hits are bought and sold...payola. It's a different landscape out there, as far as getting music on the radio.
MR: Ben, when you look at the news, what has your eye?
BH: Oh, everything, the obvious and the not-so-obvious. What's always in the back of my mind is what we're not being told about what we need to know.
MR: Well, it seems like we're down to caring about one story per day or week.
BH: Yeah, it's become as transient as so many other things in our culture.
MR: Well, I really appreciate it, Ben. This has really been a wonderful experience. All the best with your new album.
BH: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
1. Don't Give Up On Me Now
2. I Will Not Be Broken
3. Rock N' Roll Is Free
4. Feel Love
5. Clearly Severely
6. Spilling Faith
7. Get There From Here
8. Pray That Our Love Sees The Dawn
9. Waiting On A Sign
10. Dirty Little Lover
11. Do It For You, Do It For Us
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney