There may not have heretofore been a huge amount of overlap between revered musician Ben Harper’s audience and the one commanded by pop superstar Harry Styles. But that may be part of the point in Styles having enlisted Harper to open his entire sold-out 15-concert run of shows at Los Angeles’ Kia Forum, where both singer-songwriters will be playing to about 150,000 people between Oct. 23 and the engagement’s closing night Nov. 15. Styles doesn’t need to be pulling many “cred” moves anymore to be taken seriously as an artist with an expansive palette — that’s already pretty well-established at this point — but bringing Harper on board as his sole support act for the next few weeks counts as one anyway. Assuming that Styles’ audience is well-trained in stylistic open-mindedness at this point, the pairing is going to be a win-win for everyone.
Certainly it’ll be a win for anyone who’ll end up getting their first exposure to Harper via the music of his new album, “Bloodline Maintenance.” He’s had his niche projects — like a recent album that consisted entirely of instrumental music performed on a signature instrument of his, the lap steel guitar — but “Bloodline” is one of the most instantly accessible albums of his 28-year recording career, which began with “Welcome to the Cruel World” on Virgin Records back in 1994. Harper says he’s well-experienced in being “on the verge of extinction,” somewhat of an exaggeration of his career ebbs and flows, since there will always be a touring audience, especially, for a guitar hero who also happens to be an expert songwriter and recording artist. But, at 52, making the fresh acquaintance of a hundred-thousand-plus millennials and Gen-Z-ers in one fell swoop can’t help but grow his fan base.
Variety spoke with Harper via Zoom about how he came to make an instrumental cameo on the “Harry’s House” album, what to expect at the Forum, and some topics near and dear to his heart, from guitar playing to his well-established social activism
What does it feel like to be part of such an unprecedented, at least at this length, arena residency?
There’ll be a certain amount of on-the-job training with that, because this is a first of its kind. To have been doing this as long as I have, to be having new journeys and new explorations is the best part.
Playing for an audience that is very much into pure pop music, do you expect them to be welcoming as some of them maybe get exposed to something a little different they haven’t been immersed in up to this point?
You know, the good news with that is, I’ve been doing that my entire career. My entire career, I’ve been somewhat on the border of extinction, and it’s been sort of survival of the fittest from day one. So as far as introducing and reintroducing myself to new people, it’s what I do, record to record.
How did you end up playing on Harry’s record? Was he a fan of yours already?
I believe Harry and Tyler (Johnson) and Tom (Hull), aka Kid Harpoon, were fans of mine. There was a song they were working on that wasn’t giving over — it wasn’t going down without a fight. And with Harry and his production team knowing what I do, I got the call to come in and give it a shot, to play on a song called “Boyfriends.” I loaded in all my best gear, and we went for it. It was a wonderful recording session — one of the most memorable and most musical I’ve ever been a part of.
For that call to come in, if it’s Natalie Maines or LeAnn Rimes or whoever it is, it’s always an honor and exciting call. I do oddly a good amount of session work, maybe a few fun things a year. I’ve gotta tell you, I grow as much from collaboration as I do my own records, because you’re filtering what you do through someone else’s instincts, and that’s growth. You add water, and boom. Also, I’ve been a fan of Harry’s from day one. And it’s always super exciting when my kids can introduce me to music that I should have known already, whether it’s Ed Sheeran or Skrillex or Harry— I’ve come across the most exciting music through my children’s ears. They’re kind of my defacto production team at this point.
But loading in for the Harry session, I didn’t know where it was gonna go. I go a lot of places with electric lap steel, (electric) guitar, acoustic guitar, so I brought a little bit of everything and kind of overwhelmed the studio with instruments. And one of my favorite parts of the session was after the session, because as I was loading out all my gear Harry invited me to stick around because he wanted to finish the song right then and there. To get to watch Harry in his process was eye-opening, and I learned a lot.
Trying different things in the studio, do you remember there being a eureka moment?
Yeah. We were throwing a lot of things at the walls, and we were inching closer, but we hadn’t found it yet. And Tyler came over and kind of put something in my ear and said, “What would you think about kind of a Nashville style of picking?” I said, “Ahh, that could work.” It’s an interesting time signature, so it wasn’t obvious, but Tyler really unlocked it for me.
Did anything strike you about Harry’s approach to finishing the song as you hung around?
Yeah, I mean, he orchestrated the vocal harmonies like a classical composer, spot on, note for note. He just stacked them perfectly in pitch, one better than the next, and it was really eye-opening to see somebody step on the mic and have the parts orchestrated in his head. I’ve never seen anything like it. actually.
Did you keep up with them at all after the session or did the residency spot come out of the blue?
We had stayed in touch from that recording session and then the call came through: Hey, would you be up for doing this? I of course jumped at it and was incredibly honored, because that’s hallowed ground. With the Forum shows, I’ve played large shows on my own, especially in Europe, so I’m not unfamiliar with arenas, having played them overseas quite a bit, and like I said, not unfamiliar with having to reintroduce folks to what I do. There’s also gonna be some surprises. I have some special guests in my opening spot.
Might you make an appearance in his set, if he does “Boyfriends”?
Yeah, that could be possible. I actually slid “Boyfriends” into a show I did the other night in Ojai — I just went ahead and learned it, note for note, word for word. … I’ve been to numerous shows of his, and the crowd is as impressive as Harry himself, one of the more extraordinary crowds I’ve ever seen. And he takes ’em in a lot of different sonic directions, so maybe that’ll sort of open the door for me to have a fun set. Even though I recognize that people are gonna be coming in and getting their seats together — but I’m just excited to have gotten the call and to be on the bill.
You are in the process of moving to France, but this is still a hometown crowd for you, even if it’s not your normal audience. Those of us who are familiar with you enjoy thinking of you in connection with your family’s long-running music store, the Folk Music Shop in Claremont. I always enjoy stopping in at the shop, even though I don’t play; I enjoy just being in there, whether it’s for concerts or just as a lookie-loo.
That’s the one music store you don’t have to really play anything to have a really good time. Thanks for coming in. We need the business, so thank you. … Peter Case was just there too (for a concert) and he’s one of my favorite musician-songwriters of all time. Oh, and we have one of the best open mic nights there as well. You’ll never walk away from a Folk music center open mic without having your eyes open to something special.
Your family’s shop is holding down the fort for historic Claremont now that Rhino Records across the street, one of the iconic stores of the greater L.A. area, moved to an adjacent city.
I am so sad to see Rhino out of there. You can tell the town’s taking a hit. There’s less foot traffic, for sure.
Let’s talk about your new album, “Bloodline Maintenance.” You’ve really been all over the map in recent years with recording projects, from an all-instrumental lap-steel solo album to an album with your mother to blues albums with Charlie Musselwhite. But it’s exciting to get a rock ‘n’ roll-based band album from you again… even if, as we learn from looking at the credits, you’re the one-man band, basically.
I know what you mean — fully produced, with the prerequisite powerhouse instruments. I’m with you.
Is it safe to guess it feed your soul to do so many different types of projects and then come back around to a band record after the detours?
It was great to come back around to that. And having been in my family’s music store, you now know probably better than most why I would be all over the musical map, having spent the majority of my life inside those four walls. But among people from far off and close by who know me, I’ve heard from more people on this record than I think any record in about 20 years.
You experimented with some kind of different amplifier to make the lap steel sound dirtier than we think of it as sounding. You have people like Jimi Hendrix as your heroes, but you’re not about to lock into one style of guitar playing, specifically, even when it’s the same instrument… Does that involve a very specific, conscious approach for you?
Very much so. I was trying to not just get your everyday average guitar sounds. Because shame on us if we can’t bring something new to our instrument. I mean, there’s something to be said for the sort of old, dependable, reliable guitar sounds, and there are those on here too. But I also wanted to push it further than I had in a long time, sonically, on the guitar specifically. For a while (in the past), I’d have other guitar players in different places taking solos, and I was getting a lot of heat for it: “Why aren’t you taking all the solos?” I was like, all right, all right, well, here we go, so I made sure and did that on this album.
Genre wise, is it better to think about how you’re mixing up genres or to keep your creativity free by keeping that out of the forefront of your consciousness?
Because I’ve never subscribed to one genre … it’s not that I never think about it. When I’m making a record with Charlie Musselwhite, you’ve stepped into deep waters in the blues canon, and you’ve gotta step in and step up. Or with my mom, the kind of Americana, folk, whatever you’d call that record, that was a specific genre and sound. But when I’m making my own record, I usually pick, from about 30 songs, the 10 or 11 that go best together and that are also the strongest. If there’s an outlier that doesn’t necessarily fit but it’s what I consider one of my stronger songs, I try to make it fit. You want to put your strongest foot forward regardless of genre. And my stock in trade is eclecticism anyway from day one, so I have that luxury of being able to mix it up with a rock song here or reggae song there or folk ballad, all mashed up into one.
In the beginning, we were told we couldn’t do that. But that’s the reason we ended up with Jeff Ayeroff and Jordan Harris at Virgin Records, because they actually saw that that was gonna be my strong suit. They knew it would make it difficult in the marketing process, but they also heard something in it that was different and its own style. So I have done it wrong enough long enough for it to have reached artists like Jack Johnson and sort of help them kind of take a page out of the playbook, in the best of ways. And so on this record, I leaned into that.
Although with this record… let me dial that back a little bit. With this record, “Maybe I Can’t,” the last track on the album, is the furthest reaching liberty I take — kind of the outlier song, landing on a uniquely different note. But for the rest of the album, I was gunning for soul music, front to back. That’s where my head was at. I made a point on this record to have it be soul-leaning.
Sometimes we have a bias when we see someone played all the instruments on an album — we don’t expect it to be as soulful if it’s not a group of guys.
Prince was my kind of north star on that, because he was the master at that. I hope that you can kind of hear his inspiration and motivation in this record, because he’s in there. I did some background singing session work for OK Go, and Damian (Kulash), a dear friend of mine, had orchestrated these harmonies that were just out of this world — very Prince-ian — and I was like, “OK. Noted!” I had to take Damian’s inspiration and bring that home. But that’s Harry, as well. Harry was an influence on this record, for sure, that session and getting an early listen to his album, “Harry’s House.” It’s just crazy, soulful and funky, and I was like, kids can’t have all the fun.
Musically it’s a fun record, but the lyrics are not all fun and games. You’ve talked about how loss is sort of an inspiration or provocation for the album. And you’re also dealing, as you so often do, with social themes that are pretty sobering. Amid some very serious material, you have some playful songs, too, obviously.
Hopefully it makes the album listenable from first song to last. I’ll dig into subject matter that might not be easy to hear, and then hit the relief valve on the next track or the track after that, just to keep it moving.
Right at the start of the album, you have “We Need to Talk About It,” which deals with reparations and goes back to slavery. You don’t wait to hit them with the heavy stuff.
Yeah. I went back and forth with some close friends of mine as to the sequencing of the record. And I just wanted that upfront, because if you’re not ready to hear that, I’d really rather not have you hear any of it. … Not the best choice for commerce, maybe, but I’m kind of past that part of it, in this stage of my life.
The subject of reparations is not something you just thought about in general terms, we can tell. You really have thoughts about specifically what kind of actions America could take sort of reconcile with its past.
I do. You know, if after the Civil War Black people were tax-exempt for a hundred years, we currently would be, in my opinion, out of the woods. There’d be a far more level playing field, because that was really the only way to actually bring the damage into focus and into balance: finance. But because that never even came close to happening, now people want to say, “Well, you’re still talking about that?” That’s the easiest back door to getting out of that conversation: Are we still talking about this? And of course we are, because we have to have Black Lives Matter because there weren’t reparations. Had there been, we wouldn’t have to have that phrase nor that movement, most likely. But here we are. Even college loans, even student debt, we could start with that. Zero Black student debt — gone, done.
In a recent interview, you used the phrase “America’s race addiction,” and that was such an interesting phrase. Can you explain what you mean by it?
Yeah. Having traveled the world — so it’s not just me speaking in a bubble or in a vacuum – I find that we lead with race in a very specific way in this country, and a lot of that is just due to the backstory. I find that that is so much not going away that it has become somewhat of a cultural addiction, where we can’t get around what we see as being some preordained notion of who people are, unlike other places. Not that it doesn’t exist in other places, but there’s a very specific toxicity to the American breed and brand of race and racism that I’ve found, if by now we haven’t been able to actually move past it, and truly move past it, there is an addictive aspect to it. And I think it needs to be approached as an addiction. You know, as someone who is now five and a half years sober, I know you can’t take addiction lightly. You can’t sidestep it. You can’t step around it, under it or over it. You have to go through it. And I think America needs a cultural detoxification process to mentally start the process of a true cultural paradigm shift. And I would love to see reparations as a part of that, personally.
Issues of race continue to come out in controversies in the music world, really letting us know how much we haven’t gotten past some of the most basic discussions.
And white and Black are such a social construct, and that’s where the relief is in Europe. I mean, there’s so many more places to put nationalism overseas, aside from Black and white. And it sort of just levels the state of discord, in a way. Here it’s at the forefront, but there is no Black and white. There’s Irish, Italian, English, Swedish, North African, South African, West African, all different shades… and certainly melanin, pigment, are what they are. But that’s just such a gross oversimplification of who people are, right?…
And France is home now, when you’re not touring, is that right?
We’re in-between L.A. and France right now, dealing with some citizenship stuff and getting that all together and organized. So there’ll be some back and forth for the foreseeable future, maybe six months to a year. But we’re aiming for Paris.
And the different ways that different countries deal with these issues we’ve talked about must have at least some bearing on that?
When you put out a new record to the tune of which “Bloodline Maintenance” resonates, it’s been interesting that all people have wanted to talk about is why I’m leaving. Like, hey, there’s some songs in here, too, everybody! That’s not the case with this conversation, because we’ve covered everything from soup to nuts… hat to boots, as they say. But that kind of stole the headlines from the album, frustratingly. It’s a hot-button topic, I guess.
Cut to now making that move… I’m vehemently against and opposed to lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court, where they’re not even voted in. To call it a democracy with lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court undermines democracy, in my opinion. And if this is where we’re set, if this is the Supreme Court — which it is — that we are to set sail with to define America for the next 30 years, I’m very uncomfortable with that, to the degree that I’m looking to make a move. And it’s not love it or leave it! It’s just love it and leave it.
“Guitar hero” and “activism” are two of the primary tags people associate with you. You’ve said you had periods where you thought of taking up law instead of music, which is a strong statement from someone who’s thought of as a virtuoso.
Yeah, there have been times where I thought about — and have continued to think about — taking an alternative route to my contribution to social justice, be that law or frontline activism or both. Social justice is that important to me. There was a time in my life where I felt that music could be social justice’s strongest ally. To varying degrees, I still feel that. I’d like to hear more of it in music at large. It’s not for me to prescribe, but it’s just something I’d like to hear more of. Thank God for hip-hop keeping that spirit alive.
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