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Minimal To The Max
In the early ‘90s, whilst most of the musical world was neck deep in the punk rock conformity that grunge had become, a youngster from southern California emerged with a record which began a modern roots music revival, introducing a whole new generation to the blues, to folk, to soul and reggae.
With Pleasure & Pain in 1992, Ben Harper, a happy-go-lucky twenty-something, born at the tail-end of the swingin’ ’60s, tapped into something which today, 20 years later, sees him a trailblazer, lauded by the likes of The Blind Boys Of Alabama, Jack Johnson, Charlie Musselwhite, the late John Lee Hooker and countless others.
“It’s been beyond my expectations as to how far a lap steel guitar player and songwriter out of southern California [can go], it’s gone far beyond my wildest imaginings,” says Harper on his career thus far, one which has yielded a slew of seminal records, two Grammy Awards and the recognition of artists he grew up idolising.
“And that’s only due to the fans and their reception and connection,” he adds. “And they’re the bravest fans, because I go from a ballad to a rocker, from reggae to blues, soul, folk, rock and they’ve just rolled with those punches in a way that has never been seen in the music industry, and I’m proud of that. If there’s any mark I’ve made, that’s the one, and it’s only due to them and their reception to the music I make.”
It seems fitting then, with Harper talking about how his music has evolved over the years, that in his current guise, he’s going back to where it all began – just himself and an acoustic guitar, which is how we’ll see him touring Australia this month. “It is great,” he exclaims, not having performed solo acoustic to this extent before. “I can turn on a dime… you can just go wherever you want to go. Not that I can’t with a great band, but there is something incredibly liberating about being up there on your own – it’s as much fun as I’ve ever had making music.”
It’s interesting too, that this format is where a lot of his songs, usually performed with a band, would have originally been born – this is indeed Harper going full circle. “Precisely,” he says. “It really lets the song be the song. It lets the lyrics… lead the charge, and these songs are redefining themselves to me, for that reason. I love the challenge of it [too].”
In addition to stripping his music right back in the live setting, in the studio Harper is looking back as well, having just reached back to his ultimate muse, the blues, recording a blues album with harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite, with whom Harper will tour next year for Bluesfest. The album, entitled Get Up!, has been a long time coming.
“Charlie and I connected in 1995 when I was opening up for John Lee Hooker,” Harper explains. “Then we met again when John Lee asked us to perform on the same song on an album of his in 1998… and so we became friends, and we’ve been talking about making this album ever since [then]. So it’s been damn near 20 years in the making.”
“And it just rolled man,” he laughs, “it was so much fun.” The fact Harper can still get so much joy out of making the music that he first began to vibe on more than two decades ago, speaks volumes. He may, at this point in his career, be taking it back to where it all began, but he is still very much looking forward.
Samuel J. Fell