"It's pretty exciting to see young people who are into Robert Johnson and Robert Plant," says Ben Harper. His choice of those particular names also offers shrewd insight to the multifaceted musician's own span of influences.
"I think there's a growing interest in different music among young people today," Harper says during a call from his Los Angeles basement, where the sounds of his guitar doodling can be heard in the background. (Must be one of those headset phones.) "You can walk into a Tower or Virgin Records store, and everything is there. That's pretty much a first, I think, to have such a wide selection under one roof of so much different music."
It's encouraging for Harper that Generation Next seems to embrace disparate avenues of music, because the songwriter himself has been compared to just about everybody who's made a rock, soul, or blues record in the past 30 years. On his latest offering Burn to Shine alone, Harper forded a river of styles: "The Woman in You" begs comparison to Axis: Bold As Love-era Hendrix, "Two Hands of a Prayer" has a Page & Plant feel, and "Suzie Blue" conjures up '20s-style Dixieland in a Leon Redbone vein. Harper's mastery of diversity makes it difficult to avoid raising musical links to other artists. Not surprisingly, Harper is not very keen on the barrage of comparisons he's had to endure over the length of his career.
"I find them inappropriate for different reasons," he explains. "Some I find inappropriate because some of the people they've compared me to, I'm not a fan of. And some are inappropriate because I'm a fan of the people they're comparing me to, but I just don't agree. And some of the comparisons are extremely flattering and extremely ego boosting.... But to say that I like these comparisons and don't like the others, it gets into a sort of musical finger-pointing scenario, and I'm not comfortable with that."
Regardless of whether he likes the comparisons, he is still compelled to address them. "I take the ones I disagree with and don't like, and I throw them away," he says. "And the ones I think are flattering and great, I say, 'Well, if I want to be that good, I'd better get to work.'"
And work is something the 30-year-old musician knows a little about. Raised in a music-loving environment (both his mother and grandmother were guitar players), Harper first performed professionally in small clubs in Southern California while continuing to work at his grandparents' music store in Claremont. "It was definitely on-the-job training," he says of the retail gig, which he eventually quit so he could record and tour full time.
After landing a deal with Virgin Records, Harper delivered his 1994 debut, Welcome to the Cruel World, at the age of 24, and the follow-up, Fight For Your Mind, which marked the introduction of his trademark Weissenborn acoustic guitar. In 1997, in conjunction with his release The Will to Live, which yielded the single "Faded," Harper's diligent band hooked up with the H.O.R.D.E. Fest. The excursion helped spread the word to American audiences, mirroring the success the group had already found overseas, where Harper boasts gold or platinum tallies in such countries as Italy, France, and Australia.
In the past year, Harper has made guest appearances on records by John Lee Hooker, Beth Orton, and Gov't Mule. His quartet continues to tour on 1999's Burn to Shine, a record that may be his most emotional and authoritative endeavor.
"I think there are obvious reflections of growth and progress and improvement from record to record," he says. "I might be wrong, and in five years I might go, 'Man, why didn't I just stop with one record?' But I doubt it. At some point, you've got to be the judge of your own abilities and be able to do it with a level of high objectivity.
"You've got to reach a level in your craft where you say, 'This is good. This is bad. This is better. This is best.' You have to know the good songs from the bad songs, the good takes from the bad takes, the good lyrics from the bad lyrics," he says. "You have to know that if you're going to step it up to a level which is the road rarely traveled in music. That's where we're all trying to go. It has nothing to do with sales; it has to do with quality of music."
Harper's best songs wrestle with issues of faith and spirituality without the pitfall of coming across as preachy. On Burn to Shine, he contributes "In the Lord's Arms" and "Two Hands of a Prayer," which lyrically elevate his material to that of a spiritual pilgrimage. Although unafraid to bare his soul to listeners, he is somewhat averse to judging other artists' takes on such subjects.
"The moment you talk about anyone else's spirituality, you definitely are in a high-risk group of annoying someone," he says. "Do I think modern music lacks spirituality? Do I think modern culture lacks spirituality? Sometimes I very much think that, and sometimes I'm very much inspired by modern culture, society, and civilization."
When pressed to name something that has inspired him recently, Harper pauses. "Hmm. I suppose if I have to think that hard, nothing," he says. "But I'm sure that's not the case."
One constant source of inspiration for Harper seems to be his bandmates. Like the Heartbreakers, the E Street Band, the Revolution, or even the News, Harper's supporting group has acquired a character of its own. Although the Innocent Criminals (composed of longtime bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Dean Butterworth, and percussionist David Leach) have taken a while to solidify into a consistent unit, Harper asserts that theirs is now among the most formidable rhythm sections in circulation.
"There's not a tangible answer I could put my finger on that would say why these players have become the Innocent Criminals and others haven't," Harper says. "It's that undefinable musical element that is extremely special that makes this group be able to be what it is. It makes each one of us able to push each other in a direction that is positive, support each other in our mistakes, and reward each other with our accomplishments.... It's never felt more like a band than it does now."
It's one of the reasons that the guitarist doesn't just go by the moniker "Ben Harper" when performing. "I'm really a small part of it," Harper says, confirming that he is more comfortable promoting his position as a band member than a solo project. "I write the songs on acoustic guitar, and I sing. The band plays a huge part in bringing the songs to life. But let me boost my own ego by saying I made the band. I brought the players in. Different people recommended different players, but I'm the one who said, 'You're in the band, and you're not.' These guys are the best musicians on the planet. They started out being the best musicians, and I'm smart enough to have made them the Innocent Criminals."
Despite his musical confidence, ego is not something that Harper hammers listeners (or reporters) with. Not a hint of bravado or posturing is evident during his conversation -- Harper's lack of showboating would probably keep him out of the NFL -- and it's this ego-stripping that makes his sedate live performances (he often remains seated) seem introspective rather than aloof.
"I'm a small piece of the pie," Harper says. "That might sound irrational to some, but no matter how much music any of us make in this lifetime -- you can get rich, or you can stay poor -- but you're still going to be a drop in the musical bucket as far as history is concerned. You could subtract anyone out of the musical equation of life: Hendrix, Zeppelin, Bach. You could subtract anyone, and music is not going to stop. The music stores aren't going to close down. The journalists aren't going to lose a job; they'll interview somebody else. There's so much music that no matter how much you'll do, you'll be a drop. There are the exceptions who make a splash, if not a tidal wave. So I'm just working on my tidal wave."
And where is Harper in his career?
"In surf terms," he says, "I'm getting barreled in a big way."
Saturday, Feb. 19at The Uptown Theater
Contact Jon Niccum at 816-218-6782 or firstname.lastname@example.org.