Perhaps the scariest thing about being an artist is staring at the blank page. It can feel good—wonderous—to create. But to do so, one must have something to get down on paper, literally or proverbially speaking. For writers, that blinking cursor is a foe. For painters, the blank canvas. For musicians, it’s silence or a lyric sheet without words or notes. But for acclaimed songwriter and performer Ben Harper, the only way around this worry is to never stop writing.
Harper, who will release his next LP, Bloodline Maintenance, on July 22, writing constantly is the only way to combat the looming worry of never being able to write again. A river can’t dry up if it’s constantly flowing, right? Similarly, Harper has something to say. It’s not just language he puts down on paper but meaning. So, just as his creativity won’t dry up if he’s constantly at it, so too, his efforts at making statements won’t either. This is evidenced in his new album, a stunning work that elucidates much of the Black American experience, as well as Harper’s own personal journey.
“I don’t ever put the pen down,” Harper tells American Songwriter. “I go through volumes of recycled legal-sized paper booklets. I stack them to the ceiling, and I don’t stop writing—just get it out and get it down… The only way that I’m not intimidated by the blank page is to fill it.”
The 52-year-old Harper was born in Pomona, California. A few miles away in Claremont, his grandparents ran a music shop that is still there today. It was opened in 1958 and now Harper’s oldest son represents the 5th generation to help run the store. Because of the place, Harper was raised around a big music library and more musical instruments than most people will ever see in their lifetime. The shop was also frequented by many legends, as well as locals. It was a treasure trove, portending a brilliant future.
“At the time,” Harper says, “it was, like, why wouldn’t Leonard Cohen wander into your family’s music store? Or why wouldn’t some random stranger just get off his bike and ask to borrow a violin and go out in the front of the store, set down a hat, and play?”
When it came to adopting music full-time on his own, Harper says, “it just felt like the necessary thing to do.” Music was around him like the ocean is for fish. Just swim. Nevertheless, to play music and to be a global success are two different things. Through hard work, dedication, ambition, and a little luck, Harper was able to make a name for himself. While many college-aged pot smokers knew him for his hit, “Burn One Down,” which dropped in 1995, Harper, as an artist, is so much more than that hit. To date, he’s released 15 studio albums and Bloodline Maintenance will be the 16th. He’s earned three Grammy Awards and countless collaborations with artists like Ziggy Marley and Mavis Staples, whose work he’s also produced.
“It hasn’t stopped being exciting,” Harper says of his career. “I still to this day pinch myself, like, ‘You did that!’”
Harper’s new album is much a commentary on the world at large as it is an explication of his personal journey and feelings as they relate to the changing country he calls home. But perhaps more than those theoretical starting points, Harper was inspired to write and get his words in order after the death of a close friend and musical collaborator, bassist Juan Nelson, as well as the unearthing of his father’s memory and what his dad, who passed away in 1998, means to him today. He says he was “in dialogue posthumously” with his father. “Twenty years went by and I still haven’t reconciled it—until now,” he says. Doing so, Harper explains, brought him “some peace.” With Nelson’s passing, Haper picked up the bass often, writing with the instrument more than he ever had, including the new album’s debut single, “We Need To Talk About It,” which highlights the need for dialogue around American slavery. While the album isn’t a death album and isn’t “morbid,” it was born of loss.
“At least half the album was written all on bass,” Harper says.
Doing so offered the artist some renewed sense of calm. He wanted to rectify the passing of his father into his life, he wanted to both face it and be free of the hard feelings that he’d harbored knowingly and unwittingly for the past few decades. He remembered his father talking with Jakob Dylan, Bob Dylan’s son, when Jakob’s band The Wallflowers were on tour with Harper. He remembers his father, a Bob fan, talking with Jakob and how proud he was of the whole thing. He began to see his dad, and his mother too, as individuals, no longer through the lens of the other parent. Life moves on, but it only does so best when you can have a sense of understanding, or even control, as it does.
“It was the first real leap into getting to know myself, just by going back,” Harper says.
With the release of “We Need To Talk About It,” a song that highlights the need for real, earnest, public dialogue about the history of slavery in America, Harper earned some praise and some hate, as can be expected, albeit sadly. Nevertheless, the release has been exciting, he says. And a few social media blocks, too. Now, as Harper prepares to go on tour, both with pals like Harry Styles and Jack Johnson, he’s thrilled. He calls it “Sonic Christmas,” as it’s the first big tour he’s undertaken with his band, The Innocent Criminals, since the COVID-19 pandemic. Things are coming together. Thanks to hard work, ambition, and a never-ending amount of writing.
“What I love most about music,” Harper says, “is how it makes me feel when I go to see it and when I get to play it—it’s like learning to complete a sentence. Since I was a kid, the resonance of the instruments in my blood, through my veins, and the emotional release from singing a song, whether in private or in public, I have yet to find anything that makes me feel as gratified and as connected to my purpose.”
Photo Credit: Michael Halsband / Big Hassle