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Ben Harper

| March 30, 2006 | 0 Comments

Ben Harper
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

No one can blame Ben Harper for not wanting to discuss his personal life with a stranger. He’s embarking on a tour that will enliven his 18-song, two-disc Both Sides Of The Gun (Virgin), which follows the Grammy-winning album he made with The Blind Boys Of Alabama in 2004. Trouble is, no one was asking about his personal life.

“In all fairness, I thought the interview sounded directed in general terms, but it was still on a strong footing,” he says in a rare candid moment during a cagey, 20-minute chat. “I didn’t overly detect it and I didn’t know what was to come. I thought, ‘Maybe he’s gonna ask about certain songs on the new record coming up,’ but still the questions were musical enough and you didn’t ask about my wedding or ask about my kids and you didn’t ask about . . . you held on.”

Of course, his guard came down when I disclosed I hadn’t heard his new album due to some snafus with his record label, but asked him about it anyway. How the subject of his December marriage to actress Laura Dern never came up in light of this confession completely baffled him. That’s because he has given us a bigger fish to fry: two discs divided into two aesthetic camps. Yes, ladies and germs: a double album.

“It’s cool,” he says, permitting the generalization and all the context that comes with it. “That’s the funny thing about press: when you put something out in written form, it’s more final than it sounds. I said, ‘I didn’t really want to think about it that way, dot dot dot, but at the same time it is a double record and I’m O.K. with referring to it in those terms.’ I didn’t want to put out [just] one [disc] because it would be ‘Where’s all the material? Where’s the other side of what he does?’ To avoid all that, I figured these songs seem to reflect or build a bridge to and from each other as a double record — let’s go for it. And sure, there’s an inherent risk in double records, just because historically they mean different things to different people. But when they work, they work. And I thought this one had a shot.”

Nixing the sprawl that characterizes and sinks all too many double albums, Both Sides Of The Gun is compact and orderly. “I could have put a couple other songs on each one,” Harper demurs, “making them [each] a full body of work, and released one more mellow record and one being more charged, for lack of better terms.” But before you can say “Foo Fighters,” Gun isn’t an attempt to capture a wider audience a la In Your Honor; if it is there’s difficult work ahead. Harper’s trademark composite of soul, funk, roots, and folk might initially feel split down the middle, but the lyrics reveal daggers on both discs.

In Gun‘s promotional materials, the double-album connotation Harper says he dislikes the most is the notion of indugence. Not only are they loaded with filler, but often the records take years to execute due to grand themes and issues with continuity. The cure, he found, was something he learned from working on The Blind Boys Of Alabama album: “Get out of your own way and sing from the heart.

“[Gun] was finished in just over two-and-a-half months,” he says. “A lot of first takes. I learned to get to the soul of matters — usually which exists in the earliest of takes — especially if you’re interested in being raw and honest in the form of soul music and blues music and folk music. So I tried to apply that the best I could to my own work and not worry about [multiple takes] and lean into it.” The fiery “Black Rain” was written in the studio and recorded only once. Few of the early songs — the oldest of which are “Get It Like You Like It” and “Gather ‘Round The Stone” — underwent rewrites, and even fewer have been heard by Harper since they were finished.

“Sometimes you write a song and the moment you write it, you can hear the final production as you’re writing or when it’s finished. And it stays true to that,” he notes. “Some, depending on how they challenge you in the studio, can take on a whole new life. Ideas are of the moment. Here’s the thing: When I’m done with a record, I don’t sit around celebrating the accomplishment. The moment [it’s] mastered and sent to the record company, I’m working on my next record.”

Steve Forstneger

To find out more about what’s getting to Harper, pick up the April issue of Illinois Entertainer.

Category: Features, Monthly

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