GIVING ‘TIL IT’S GONE
Catching BEN HARPER on a particularly demanding morning of back-to-back interviews and associated occupational pandemonium, his cheery description of the day’s proceedings as ‘extra special’ perfectly encapsulated an unwavering optimism that tangibly interlaced each of the heartfelt and passionate words which ensued. A quality evident both lyrically and thematically within each of his 11 studio albums, his upcoming retrospective compilation, By My Side, is the first for which this positivity forms the very foundations.
‘By My Side just came together once we had a direction,’ Ben recalled. ‘When [we decided] it was going to be ballads, I ran with optimistic ballads, with songs like Forever, Gold to Me and Beloved One.’ This career-spanning odic collection will be Ben’s first release since 2011’s Give ‘Til it’s Gone – a title revelatory of another of his personal maxims. ‘Give ‘Til it’s Gone was a statement that I recognised as being something to live by for myself,’ explained Ben. ‘You know, you just gotta give and give... and if you’re lucky you can give ‘til it’s gone. I figure you’ve got to measure someone by what they give rather than what they’ve made anyway.’ In a manner suitably consistent with this humble adage, Ben was reluctant to elaborate upon having declared this album his best yet. ‘I don’t know, I think it’s ridiculous for a musician to critique their own work – or any artist for that matter. I think it’s very unbecoming and unflattering, so I’ll restrain.’ Acknowledging that such behaviour may simply be a product of the human condition, he nevertheless persisted, ‘Being a human being isn’t an excuse for sounding ridiculous.’
Having released each of his previous albums through Virgin, By My Side will see the cessation of his long-running affiliation with the label. However, Ben wasted no time in settling into a new family of record stampers, with an impending album already produced on Concord – a collaboration Ben described with audible excitement. ‘I made a blues record [Get Up] with one of the greatest blues musician of all time, Charlie Musselwhite! It’s coming out next January.’ Bubbling with boyish glee, he added, ‘It’s the best music I’ve been a part of in a long, long time – so fun! I can’t wait to dig in and get at it with him next year.’
It seems blues isn’t the only genre Ben has recently added to the rich musical diversity showcased across his discography. ‘I just did a project with Leonard Hubbard, bass player from The Roots, and it pushed me out into some unchartered territory – the RnB realm. It was really fun! It took me by surprise; it caught me off-guard and challenged my instincts. And by challenging my instincts, it sort of brought some new instinct to me. It was a great time.’
While remaining open to future musical experimentation (though quick to admit, ‘I’m not as brave as Neil Young!’), it seems Ben’s current focus lies elsewhere. ‘I dunno, at this point I just look forward to touring. This tour is inspiring so much songwriting. I’m having the greatest time of my life touring on my own. It’s inspiring songs that I’d never have imagined to have come out, in different ways. So right now, I think I’m where I’m supposed to be. I don’t really want to have to reinvent the wheel at this stage.’ Hastily, he added, ‘Not that I’m comfortable all of a sudden – ‘cos I’m not – but I’m just looking to go deeper into the well that I’ve already dug and prevent it from becoming a grave.’
Another first for the musician, Ben’s upcoming Australian tour will be an intimate, entirely solo and predominantly acoustic performance. Audiences are in for a show which is set to feature some less-than-obvious song choices. ‘I’m bringing out new songs to the stage that are seemingly going very well. I’m approaching songs that no one should. Like, no one should ever play Hallelujah again! But I’m doing it, mainly as a tribute to one of my favourite artists of all time – [Jeff Buckley] is the truth, the ultimate. So I’m getting to dig in different directions that have surprised myself. I would never do Hallelujah unless I thought I could actually do it in a way that I thought would be approved of not only by Leonard [Cohen], but by Jeff in particular.’ He added, ‘It’s about setting the bar high. It would be really easy to get up and play two songs off ten records and have done the night, but really I want to reach out and play piano, play ukulele, play nylon string guitar, do covers that are not easy or not obvious.’
However full his hands may be with touring, songwriting, collaborating and, recently, producing, there is one thing with which Ben has remained staunchly involved throughout – and long before – his career trajectory. Activism continues to play an important part in his life, including his touring schedule. In his recent North American tour, Ben performed at an Anti-Wal-Mart Rally in the historic Chinatown area of LA. Ben reflected, ‘I think it went as good as it could have. I don’t think there’s a Wal-Mart there yet, but you win some, you lose some – you’ve got to be prepared for both sides of that coin. I’m just glad to at least have some solidarity with them. Tom [Morello, of Rage Against The Machine] was there as well. We didn’t play together that day but we do that often.’ Although aware of the ability to utilise his position to champion such causes, Ben warily remarked, ‘You can over-utilise it too. It’s a fine line, but I’ve always found that standing up is better than sitting down when it comes to what you believe in.’ With a sound like Ben’s, there could be no better voice for a cause.
Ben Harper will showcase An Acoustic Evening at the Canberra Theatre Centre on Thursday November 8. Showtime is 7:30pm, doors at 7:15pm. Tickets are $92.15 + bf from canberratheatrecentre.com.au.