By Forrest Reda
On the day that Ben Harper seized his destiny, destiny didn't even know he was coming. His dear friend and manager, J.P. Plunier, had arranged a meeting with the proverbial Mr. Big at a record company to drop off a demo. When Ben rolled in with his Dobro, the bemused executive let the young kid with the poofy afro do his thing, and the rest, as they say, is history.
"I had ambitions and dreams way beyond anything imaginable, but at the same time, I was a very green, very young slide guitar player," Harper says. "As far reaching as my ambitions and dreams were, and still are, I always kept a humility about them because I knew the music was against the grain of pop culture. I started by saying, 'If I can feed myself, I'll be cool,' and just kind of built it from that."
Harper is talking to me from Chicago, where he has just visited the radio station XRT to play some songs from his new double album, Both Sides of the Gun.
It is an extraordinary album that shows Harper reaching back to his roots while pushing himself to musical places he's never been. Harper is responsible for producing the album as well. Take note, Both Sides of the Gun shows Ben Harper at his still-rising best, a superstar pushing the limits of his field, fulfilling his potential and at times, perhaps even exceeding it.
Both Sides of the Gun has a wonderful live feel, a presence that is discernible. Harper explains, "I learned that [producing] is its own gig, its own share, separate from the playing, the singing, the writing. It's definitely a distinctly individual task, separate from the rest, and I enjoyed it."
JamBase: The overall production of the album has some aspects, you can hear things in the studio that some producers would frown upon - well maybe not frown upon, but it's a dirty sound, a live-sounding record.
Harper: Yep, I know what you mean when you say "frowned upon."
Ben Harper by Pamela Martinez
JamBase: You know, just different from the norm.
Harper: Flawed. It's sonically appropriate where necessary, it's flawed where necessary. I think this record for me, if I can sort of, ya know, espouse my own opinions about myself momentarily...
JamBase: Please do.
Harper: I think it's a good cross between produced and reckless abandon.
JamBase: I think you are right. When I was listening to it last night, some moments I could practically see the bow sliding across the cello.
In Harper's press release, he mentions you can't call one disc hard and one disc soft, "because sometimes the soft stuff hits you harder than anything else." He's right. The slide guitar solo on "Reason to Mourn" comes on like a hurricane.
JamBase: Did recording the record in Silverlake add to the sound of the record?
Harper: I think so. It's a funky studio. The studio does have a personality. I like to think I could have made this record anywhere, and at the same time, I'd like to think that the studio's personality played a role on the record as well.
Ben Harper by Forrest Reda
Harper has long given fans their Hendrix fix, belted out Marvin Gaye for the ladies, and given us Stevie Wonder tunes to enjoy. But thanks to learning the art of studio vocals with the Blind Boys of Alabama, it seems that anything is possible from Harper, from James Brown to Cat Stevens, and he's still going to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
What good is a man
Who won't take a stand?
What good is a cynic
With no better plan?
Harper said that working with the Blind Boys of Alabama on the critically acclaimed, two-time Grammy-winning 2004 collaboration There Will Be a Light turned him into a singer instead of a person who sings. Along with the Blind Boys, Harper has been studying with the Funk Brothers, by performing with them on Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which was in turn followed by the riveting Live at the Apollo DVD. The man has been to the school of soul, and if this is his thesis, he graduates at the top of his class.