Ben Harper's bandmates from the Innocent Criminals are in the middle of pillaging several newly arrived boxes. The first copies of their CD, Lifeline, have just arrived, and the musicians are grabbing stacks with each hand. Meanwhile, Harper, who has already gotten his share, is shuffling about their rehearsal space with a BlackBerry to his ear.
In a few minutes, he'll ignore this interview's already delayed start time and instead plant himself in a chair in the center of the room. There, concentrating intently, he will spend the next 20 minutes reading the article and review Rolling Stone just ran about him and the album.
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 reviews so widely positive he can't hide his giddy thrill — even though the guy refuses to utter an immodest word. 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 difficult 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 has firmly shaken your hand, you'd be ready to offer him a kidney.
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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 Pro Tools, no Auto-Tune — 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 has released before, and absolutely nothing like Both Sides. The latter was a double concept album of sorts that confused many critics and fans with its political and social agendas. 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 during the Both Sides world tour, but had been talked about, 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. Songs were written and rehearsed during sound checks and, as a first for Harper, were done 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 thirties, 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 a scarce 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, content-wise, 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, instead, 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 about the reception of 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. He is many things: a musician, a husband and father, a holy man. But he is also media-savvy and 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 Lifelines and they say, 'What happened to the politics?'"
Harper will probably never please everybody; his career has always gone this way — satisfying 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. Nobody has ever been excited about gifting anything to this band."
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