Ben Harper Explains His Fear of the Blank Page

Photo by Danny Cinch

“I’m in some trouble here,” Ben Harper says. “As a songwriter, man, I’m in deep. I’m going to tell you straight up: I cannot go to where I’ve been. I can’t go to where other people have been.” 

He’s talking about, as he put it, his fear of the blank page, his compulsion in songs to break new ground lyrically and not repeat himself.

Ben Harper. Photo by Danny Clinch

“Words can be melodic,
and sounds have lyrics to them.” 

To ensure he avoided content already explored, this time around he aimed for that which is beyond words. Literally. The result is his new album, Winter is For Lovers, a symphonic, instrumental composition written and performed for solo lap steel.  

Because it is a solo instrumental album, it creates the easy impression that it was borne out of the imposed isolation of lockdown and designed to bring some serenity to the circus. Not true. Harper has been working on it for 20 years, he says, and only felt now that he was good enough to do it right. 

It’s about following the music more than anything. Once asked how he writes songs, he described this dynamic: “Words can be melodic, and sounds have lyrics to them.” 

That one sentence is the essence of songwriting. Reminded of it now, he says, “Nothing I’ve ever said makes more sense to me. That’s how I’ve always lived, but it’s the inner sanctum only who really know what I mean by that. That’s songwriters’ shorthand.” 

Winter Is For Lovers is a creative reckoning for him, a way for him to connect the past and present before finding his way into the future. 

“This instrumental record is a hard reset,” he says. “It’s like yanking the plug out of the wall while you’re just with your computer on and you’re in the middle of writing something that’s important, and just yanking the thing out and hoping that it’s saved. It’s a hard reset for me as to where I am lyrically going to go from here. Because I can’t go anywhere I’ve been, and I’ve been to some places. I can’t go anywhere other people have been, and the songwriting world up to now has been to a lot of places. So, I’m curious.” 

But can an all-instrumental album played on one acoustic lap steel guitar connect with people, even in this dizzying digital soundscape of modern times? 

Yes. A resounding yes. Although he did not create this music during the pandemic, it is being received in its midst. Winter Is For Lovers is, in many ways, the ideal album for the current moment. 

Still in our long season of darkness and of discord and division, this essential music is like balm for our frazzled spirits. Its real-time purity is perfect at cutting through the clamor like one voice, a cappella, singing from the heart. It’s poignantly human at a time when we yearn for humanity.

Especially now, the essentialized equation Harper brings is especially comforting — one man, one instrument, playing in real-time. Nothing’s fake, sampled or synthesized. It’s as ancient as mankind and as undeniable. Even without words, the message comes across: You’re not alone. 

That his message is well received is confirmed by the bounty of ecstatic, grateful online comments. One reads, “This is what I need the most now, peace and calm.” Another says, “These beautiful songs make me feel that nowadays problems will be solved. Thanks to an artist who makes me believe in humanity again.” 

“The day John Lennon died, my mom cried all day,” Harper says. He was 7. To cheer her up, he walked to the record store in town and bought her a John Lennon poster. Six months later, there was more grief in his home for another beloved songwriter who died young. 

“When Bob Marley died,” he says, “in our home, that was a holy day.” If he hadn’t already known about the power of song, he’d have learned about it then. But it’s something he did already know. It was a foundational stone of his family history. “That’s what music meant in the home to us,” he says. “We sat shiva for Bob Marley.”  

Ben Harper & his mom, Ellen Chase.

“Shiva for Bob Marley.” In Harper’s life, phrases like these stand out like song titles, four words that encompass the fullness of his upbringing. Shiva is the Jewish tradition of mourning the death of a loved one. Harper’s mother, Ellen Chase, is Jewish. She’s also the daughter of Dorothy and Charles Chase, who founded the Claremont Folk Music Center. Dorothy performed with both Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in New York. Ben was raised in this mecca of folk music, learning how to play and repair guitars and meeting the music legends who frequented the store, such as Ry Cooder, Leonard Cohen, David Lindley and the one he called “the keeper of the flame,” Taj Mahal.

Born in October 1969, Harper saw Marley in concert when he was nine, and it impacted him forever. A serious music lover, he was always ravenous to hear more. Being the son of a “mixed marriage” — as it was called — helped to introduce him to a wide musical spectrum, which he loved.

“It was Saturday morning Soul Train,” he says, “and it was Sunday morning Seeger.”

Since he was ruining his mom’s records and phonograph needle with constant use, she bought him his own. By age 10, he says, he had a “nice little stockpile of vinyl.”

Yet it wasn’t pop, rock, reggae or even folk music which entranced him. It was a music which was mysterious to him. At first it seemed impossible, yet undeniably authentic.

It was the blues. To his ears, it was beyond belief. His grandmother, the “absolute matriarch of music” in his family, played a record which grabbed him and never let go. It was Mississippi John Hurt. Solo. One man, one guitar. The same simple formula of his latest work. 

“I couldn’t believe it was one person playing the guitar,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. Who were the two guys playing guitar, and who’s the singer?’ And my grandmother said, ‘No, no. It’s just one guy.’ I said, ‘That’s impossible.’ She said, ‘No, no. I promise you. You have to believe me.’” 

It launched his deep dive into the heart of that impossible music. “I heard Mississippi John Hurt playing and singing like a bird, and I just knew that I had to do that, by all means. By any means necessary. It just flipped a switch for me. I felt, if that’s humanly possible, then I’m one of the humans that has to do it. And there was no turning back.” 

It’s the way he’s approached all big moments of his life — with pure determination. “There is no in-between for me,” he says. “It’s either optimism or doom.”  

He knew that if you wait for the world to happen to you, it might never happen. You have to make it happen yourself. It’s a lesson he learned early on. Very early. 

“My mom was on an IUD when I was born,” he says. “I wasn’t even supposed to be here, man. I’m not supposed to be talking to you right now. She went to the doctor and said, ‘I think I’m pregnant. I’m throwing up all morning.’ The doctor said, ‘You’ve got an IUD. You’re not pregnant. Go home.’ She went home. Two months later, she went back. There I was.”

There’s that message again. Don’t wait for someone else to recognize that you matter. 

“I was coming into this world, hell or high water,” he says. “By hook or by crook, I was going to kick my way through the door, man.”

It’s that same spirit he brought to his music. It wasn’t enough to learn about the blues or to learn how to play the blues. He wanted to be baptized in the blues and to drink from the source.

“And it just so happened,” he says, “that my grandparents had Brownie McGhee in their Rolodex.” So he called up the living legend, who was then almost 80 and living in Oakland. As soon as Ben mentioned his grandparents, the Chases, Brownie got excited. 

“Oh man,” he said, “your grandparents had the best grapefruit in their yard. If you want, I’d love to meet you, and you could bring some of those grapefruit from your grandparents’ yard.”

It’s at this moment that Ben could have told the truth, that his grandparents no longer lived there. Or he could have fibbed and bought surrogate citrus. But he knew better, and went for the third option.

Sonny Terry (L) and Brownie McGhee (smiling).

“Because it’s a small town, I knew the people who lived in the house that my grandparents used to have, and they still had the grapefruit tree,” Harper says. They were thrilled to meet Harper, and they filled a bag up with grapefruit for him. It just happened to be harvest time, and there were “more grapefruit than they have at Vons.”

“So imagine me,” he continues, “boarding South by Southwest to go up to Oakland to bring Brownie McGhee a bag of grapefruits that used to belong to my grandparents. I mean, that’s how crazy I was for the blues.”

When he gave Brownie the bag, he knew he’d done the right thing. Brownie said, “Yes! These are the ones! I’ll never forget your grandparents’ grapefruits.” 

“And that’s when I just got …”  He pauses a moment.

“You just get bit.” 

A man bit by the blues.
Photo credit: Marco van Rooijen / BluesMagazine.

He steadfastly followed the links in the chain of blues. “I followed the blues all around America to any living legend,” he says. “Mississippi John Hurt instantly led to Brownie McGhee, which instantly led to Taj Mahal, which led to Louis Meyers.” Meyers started the Four Aces before Little Walter, “the most influential Chicago blues band in history,” later changed the name to The Jukes. As with meeting Brownie, Harper didn’t come to Meyers for an autograph. He came for the blues. And he stayed all winter. 

“He had an apartment that was the size of my bathroom, and he welcomed me into his home,” Harper says. “We slept in the bed, stem to stern. In a tenement building in South Chicago. That was where the blues lived, so that’s where I went. That’s where I went.”

It was around then that he wrote his first song, “Pleasure and Pain.” In reality, it was his first good song. He’d written about 20 before that, but none good enough to own in public. His second song was “Like A King,” written in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Informed by his immersion in the blues and his upbringing in the socially-conscious folk world, he began writing what we now know as Ben Harper songs. Still, the blues is what mattered most. Everything else was still secondary. 

He had a gig at a frat party when the revelation came. He played with the soulful authority of an elder bluesman. He played songs by Robert Johnson, Tampa Red, the Reverend Gary Davis and others, which he’d performed all over town. That night, he played the blues but ended with his two originals, “Pleasure and Pain” and “Like A King.”

“I go to work the next day in the music store,” he remembers, “and a tall gentleman comes in and he says, ‘I wanted to come in and tell you that I dug your set and the blues stuff, but I really liked the last two songs.’ And he said, ‘And especially, ‘Like a King.’ And he had a lot of things to say about it.

“He was just a college guy,” Harper continues, “but it was the first time anybody had heard or reacted like that. And it was the first time I’d ever played those songs live. I had ‘Crossroads,’ I had ‘Come On in My Kitchen,’ I had the blues thing down. I had it to where I was versed in it. But it didn’t even hit his radar. He focused on those two songs, those two original pieces. I was just really humbled and appreciative that I kind of couldn’t believe it. He was so passionate about ‘Like A King.’ It meant so much to him that he wanted to talk about every lyric and what I meant. He had just all these questions.

“So afterwards, I just went, ‘Wow, OK. There’s something to this.’”

Standing now at this winter crossroads, after decades of serious songwriting and record making and purified by the creation of an acoustic symphony of the soul, he’s looking to the future. Songwriting for him is like the world to an old explorer wondering, “Where do we all go from here? Is there even anywhere left to go?”

He’s more optimistic about the future of songwriting in general than he is about his own work. “There’s no question that there will be new and regenerated songs, song styles, perspectives. The art’s bigger than the artist, period, and will remain. Will the socio-political prominence of music continue? That’s another conversation. I hope so,” he says.

“I would like to see songs with a political prominence and prowess and have that genre of statement music. Hip-hop seemingly brought it to an apex. I’d like to see where it can go from here. Socially relevant commentary in music, I think, is a wide-open writing field that needs to be delved deeper into by musicians.

“But as for me, let’s face it,” he continues. “All the rhymes have been made. All the subjects have been covered. We’re far down the line in the name of songwriters and popular songwriting. I don’t want to go back over that same ground. Not only because I’ve said a lot in my lifetime, just because in the history of songwriting, so much has already been covered. For me, the future of songwriting is to find a new way to say it. A different way.

“So I’m curious myself. I’m looking at a blank page over my piano and my instruments are staring me in the face like, ‘So — what else you got?’”

Photo Credit Jacob Boll

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