Talking to Ben Harper feels a lot like infringing on his personal space. Through his work -- an evocative mélange of postmodern folk blues -- Harper seems to divulge important parts of himself, doled out in small bits. Yet as much as he expresses through his art, in conversation he seems guarded, even reticent to reveal too much or to give the wrong impression.
"Interviews are tough, man," he says pointedly after hearing the same question repeated for the umpteenth time. "I gotta tell you -- there's only so many questions that can be asked of me and there's only so many times I can answer the same one. I just struggle with that because I don't want to seem like a jerk, but I can't repeat myself. I feel much more ridiculous saying the same thing I've said."
The thing is, Harper's frustration isn't the spoiled complaint of a "rock star." He's just a sensitive, thoughtful guy who doesn't like to bullshit. Thankfully, he's got the music to back him up. Unlike most guitar heroes (more on that later), Harper's focus is on his songs -- part Hendrix, part Dylan, part Marley. The guitarist is also blessed with an expressive, elastic voice that gives him the freedom to vary the intensity of his work. Because his six-string chops aren't always the primary focus, it's resulted in a compelling string of albums that have flashes of grungy blues tempered with introspective acoustic numbers.
His fourth record, Burn to Shine, doesn't stray from his chosen path -- it widens it. Harper can throw a Dixieland jazz-flavored tune ("Suzie Blue") into the mix or beatbox on the very next track ("Steal My Kisses") without either seeming incongruous. An eclectic chameleon, Harper is a rare breed, feeling equally comfortable playing metal festivals in Europe or the hippie-esque H.O.R.D.E. tour in America.
"It's who I am and it's not changeable," he says from his home during a rare and brief break from the road. "I don't sit down and say, 'Today I'm going to write a rock song, today I'm going to write a Dixieland jazz song, and today I'm going to write a ballad.' I write the songs as the ideas and inspirations come through my life. Therefore, I'm not as much a leader in all of this as a follower of the creativity as it comes. I suppose I could sit down and say, 'I'm going to write a straight rock record or a reggae record,' but it hasn't happened. If it happens where throughout the course of the year I write 10 rock songs, then the next album will probably be a rock record. But until then it's going to be a mixed style of different sounds because that's what comes through my inspiration organically and naturally."
Growing up in Claremont, California, an hour outside of Los Angeles, Harper learned to play and repair instruments at his grandfather's music store. It was there that he discovered what would become his primary musical tool, the lap slide guitar. The instrument offers an often sad texture that has enough character to stay warm when Harper turns up the volume and adds distortion. With luthier Billy Asher, Harper helped design his own signature model guitar, a testament not only to his unique style, but to his ability as a player.
Knowing how carefully he considers each query, it's not surprising how gingerly he steps around the landmine question: Does he feel like a guitar hero?
"God, no. I love to play the guitar and I think people have gotten turned on to a style of slide guitar that they may not have known about or heard of before," he says. "I'm just hoping I can be a link in the tradition of slide guitar, into this generation," says Harper, adding with a laugh, "that's such an unfair trap of a question that there's no way I can intelligently dig myself out of it."
Burn to Shine's strengths are in the combination of guitar heroics and the up-tempo, Southern musical foundations. Despite his California upbringing, Harper knows his blues spring from the Delta. The title track even has a hint of Mississippi gospel in the swinging "oohs" of the background vocals. Bassist Juan Nelson takes full advantage of the loose groove -- think Little Feat -- taking fills in between Harper's precise slide runs.
Given the hints of Big River flavor in that song, the clarinet and trombone accompanying Harper's bayou strumming of "Suzie Blue" seem a logical extension. Still, there are few artists who could put that cut side by side with something as heavy as the spooky "Please Bleed" and not have it disrupt the flow of the record.
"Bleed" is the emotional highlight of the record; Harper plucks a crossroads lick from his guitar and begs a bad lover to feel something, anything. The band stays low-key until the screeching chorus, where Harper pours on the distortion while making his forlorn plea, aided by percussionist David Leach's quick bongo accents. Harper's going-down-in-flames solo is brief and filled with turmoil, but he never just wanks off, and he comes back with more fury than before, adding the final salvo, "Good lovers make great enemies."
Harper is one of those artists who's been able to create a body of work that seems to exist outside of current music trends. His influences are obvious, though never superficial. Unfortunately, his well-rounded and diverse style may prevent him from reaching a wider audience in America -- though he does especially well in Europe, particularly in France. The fact that his popularity may have reached a ceiling in the States as a result of the narrow confines of commercial radio is unfortunate.
Nonplussed, Harper isn't compelled to explore his appeal. "I've known groups who just were famous in Utah. They couldn't sell out a 100-seat bar in the States, but they'd sell out 3,000 seats in Utah," he says. "It's the strangest thing. I've known bands that could only sell records on the two coasts and can't get arrested in between. It's the most inexplicable thing, I don't know. There have been fans all over the world that have been down from the beginning, but France really had a way of reflecting this music to the rest of the world when a lot of people were listening. We'd do a show in Lansing, Michigan, and out of the hundred people there, there'd be six or 10 French people."
In addition to the French, Harper's peers and heroes also appreciate his guitar chops. His versatility is evident in recent guest turns on records by both folkster trip-hopper Beth Orton and master bluesman John Lee Hooker. His wavering solo that closes out the title track on Orton's Central Reservation was noticed by a defensive fan who thought Harper was being copied.
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"One guy walked up to me in a guitar store and was like, 'Man, I heard this chick, she's ripping your sound off. I heard it on the radio today. Her name was Beth something.' I was like, 'Dude, it's me,'" he says, sounding amazed. "But I'm glad to see that people got that territorial about a sound. That blew me away."
In the same way that he seems guided by the songs, rather than vice versa, he says that bringing his distinctive playing to other people's records is an often difficult task despite his talent. "You're bringing who you are reflected through your sound into someone else's world and seeing whether or not it will fit. It's extremely intimidating. To me it presents one of the biggest musical challenges to be confronted with. And I really have to like the music, I have to feel something to even be remotely interested."
Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals are scheduled to perform on Wednesday, February 23, at the Celebrity Theatre, with the B-Side Players. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.