Shining Path

Ben Harper's journey to musical stardom

Feb 16, 2000 at 4:00 am
Every morning after his tea -- "to clear out all the nighttime yuck" -- singer/guitarist Ben Harper plays and writes and plays some more. A fan of the Delta-blues legends (Elmore James and Muddy Waters) and their subsequent apostles (Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers), Harper makes music that possesses a unique sound even though it comes from the familiar, blues-based classic-rock style. He seems to have the intangible ability to deconstruct music to its foundation and build it up again in his own signature style.

Harper, who started playing guitar when he was 12, says he's still waiting to write that really good song and that he's "just now getting to feel comfortable on the guitar." Anyone familiar with the guitar slinger's tremendous work over the past six years and his terrific four albums knows that this is like Manny Ramirez saying he's just learning how to swing a bat or Kobe Bryant admitting he's only beginning to understand the dynamics of a basketball game. Granted, Harper's recording career is still fairly fresh (he released his debut, Welcome to the Cruel World, in 1994), but his guitar skills already show great promise -- if he's only starting to feel comfortable, it's anyone's guess what he'll sound like a few years down the road.

His latest album, last year's Burn to Shine (Virgin), actually hints at the direction in which Harper is headed. Until Burn, Harper's calling card had been the obscure Weissenborn -- a hollow-neck lap slide guitar with a unique sound. He's now moved on to different lap slide guitars from different eras. The somewhat abrupt change of instruments is nothing more than Harper exploring new musical territory, seeking different challenges and testing his own skills.

"I had taken it (the Weissenborn) as far as I felt that I could in this moment," he says by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "What's amazing is, I just came back to the Weissenborn for two acoustic shows in Aspen, and it was speaking to me as if it was the first time I played it. So it's not a musical abandonment by any stretch. It's just the next road of inspiration that will take me around to that instrument again and have it be fresh again for new ideas."

Since the mid-'90s, Harper has been turning heads with a pastiche that captures his gentle guitar prowess with soft-spoken, soul-exposing lyrics. Tellingly, his sharp, honest sound resonates and really has little in common with artists who might be thought to be in the same vein as Harper -- particularly Lenny Kravitz. The key difference between the two artists is integrity, and Harper seems to have more than just the upper hand. Sure, Kravitz's earlier material possesses an earthy, soulful feel, but the flamboyant singer has since become an alt-rock, power-chord jukebox hero who's more known for his flamboyant clothes. On the other hand, Harper's burning style seemingly comes through the backdoor, luring you in with emotion and subtlety and bowling you over with fine-tuned guitar precision. Whether it's a beautiful acoustic Jimmy Page-like wave of sound or a grinding Southern-rock explosion, Harper delivers the goods.

If his music is effective in the studio, it's overpowering onstage. Since 1994, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals have been a slowly brewing cauldron of postgrunge rock that is just now starting to come to a boil. Through word of mouth and opening for a number of respected artists -- ranging from J.J. Cale, Pearl Jam and the Dave Matthews Band to Metallica and Marilyn Manson -- Harper finally stepped out of the shadow and into the spotlight during the last H.O.R.D.E. tour, in the summer of 1998. His radio hit "Faded," from 1997's The Will To Live, was the break for which he'd been waiting. Though the underexposed single wasn't a mainstream success, it did turn enough heads to fertilize a grassroots movement. And the band fit perfectly into the jam motif of the H.O.R.D.E. tour with Harper's without-a-net explorations onstage.

"Songs definitely evolve since the time they are recorded, and you want them to get better and take on a new life in a live presentation," he says. "What's good is, when you go out on a tour you play it and play it and get it to a certain level. Then you take a little time off and come back to it, and it keeps growing. You realize that you're growing, the song is growing, and you can hope to hear an improvement. You always want to be hearing an improvement in the live songs."

When it came time to record Burn to Shine, Harper and his bandmates were provided with something new -- a recording session without parameters. They were able to take their time and create an album filled with varying styles -- rock, funk, jazz. Proclaimed by fans to be the underground disciple of Jimi Hendrix, Harper dismisses the lofty comparison and instead directs the conversation away from his own talents to those of his band. He says the musicians have grown and are no longer intimidated by recording in a studio.

"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.