Music News

Folk Hero

Ben Harper's band, the Innocent Criminals, are in the middle of pillaging several newly arrived boxes. The first copies of their collective CD, Lifeline, have just arrived, and the musicians are grabbing stacks with each hand. Meanwhile, Harper, who's already gotten his share, is shuffling about their rehearsal space with his Blackberry to his ear.

In a few minutes, he'll ignore this interview's already delayed start time and plant himself in a chair at the center of this space instead. There, he'll spend the next 20 minutes reading the article and review Rolling Stone just ran about him and the album, concentrating intently.

Harper is a friend of a friend, so he knows there's no hurry; "I don't throw away a word of anything," he says later. For the first time in his career, the singer/songwriter is receiving unanimous reviews so positive that he can't hide his giddy thrill — even though the guy refuses to utter an immodest word. It's no wonder some of his friends refer to him as a holy man.

There's a peace about Harper, an energy that radiates ripples of calm almost palpable in the air. It's hard to discern how much of this aura is God-given and how much is self-imposed. But Harper could make you wait three or four hours for an interview and, once he's firmly shaken your hand, you'd be ready to offer him a kidney.

Harper began recording professionally some 15 years ago and claims to find it just as exciting today. "Even more so," he insists. "Music's something that grows in you. When I get a pile of records like this, it's the same feeling — but a more mature strain of it. A more evolved version of it."

Lifeline, a contemporary soul album recorded in Paris on analog tape — no ProTools, no AutoTuning — was completed on the heels of a nine-month tour supporting Harper's last album, Both Sides of the Gun. The result is unlike anything he's released before and absolutely nothing like Both Sides. The latter was a double concept album of sorts that ultimately confused many critics and fans with its politics and social agenda. Unquestionably, though, it was the most profound collection of music the artist had ever composed.

"The hardest thing any musician will ever do is follow an album that's decent," Harper explains. "To avoid self-adulation, I'll just use the word 'decent.' " In other words, he knows how good Both Sides is — but remember, nothing immodest leaves his lips. "You kind of have to start fresh every record. Every time you step forward with some form of creative expression, you're kind of starting from scratch. You have to get used to the idea that it's not re-invention but the evolution of invention."

Lifeline was conceived of during the Both Sides world tour, but it had been talked about, both jokingly and seriously, over several albums by Harper and the Criminals. All involved recognized they were never as good together as they were at the end of a tour, so they wanted to exploit that specific moment. Band members wrote songs and rehearsed them during sound checks and, as a first for Harper, did so as a band.

"It was foreign in a great way, giving everybody his voice, democratically equal," he says. "It's hard at any age, but, especially now, in my 30s, it's hard to get out of my own way. It's those ways that got you where you are, so how can you not be extremely settled in them? So it was a group effort, them getting me out of my way and, in trade, I think, me getting them out of their way too."

Once in the studio, the band had 11 songs written and scarcely a week in which to record them. "We had to be at a song and a quarter per day," Harper says. "There was just no compromise. We didn't have a choice. To tell you the truth, we booked six days. But because we were recording and mixing at the same time, we had to book one more day to mix the last track."

The result, contentwise, was starkly different from its predecessor. Where Both Sides of the Gun brims with Harper's angry pessimism over the world his children had to grow up in, Lifeline is pregnant with idealistic optimism about how that world could change.

"I've gone back and forth about whether America missed the point," he says of the reception to Both Sides. "A lot of America didn't. It hit dead center in a lot of places. Obama's using ['Better Way'] as his campaign song now."

Harper pauses, staring off into nothing. Harper is many things: a musician, a husband and father (he's married to actress Laura Dern), a holy man. But he's also media-savvy, and he knows better than to mope too self-indulgently to journalists about his commercial disappointments.

"On one hand, it exceeded expectations," he says slowly. "On the other, it didn't meet them. But who wouldn't want their music to sell more? U2, maybe?" He chuckles. "People complain about me not being political enough, and then I put out a record like Both Sides of the Gun and they don't really catch onto it. Then I make Lifeline and they say, 'What happened to the politics?' "

Harper will probably never please everybody; his career has always gone this way, pleasing one crowd while turning off another. In the end, it doesn't really matter what Rolling Stone says, good or bad; he has his fans, and they are legion.

"It's hard to sell out two nights at the Greek Theatre [in Berkeley, California] and still consider yourself an underground band — but it's true," he says, trying to drink from his bottled water as he laughs. "It's truly been one head at a time, one interview at a time, one disc at a time, one city at a time."

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Cole Haddon