Ben Harper: On writing, recording…and Ringo

by Jazz Lewis  05/17/11

For album number ten, Give Till It’s Gone, Harper moved away from his comfort zone in more ways than one, co-writing tracks with Ringo Starr, and utilising the considerable skills of music great Jackson Browne, whose LA studio housed the recording sessions. Working with these musical greats allowed Harper to steer clear of a formulaic style of record making, a trap he seems determined to avoid.

“I’ve always made diverse records, and I wanted this one to be as diverse and chance taking, and thereby hopefully groundbreaking, in the scheme of my own music,” he explains. “The two songs [co-written and performed with Ringo Starr; the psychedelic Spilling Faith and the instrumental Get There From Here] do give it a certain weight.” Harper is in Australia for Bluesfest, but his mind is still reeling from working with The Beatles drummer, referring to him as “a virtuoso”, “one of the greatest drummers on earth”, and “the founder of rock ‘n roll drumming.” Harper appeared on Starr’s 2009 album Y Not, but it is clear he relished having Starr contribute to his album.

“Every record I ask myself ‘can I?’ And afterwards I ask myself ‘can I again?’ I don’t feel that there is one aspect to my record making process that is formulaic…when Ringo came in we had nothing, we didn’t know what we were going to do, and then the songs came out of the energy of the camaraderie between myself, my band… and Ringo Starr.”

The track Spilling Faith is an example of how Harper and Starr worked together on blind faith alone. The song is largely based in improvisation, with Harper gleefully admitting, “we wrote, and rehearsed Spilling Faith – and at the end of it we looked up, and we could see it about to end, you could hear things were starting to wind down to an ending…” Harper can’t contain his excitement at this point and starts to imitate Ringo on the drums; “and all of a sudden we had no safety net, and we just improvised…We haven’t played it since, that’s going to be a tricky one to rehearse.”

The Californian musician takes great pride in lending his industry knowledge to those trying to break into the notoriously difficult music scene, and rightfully credits his many years in the business with allowing him to propel well-deserved artists into the spotlight. It’s no secret that Harper has been the driving force behind Aussie up-and-comer Grace Woodroofe, but the advice he imparts comes as a benefit for both Harper and Woodroofe.

“To expose Grace to the world, I get a great sense of accomplishment from that, as I do making a record.” There are other, less altruistic reasons. “You do also tap into a fountain of their youth in a way… I’ll trade you 5 percent wisdom for 5 percent youth.” With five of his albums accredited Platinum in Australia, it would be fair to assume that the 42-year-old has found a musical groove, however the idea that Give Till It’s Gone was a familiar experience is repelled immediately by Harper.

“I still don’t know exactly what I am doing,” Harper admits defiantly. “You have to command your instrument, you know that, you hope you have a command of your instrument but it’s a cross between knowing what your doing enough to do it but having it be unknown enough to fear it.

“Figuring something out is akin to having a formula, and I don’t want a formula, he continues. “If you’re formulaic, the Ringo Starr song never gets done, so after every album I’m like ‘Oh my god, can I ever do it again?’ Even after ten albums, I’m still like, ‘what am I going to do for eleven?’”

After almost twenty years of successfully making music, Harper is no closer, it seems, to settling into a rhythmic and secure lull. “The scariest point in my career is after making a record and going ‘will people like it?’ Yet, I don’t really care if they do or not, but I do, but I don’t,” he swings.

“That strange juxtaposition, plus wondering ‘can I do it again?’ That is still the question after every record…”


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