Interview by Angela Pulvirenti
Ben Harper is tense the minute he walks into the room. It's no secret that he doesn't feel comfortable in interviews. "Every time feels like my first time," he says, shifting in his seat, "and I just find that the process of it feeds into one's own self-obsession."
On the wrong day, this uneasiness can cause an otherwise charming, gentle soul to act rather petulantly. Interestingly, one of the most crushing displays of this behaviour was included in the documentary feature of one of Harper's DVD releases. I still have nightmares that I'm that French journalist…
Ah yes, his music may sail the listener into zen-like introspection, but it is also impassioned, political and uncompromising at times, much like its creator. That is, of course, what makes Ben Harper so fascinatingly dichotomous as a person and as an artist. Luckily, I have interviewed him four times in six years and am therefore practiced at managing both versions the halcyon and the anxious. All it takes is a dash of gentle nurturing, a touch of counter intimidation; throw in a sound knowledge of the songs on his latest album and, well, you can be the judge.
It's only fitting that Ben Harper's latest album is called Both Sides of the Gun
. It's split into two separate CDs, offering two distinct emotional and musical landscapes. The CDs are not numbered or named, prohibiting the application of an order or priority. The simplistic explanation is that one rocks out while the other chills out. But with Ben Harper, nothing is ever that simple.
The mood of the rock-out album vacillates between uplifting, let's-all-chip-in-and-make-a change optimism and what-is-the-world-coming-to vitriol. In fact, Harper describes the third track 'Black Rain' (written days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans) as "talking myself down off the ledge of being a non patriot". He describes lyrics like "don't you dare speak to us like we work for you. Selling false hope like some new dope we're addicted to" as being rooted in "long-term pain and historical significance".
On the other hand, the opening track 'Better Way' is one of the most powerful, anthem-like social pledges since John Lennon's 'Give Peace a Chance'. Given the unpredictable nature of Harper's responses, it is with some trepidation that I mention that the song puts me in a John Lennon frame of mind. His eyes immediately widen. "It was an absolute tribute to him. I am so vibed that you got that. I haven't mentioned it to anyone." And just like that, the gentler version of Ben Harper arrives. "Most of the time I am a really freewheeling guy who laughs a lot. I want to break down that perception that I am always serious and tense."
Ben Harper was born in 1968 to a black father and white mother, a situation he describes as "not exactly a popular statement to make in America at that time. It posed a lifetime of cultural dyslexia for me to varying degrees." Perhaps just as impactful was the fact that his father was absent for most of Harper's formative and teenage years his parents' relationship having disintegrated early in his life. "When I was growing up, none of my friends had parents who were still together. It was almost like the kid with the straight family was the abnormality. We were a pretty fractured generation." Harper was raised by his maternal grandparents who owned and operated a folk music centre (and instrument store) in Claremont, California. "It was a crazy childhood with crazy sounds kicking around in my head." Harper could not only play guitar by the time he was 10, his grandfather had taught him how to make them, not to mention a host of exotic and diverse wood instruments.
Then at 17, he heard someone play finger picking slide guitar. "That switch was flipped and the songs flooded in," he says with boyish enthusiasm. "Once I was able to form myself on a specific instrument and once I realised that instrument was saying something different to me every day and was demanding my creative time, the door just blew open and it was like, welcome to the next chapter of your life."
Since his 1993 debut Welcome to the Cruel World
, Harper has released six albums (including his latest), pushing his collective album sales into the millions. He tours relentlessly throughout Australia, America and Europe, playing to audiences of over 10,000. His appearance in the award-winning documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown
and widely acclaimed rendition of the Beatles' 'Strawberry Fields' for the I Am Sam
soundtrack in 2001 served to sail him further into mainstream consciousness.
On a personal note, Harper recently married his long-time partner, actress Laura Dern. The couple have two children, five-year-old son Ellery Walker and two-year-old daughter Jaya. Also the father of two children by his previous marriage, Harper credits fatherhood with keeping him grounded. "One minute you're riding your bike on a glorious, sunny day celebrating your very existence, the next minute you're covered in throw up"!
As for Dern, he's remaining very tight-lipped on that subject. When I ask about the inspiration behind the album's prettiest and most romantic ballad ('Happy Everafter In Your Eyes'), he shifts uncomfortably in his seat as the anxiety resurfaces. "It's tricky, because if I give away more in my interviews than I do in my songs, that's giving away too much." As if regaining composure, he adds, "I want to keep something just for me."