Ben Harper is a man who wears many hats; a musical journeyman with his heart and guitar firmly rooted in the blues. Although he has put out many records within multiple genres, whatever he touches is always interesting and forever honest. His music with Charlie Musselwhite is a blues that pays homage to the greats while pushing the genre to new levels. mxdwn recently had the opportunity to speak with Ben Harper to discuss his great new record with Musselwhite No Mercy in This Land, his steadfast love of the blues, his passion for skateboarding and a solid “maybe” regarding a Relentless7 tour.
mxdwn: This is the second record with you and Charlie Musselwhite. What brought you back to record No Mercy In This Land?
Ben Harper: That specific pull is vast and as deep as it is wide. It’s a calling of the genre, he and I have a specific sound to fill within the genre that means the most to us. I think that both of us feel a great honor to be working with one another. To be working with one another in the genre that to us is not only a genre but a life’s philosophy.
mxdwn: The first single on the record is the title track “No Mercy in this Land” and it’s drenched a deep, bluesy sound. What is the songwriting process like when getting into that character?
BH: The process is a lifetime of pain my friend… To be more specific, I start and end every day with an attempt to write a song or a piece of a song. Or even an idea or conversation that has meaning and trying to make the most out of a silent moment or a blank page. That’s been, for me – if I wasn’t going to be a writer with my life, if I wasn’t going to be a proper novelist, or a journalist, I was going to put words on the page with something in my life at some point. The fact that I have been able to make that statement, to whatever degree, to make it in my lifetime with songwriting, steel guitar player, singer, producer – anything that it takes to do what I do, starts with being a lyricist. That comes from what I read, the conversations that I have around me, what I experience. It’s coming from every single aspect. Once you decide what filter it is you see the world through that filter.
Photo Credit: Owen Ela
mxdwn: Did writing this record feel as natural as your previous record Get Up!? Because that record sounds like you just woke up and… it was there.
BH: I so glad you said that! That fact that that was translated means that it was done right. That style of music is where I started. Blues, folk, Americana music is my beginnings and to come full circle through any number of cycles, pop or otherwise, it’s a return to form and simultaneously an arrival, which is a part of the challenge. To have started with the blues and come a hundred million miles to arrive back at the blues, at the beginning. I can’t put it into words, but I can put it into sounds. Playing with my mom. Playing with Charlie. Being at the root of where I grew up and the sounds that I grew up with.
mxdwn: You have such an eclectic catalog of music. Whenever we hear that Ben Harper has worked on a project, it’s very interesting to see what kind of approach you take to the music. What is it that draws you to a particular project?
BH: What draws me to a project is the songs themselves. I’ve always been one album ahead of myself. I’ve always known what record I was going to make while or after I made the record at hand. This is the first time that this hasn’t been the case. This is the first record that I have ever made that I simply don’t know what I am going to do after this record. This record is such an arrival in that regard. What forms the record is timing. It’s timing, it’s what is coming across my path in that moment. It’s almost not a choice. I’m gonna go ahead and get metaphysical with you. It’s not as though I can tell you that I am going to wake up and Rickie Lee Jones was going to call me to produce her record. Some of this stuff you work so hard to create the opportunity. One of the great things about working for 25 years in songwriting and recording is that I have no idea who’s gonna call me. I could wake up and have a message from anybody on my phone. And that is such a cool thing. It’s one-part preparedness and another part about doing the work, keeping your head down and being disciplined enough to make sure you keep trying to raise the bar in the name of what it is you do and what you love to do the most.
Photo Credit: Owen Ela
mxdwn: I read that you are originally from California, how did you get your start playing music?
BH: I grew up in the small town of Pomona, CA which is smack dab between Joshua Tree and Los Angeles. It’s kind of a stop gap where people get off the highway and go to restaurants. There’s a number of colleges in Pomona and it’s fascinating for a number of different reasons but one of the reasons is that my family has had a music store and a music museum in the town of Pomona for 60 years. I grew up in that store. I could have been bit by a number of different things in that store, but I fell for the blues – hook, line and sinker. I spent those years as a sponge, open to whatever is going to influence you for the rest of your like, good, bad or otherwise. I got bit by all things blues and it just never let go.
mxdwn: You also got your start playing on stage with the legendary blues musician Taj Mahal?
BH: By the time Taj came through town I was 21 years old. By that time I was playing the lap steel guitar for four or five years. When I say playing, I mean all day, every day. Taj Mahal did a gig, an incredible gig, where the whole town went. I was doing a gig at a small coffee house afterwards. Lo and behold Taj came to my gig after his. He not only heard me play, but he jumped up on the bass and sat in with us for three songs.
First of all, we can stop right there because I thought that was the end of the road. My life was made. That was it, I could retire at 21. Taj came up to me after the show and he asked me, “Do you go on the road?” I was such a green young man. I said: “Go on the road? What do you mean? You mean like drive on the road?” I didn’t even know what he meant.
He said, “Man you’re green. I meant do you tour?” I thought he was talking in some foreign language, like he was speaking in tongues. He laughed and said “Youngster, I’m gonna send you a ticket. When that ticket arrives, get on the plane and bring your guitar.” And sure enough, a month later I got a ticket and a handwritten note from Taj Mahal saying: “I want you to come on tour, learn as many of my songs as you can, you’re in the band.” That was it, there was no looking back after that.
mxdwn: You have a pretty sizeable passion for skateboarding, I know California is a mecca for the sport, how did you first get into skateboarding?
BH: I had the good fortune, and the misfortune, of growing up with skateboarding. I started in 1978 at nine years old. From the time I was eight to the time I was 14, skateboarding was kind of born, coming out of Dogtown and through the Bones Brigade in the early ’80s. It kind of died a cold hard death in the ’80s and I fell off of it. But the core guys stayed with it. I learned my touch grinds, frontside, backside but I segued into other things like teen sports, and so on, and I got away from it. I wish I would have stuck with it more, but I have a late life discipline, and it kind of worked out I guess. I love it as much as I love music and I worked my ass of at it. Even at my old raggedy age. I’m absolutely crazy with it. Four to five days week, three to four hours a day.
mxdwn: Do you have any future plans to work with the Relentless7?
BH: I love that question. Yes, I do, I can’t let the Relentless7 catalog, canon, bazooka, whatever it is, those two records Give Till It’s Gone and White Lies for Dark Times – I just can’t let those songs sit dormant like that. So yes. We have a new drummer named Jimmy Paxson and you can hear his glory on No Mercy In This Land and it’s such a fun four-piece machine. We would play some smaller places and people would know what they were coming in for. So yes, I am going to keep that alive for sure.
Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna
mxdwn: You have always had a strong opinionated, philanthropic perspective on the world. May I be so bold as to ask your thoughts on the current political climate in America?
BH: Despite the recommendation of a few key people in my life, the question isn’t so much on the political climate as much as “How are you weathering the political shitstorm.” It’s unbelievable theater. You can’t believe what is being done to our democracy. I think the biggest factor for me is that there was such a large number of people in America who just needed any other kind of change, who needed someone other than a politician. Because Donald Trump is not a politician, the poor guy is so far over his head and he’s not going to get any sympathy from me; but he’s out of his league. It’s the world’s smallest violin, but…Just get out of there. Not to say that there wouldn’t be someone else that wouldn’t be equally as bad but just disguise it better. The lack of decorum is just tragic to morale.
The question really is “Where do we go from here?” There are number of people who could run for office now. Why not Ellen DeGeneres or Oprah or Mark Cuban. I mean when President Obama was taking the Oath of Office in 2008, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts who gave the oath got it wrong. President Obama acknowledged it in real time, because he knew the oath by heart. You could have read a cookie recipe and President Trump would have repeated it verbatim and wouldn’t have said a thing about it.
mxdwn: You are going on tour here in the near future with Charlie Musselwhite, but what is next for Ben Harper?
BH: I have nothing. In my 25-year career, I have never not known what is around the corner until this record, which for me must signal an arrival of some sort for this record. It must mean that this is a stopgap and I’m going to embrace it. I’m starting to venture more into production. I produced a record for Natalie Maines from The Dixie Chicks, I produced a record for Rickie Lee Jones, I have a lot of production work in the can right now like a new artist named BirdThrower from upstate New York who writes incredible songs. I have a jazz record for a guy named Bruce Bishop who lives in Idaho. He is one of the greatest jazz guitar players who you’ve never heard of. I have another record that I produced from a band called Hey King from Southern California who write amazing songs. I have three records produced that I want to bring to light. Maybe I’ll stay with production, maybe I’ll lean into some Relentless7, I’m really embracing the unknown for the first time in 25 years and it feels good.