Shining Path

Ben Harper's journey to musical stardom

"We challenge ourselves, and we push each other," explains Harper. "From our bandmates and producer to our engineer, we all push each other. We don't let ourselves or each other settle for anything less than our best. There was definitely more of that done on this album, just because we dug deeper. We're able to dig deeper with each album."

Harper remains reserved when discussing his goals as an artist. Sure, mainstream adulation and a long, profitable career are naturally what he seeks, but a side of the 30-year-old Harper cries out for respect. Attention from contemporaries is nice, but Harper seems focused on gaining the respect from some of his biggest idols. Asked with whom he would like to share a stage or microphone, Harper doesn't hesitate.

"Bob Dylan and Neil Young are the only musicians I want to play with now," he says. "That's it. Forget opening -- I want to write a song with (one of them)." Tellingly, the list, which quickly grows to include Bruce Springsteen, is filled with artists who succeeded on their own terms, playing their own unique style for decades.

Though Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder said you should never get too close to your idols, then proceeded to become a lackey for Neil Young and Pete Townshend, the normally reticent Harper tries to justify his similar desire to work with the very icons whose work he has reclaimed as his own.

"It's not hypocritical, but I know what he (Vedder) means," Harper says. "There is a danger in it. And there is also the ultimate reward. Having worked with John Lee Hooker and Warren Haynes from Gov't Mule, that's the ultimate reward. There is a certain letdown, but there is also a certain breakthrough as well. They could be having a bad day, or they could be just an asshole. You never know. Some people just are bitter, and some people appreciate life on a daily basis. And some people are both on different days. People are so complex; I stopped trying to figure them out. But if you can meet in the middle in that moment, then anything can happen musically. (And) when it works, boy, it's the best."

Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals perform to a sold-out crowd at Mississippi Nights on Thursday, Feb. 17.

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