BEN HARPER: Song Trapper

Three years between albums might be normal for most artists in today’s music industry, but then again, Ben Harper isn’t most artists. A prolific writer who begins writing a new album the day he finishes a record, Harper is one of those for whom writing isn’t a chore or lark, but a necessity.

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Three years between albums might be normal for most artists in today’s music industry, but then again, Ben Harper isn’t most artists. A prolific writer who begins writing a new album the day he finishes a record, Harper is one of those for whom writing isn’t a chore or lark, but a necessity.

 So, having not released an album under the name Ben Harper since 2003’s Diamonds On The Inside (2004 saw There Will Be A Light, a collaboration with legendary gospel act the Blind Boys of Alabama) the California native had a lot to say this time around. The result is Both Sides Of The Gun, a two-CD set broken down by tempos (harder and softer music) an to a lesser extent, lyrical themes (social and personal). Together though, the two discs, which Harper likens to both sides of an album, harkening back to the days of vinyl, weave a journey through a century of musical roots, from rock and soul to reggae and blues and offer touching glimpses of Harper’s life, particularly in the tender “Morning Yearning” and the lovely “Happily Ever After In Your Eyes.”

But this baby rocks as well, touching on some funk in “Black Rain,” a track penned in response to Hurricane Katrina, and laying down a ‘60s-flavored jam on “Don’t Talk About Murder While I’m Eating.”

Holding court in The Boat, the Silver Lake, California studio where he’s been holed up for most of the latter half of 2005,  Harper takes American Songwriter through his writing process and the making of Both Sides Of The Gun.

When did you start writing this record or should I say these records?

Yeah, right (chuckles). That’s the first time I’ve heard it referred to as that. I start writing as soon as a record’s done. I finish a record, look forward to playing the material live, and start writing that day.

So, it’s been a while then.

Diamonds, my last proper solo record, was done in 2003. I was supposed to start this record back then when I started working with the Blind Boys. I went into to knock out two songs with them and it just let loose. And in a couple of weeks we finished that entire record, then that required me to be supporting it, which then put this record off. That was later 2004 and this is now.

How did working with Blind Boys shape and influence your writing on this album?

When you work with people with such depth it becomes you if you’re open. So yeah, when you work with that depth of soul and spirit and connection to all that is soul it affects you, and you carry it with you anytime you put pen to paper or open your mouth to sing and play.

Are there any tangible songs where you can see their influence or was it more the intangibles, the way they worked, the depth they bring?

In tangible terms I think mostly a vocal clarity. Ever previous record you do affects the next, it has to. What I’m most affected by really is just conversations, live touring, and the need to write as much as the want to write.

That brings up another point. This is the first time you’ve fronted an existing band on the road. How did playing with them on a nightly basis influence your playing and style?

It’s hip, man. With the Blind Boys you kind of can’t go wrong. They’re just a rock band and it puts some pep in your step. Really vocally it’s brought me to a whole new confidence in my own voice. To meet on a musical peer to peer level with such depth means you must be somewhere around where they’re at. So you carry it in your confidence and that’s now part of my DNA whenever I go to sing or to write or to play live.

So what does it mean for you to have a band like that call you?

They’ve been around since the late ‘30s, so obviously if they want to work with me they and the people around them know there’s a soul connection. And that’s really the truth of the matter; Clarence Fountain, the leader of the Blind Boys, and I have very much a soul connection. Those stars have been orbiting for some time to align and parallel to bring us together. Clarence and I have been on a crash course since I was born really. But what does it mean? It’s humbling and it’s life affirming and it’s musically affirming and, at the same time, hell yeah, of course, that’s what’s supposed to happen. No one else could get that call but me.

You say no one else but you could get that call.

That’s right. I know what it means and I knew what it meant the second I got it. And even though I was only going to do two songs I knew going in, I pulled out a few of the extra gospel tunes I had penned and stashed in the archive just in case things went as I knew they would, they did, and I was ready. When “Church House Steps” and “Wicked Man Shall Fall” were done in the first three hours of the session I was ready to come with “There Will Be A Light” and the rest of it.

Now, on to Both Sides Of The Gun. What was the first song written for this album?

I wish I could tell you cause I’ve written well over a hundred songs since the last record. I recorded 24, narrowed it down to 18 for the double disc. I’ve eliminated songs even in making it a double disc. Even though I could fit more I’ve really honed this down. It’s been a conscious effort to get it down to two nine-song records. So I don’t know which was written first. I can give you the last three. Like “Black Rain” was obviously written in response to New Orleans and Katrina, so that’s the most recent tune, and that knocked another song off the map for this record.

And what was before that?

“Happy Ever After In Your Eyes” and I’d have to see the track list. But definitely those two are the most recent songs.

I really like the fact too that the songs were not just broken down into soft and hard, but lyrically by social and personal themes.

See, you heard it. Without definition or explanation you could hear how those didn’t want to be together. How they needed to have their own worlds to co-exist. And I don’t want to underestimate the people who want to hear just the soft stuff or the hard stuff. The thing is there’s no one in front of me or behind me or to my sides. I have nothing to plot my course after cause on one record I’ll have reggae, rock, blues, and ballads. And from that there are people who have strong opinions and preferences in all those different directions. So I’ve got to go with my instinct as far as what’s going to be best. Double records are risky, but I think if done right it ends up being a two-album single disc really. It’s one record, just in different movements. It’s like having vinyl. It’s two sides. It’s both sides of the mother-fucking gun come to think of it.

What’s your favorite double album?

Probably Exile On Main Street, if not Blonde On Blonde or The White Album (The Beatles). But those three definitely rank in my top three immediately.

I love the intimate nature of “Morning Yearning.” It paints such a picture of a scene.

I’ve never even really written a song. I’ve just listened really well and fortunately had enough sense of melody to not just leave them at conversation. And you can’t miss that cause life goes by quick and if you don’t have your filter tight it’ll just blow right through. So I just got my pen and paper, which is my filter, and I’m never missing an opportunity to write, to get an idea, to say something in a different way, or in a way that’s different for me than how I’ve said it before, thought it before, or felt it before. I’m just really glad that’s the urgency I feel. As far as writing it’s only paralleled by the urgency I feel to play music and make melodies with it, so it’s like a right and left hand for me.

Are you one of those people who when the idea strikes you everything else just disappears?

Always. Man, I’ve written songs dripping wet and ruined guitars just to get the idea down cause it never comes back to you the way it comes the first time. So you gotta grab it sparing no expense. I’ve spared no expense in exploiting my weaknesses basically (laughs). So I just fucking lean into it, whether I’m singing it into my cell phone or whatever it takes.

I like the fact too the record is broken down by social and political ideas, but they still intertwine.

Of course they do cause that’s how we live, that’s our reality. Whose reality isn’t the personal and the social and the political? They’re two of the strongest realities that we exist on and within and around on a day-to-day level, so why wouldn’t they be connected in some way somewhere? And I think nowhere stronger than music really.

Do you write melody or lyrics first or does it depend?

I’m always doing both and it’s always great, as you well know being a writer, when they happen simultaneously. That’s fantastic cause then you’re having your cake, you’re eating it too and you’re just in the thick of it. I’m such a song maniac and I’m just so twisted when it comes to this stuff when I’m writing a song and I know it’s a song I’m going to end up putting on record, like “Morning Yearning,” the second it was done I was like, “That will be on my next record,” I’m going, “Okay, this will be done in about ten minutes, I wish I could be writing another one simultaneously.” I’m never even happy writing one. When I’m writing one I wish I could be writing another with my left hand. It’s like it’s never enough for me.

How old were you when you started writing?

I was in grade school when I just knew that I was going to work out something with words. In sixth, seventh, eighth grade, I was like, “There’s something that’s trying to come out of me and I don’t know how, when, or why but I hope I get to it in my life and my life directed and redirected itself towards making it possible.”

Did you know it was going to be music at that point or you just knew it would be words?

I didn’t know it’d be either.

When did you start playing?

I started really focusing in, learning, mimicking blues music and country and folk right around 17. I had been interested in slide guitar before that and played in and around slide guitar styles, Ry Cooder and Robert Johnson and stuff, but then really got focused in on songwriters writing music when I was about 19. Didn’t write anything that was worth a shit until I was about 21.

Do you remember the first song you wrote that was worth a shit?

First song I wrote that I really said, “You know what, that’s worth putting up there,” is “Pleasure And Pain” from Welcome To The Cruel World. That kicked the door open. And from there I was like, “Okay, I get it. It clarified a lot to me.”

Is it nice to be able to come full circle then and have your mom, aunt, and friends involved on “Crying Won’t Help You Now”?

It is full circle. It’s amazing. Laying that track down live like that, raw, everybody jumping on the instruments, the engineer frantically setting up mikes, love it, love it, man. That’s a big moment for me, yeah.

How long did that one take to write?

“Crying Won’t Help You Now” was written in the exact amount of time it takes to play down. And it came from a night just going, “You know what, the situation is beyond tears.” And right then I was like, “Boom,” and I wrote exactly what was going on. I usually have two pages of lyrics for every song; that was the one that really maybe had an extra verse, but it’s simple in that deceptively not so obvious, it sounds like it could have been written, hopefully it hasn’t been cause I didn’t think it had been. It just came from a pure place in the moment.

With a hundred+ songs, how did you go about wheedling down the list?

Get the songs that are similar to each other and then pick the strongest ones from that. There’s another song called “The Way You Found Me” (starts singing), “Take me as I am or leave me the way you found me.” And that kind of goes with “Crying Won’t Help You Now.” I get certain styles and of those styles I go, “Those are the ones that stand out.”

What was the last book you read?

The last book I read was Tuesdays With Morrie, a super-emotional book. I liked it a lot. Who couldn’t? A story about a cat making the most out of his life he has left before he passed and I loved his take and his wisdom about it. I missed it I admit. It had been out for a while and I totally missed it. Somebody put it in my hands and I dug it. And I can’t get enough of what Michael Moore writes. That was the book before that. I finally read A Hundred Years of Solitude. I like Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac, On The Road, I get off on that stuff. Allen Ginsberg what I’ve read I really dig their trip.

So who did you play with on the record?

A lot of the stuff I’m playing everything. A lot of the stuff I got my band on; it’s about a third, a third, and a third. My band is on “Picture In A Frame,” “Gather Round The Stone,” and “Get It Like You Like It.” Then “Better Way” is all me; “Black Rain” is all me except for the keyboards; “Happy Ever After In Your Eyes” is all me except for the strings. “Serve Your Soul” is a friend of mine named Jason, who used to be in a band called Juan Santo Condo, and whose band he’s in now backed me up on that; some local jazz heads, a buddy of mine named Jose, Greg Kirsten; some serious local jazz cats came in and played on “The Way You Found Me.” So just friends and family really. Scott Thomas from Ringside sings back up on “Get It Like You Like It.”

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