Ahead of a show with the L.A. Phil, Ben Harper discusses his favorite musical collaborations
“Collaborations are a commitment to being willing to grow,” says Ben Harper. “You only grow in situations where you surrender to the unknown.”
The guy knows what he’s talking about: A singer, songwriter and guitarist acclaimed for his rootsy blend of blues, soul, folk, rock and reggae, Harper has made a regular habit of working with other artists since he broke out in 1994 with “Welcome to the Cruel World.”
He’s written songs and produced albums for some of his idols. He’s freelanced as a session player for pop stars such as John Mayer. He even formed a short-lived band, one he promises to revive, with the son of a Beatle.
For his latest collaboration, the 46-year-old Southern California native is set to join the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a concert Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl.
The show, which will feature orchestral renditions of some of his best-known tunes (with new arrangements by David Campbell), follows the recent release of “Call It What It Is,” Harper’s first studio album with his longtime backing band, the Innocent Criminals, in nearly a decade.
Ahead of the concert, Harper discussed some of his previous pairings, but not before offering a warning: “You’re gonna have to put up with me,” he said with a laugh, “as I traverse the endless road of my appreciation for these people.”
Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite
Harper teamed with the veteran harmonica player in 2013 for this Grammy-winning blues album.
The seed for this was my sort of hero worship for Charlie. Not even “sort of” — this is just a dude that I straight up love. But when you’re collaborating with someone outside your stratosphere, you have to be on steady ground. You have to push through the hero worship and put the pen on the page. So it was about finding common ground — everybody throwing out the best they had to offer, nobody shying away from making adjustments.
We went on tour together, and I’d see people seeing Charlie for the first time, losing their minds. It was interesting to present something to people that they instantly recognized as something they should already have known.
We played a gig at the White House, and [the famed session guitarist] Steve Cropper cornered me and said, “Man, do you know how lucky you are to be playing with that guy?” I was like, “Yeah,” and he goes, “You sure?”
“The Devil You Know”
Rickie Lee Jones
In 2012, the idiosyncratic folk-jazz singer drafted Harper to produce and play on this collection of covers.
Working with Rickie is like working with Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday — you have to understand that they don’t need you. She could play a rhythm track on her knees, a melody on some pots and pans, and the next thing you know, it’s the coolest thing you’ve ever heard. At the same time, I think she must’ve heard something in my music that was gonna translate to the sound she was hearing for that particular record. There was a lot of trust.
“Save the Hammer for the Man,” from “World Wide Rebel Songs”
Tom Morello, the Nightwatchman
Harper co-wrote this 2011 protest song for the Rage Against the Machine guitarist’s folk-rock solo project.
Same generation, same heritage — black and white. And we share a social conscience. “Save the Hammer for the Man” came out of a dialogue while I was on the road. Tom and I were talking on the phone about our next move, what we were gonna take a stand for, and I came up with something outlandish, something so radical that he was like, “Hold on a minute — we better save that hammer for the man.” And I went, “Dude, that’s a song.” Couple weeks later, he’s in my living room and we’re scratching it out.
I think of Tom as a peer. We came up together; we’re ’90s survivors. That makes it a collaboration of friends, and I love those because the pressure’s off. Working with Jack Johnson is the same thing. He’s like, “Hey man, if you’re in the neighborhood, come by — I’m in the studio.” When you’re in touch with someone day to day as a friend, it’s as much hanging out as it is business.
“As I Call You Down”
Fistful of Mercy
This supergroup with Harper, singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur and George Harrison’s son Dhani released its debut album in 2010.
It almost feels like a dream now. Things opened up for us all in our lives and it happened. You know, collaborating is one thing, but starting a band is another. It was the biggest relief to [not be the sole focal point]. We toured quite a bit, and I even told the guys, “I ain’t sitting in the middle.”
I think about those songs all the time. My main frustration with Fistful of Mercy is not knowing when the three of us are gonna have the same opening at the same time to get back to the music that’s waiting in the ether for us. We have an email chain that’s going back and forth; we know it’s something we’ve got to do.
Ben & Ellen Harper
Harper and his mother conceived this 2014 album as a kind of tribute to the music store his grandparents opened in Claremont in 1958.
This was like holding an egg on the opposite side of the spoon — it was that important to me, and that fragile a moment. For one thing, you can’t sing a love song with your mother. So if it’s true that 50% of all songs are about love, then you’ve just cut down your available material by half.
But also there was a responsibility to have it be perfect. You’re dealing with a bloodline, something that’s gonna be for your kids and your grandkids’ kids. This record was a contribution to my family’s legacy. How could you not believe that’s something worth getting right?
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