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Interview with Ben Harper

“It’s seems like just ten minutes ago, I was playing to 30 people at The Casbah…” Ben Harper stated to the crowd in attendance of his recently sold out performance at UCSD’s Rimac Arena. Several thousand were present, yet he carried himself as if he were inviting each of them into his living room for an intimate gathering to delight in the experience of sound and emotion coming together. Once the music started, the harsh coldness of the venue’s construction fell away, and a general camaraderie among show-goers took over. At one point in the evening, I overheard a long-time fan comment, “It’s a haunting thing – what this man is able to bring forth to his following…”

To see Ben and his band perform live, it’s difficult to imagine they ever played to so few people. What sparked me initially is how evolved an individual he seems to be.
He’s a very humble, yet passionate man.
“The fulfillment of the feeling that music brings to my life through playing it,” is what drives him. “I can’t even describe it,” he says, “because, when you write a song and you play it… when you communicate it, and it’s received in a strong, emotional way… there’s no other feeling that I can liken that to, or compare that to at all.”

In awe of his lyrical prowess and stage performance, I found myself curious as to how he is able to open himself up so completely for the masses to hear. “Music has always been an emotional release for me… it’s just who I am,” he states, matter-of-factly. “With any art, you have to be willing to go there; you have to be able to dig that deep to make it worth withstanding the test of time.”

Burn to Shine (Virgin Records, 1999), Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminal’s latest release, employs a compilation of songs that defy classification; from mainstream tracks like “Steal My Kisses,” to more alternative cuts such as “Please Bleed” and “Less,” or mystical, rhythmic ballads (“Two Hands of a Prayer” and “Alone”), the CD effectively crosses over traditionally separate genres.

There is a common ground, however, in the music Ben creates. But one won’t find it through the airwaves of a particular radio station or on a shelf in a music store, packaged nicely and filed away. It’s more ambiguous than that – and requires space to breathe.

He has the inner demons we all do, but explains “I’d hate to put [all of them] into the music; I mean, I’d hate to burden music like that. There are no rules, really. Basically, I live life and I communicate ideas and emotions… whether they be fiction or fantasy or what I’ve lived… through song.”

With regard to the recent surge of increased recognition and his growing popularity as an artist, he confesses, “It’s exciting to see. It’s very fulfilling, because you work so hard to impress… I don’t think I know anyone who works that hard to not see the results. So, with this record, it feels really good to hear things and know that people are listening to it and responding to it… but it’s important to remain appreciative. I mean, the second you lose appreciation for success, I think you’re destined for failure.”

If talent alone were an issue, failure is not an option for Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals. With supporting musicians Juan Nelson, bass; Dean Butterworth, drums; and David Leach, percussion; the sound created is phenomenal. Ben’s a perfectionist, but one who is always open to experimentation. Improvisation plays a major role with the band – not only in the studio, but on the road as well. Perhaps that speaks to the level of talent present within the band more than anything else.

For his live performances, Ben remains seated, surrounded by a sentimental Navajo blanket draped across a chair and crimson-colored pillar candles scattered throughout the stage platform. Every song warrants yet, another guitar; usually 12-14 per show.

He played drums for a few years as a child, and still dabbles in keyboards and accordion, but feels the most comfortable with guitars at this point in his career. He has a passion for Wisenbourne’s (hollowneck, lap/slide guitars built from the 1910’s to the early ’30’s – made of specialty woods, indigenous only to the Hawaiian Islands.) Ben uses them as a part of his live show for selected classics from his previous albums, but specifies they don’t appear too much on the new material. “I’ve moved a bit away from them for the time being… to allow for a more full-bodied sound with other lap/slide style guitars.”

With influences ranging from Metallica and Pearl Jam, to Marvin Gaye and Paul Simon, it’s not surprising his sound refuses categorization; the man is constantly evolving and growing in his craft. On the brink of an intensive international tour, he looks forward to the future and delights in the idea of exploring eastern Europe. Striving to maintain a balance between the demands of daily life combined with touring and promotion for his band, Ben concedes “it isn’t always easy to make room for the simple pleasures.” However, he remains thankful for all he’s accomplished and takes the time to see the world when he can. Spending time with loved ones and close friends is another priority for him. “I think it’s already happened,” he says of his success as an artist in general. “I just have to learn to live it.” Good luck, Ben.

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