It was doomed from the beginning. The story had been assigned a month prior, but due to unforeseen circumstances, was redirected to me at the last minute. My phone interview with Ben Harper—yes, the Ben Harper—was to take place Thursday morning, promptly at 7:30 a.m. I scrambled to prepare.
At first, I was elated. This was Ben Harper.
Ben Harper! I’d coveted nearly all of his albums, from 1994’s Welcome to the Cruel World to 2005’s Live at the Apollo.
I even fought with an ex over a copy of 1995’s Fight for Your Mind. And his most recent release, Both Sides of the Gun, is on continuous play in my stereo. Isn’t it every fan’s dream to be able to talk to one of their favorite artists?
I should also say that Harper was a folk-rock crooning heartthrob before Jack Johnson’s first album hit the Billboards. Oh, and although most serious music critics would never acknowledge this, I’ve got to say that the man is hot.
But the elation quickly turned to fear. What the hell would I ask him?
As a musician, Harper puts everything out there. It’s hard to ask a songwriter about inspiration when his lyrics—whether about love, politics or social turmoil—are so emotionally honest. His music, as well, is straightforward in its nods to American roots, reggae, funk and rock.
Put simply, an interview with Ben Harper was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up.
I was very familiar with his music, but I had only a few hours to review whatever background information I could scrounge up. I made a chronological list of his albums dating back from 1992, then jotted down notes about specific songs and characteristics I remembered from each. I read every Both Sides of the Gun review I could find. I read a few pages of fans’ posts. And I skimmed through dozens of articles.
And I learned a lot. Like, where his love of music started. His grandparents owned the Folk Music Centre and Museum in Claremont, California, where he was raised. I learned that he grew up with hip-hop in the 1980s and that he was starstruck when he met Chuck D. at the Beastie Boys’ Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York, and that the highlight of winning a Grammy was seeing the look on his mom’s face. And that he currently has Stereophonics, John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things and Coldplay in his CD player.
He’s also fond of old cars—in 2003, he had a ‘62 Impala but was considering investing in an Escalade for more cargo space. And I read of his spiritual and physical transformation when he had his back covered in moko—Maori tattoo—in Aotearoa.
I also learned that he got married last December to his longtime girlfriend (and mother of two of his four children) actress Laura Dern; that he recently recorded a reggae version of the Beatles’ song “Michelle;” that he worked with Jack Johnson on the soundtrack to Curious George; and that on his new CD, he wrote the songs, played all the instruments, self-produced and is now extensively touring for and promoting it.
I listened to a webcast of a radio spot Harper did with his bandmate, just to get used to the sound of his speaking voice, so it wouldn’t throw me off on the phone. I also didn’t want to ask the same questions previous reporters had, so I scoured any interview I could find on the Internet. Some of the information intimidated me.
In a Feb. 27, 2006 Sydney Morning Herald story titled “Ben’s other side is worth a look,” Jane Rocca reported that while Harper has been construed as arrogant and esoteric, he may be “one of the industry’s quietly misunderstood rock stars.”
“People take me as being difficult when there are certain questions that are unanswerable,” said Harper in the article. “But what I mean is in the song. It’s for everyone to hear and interpret.”
Then there was Angela Chiew, the Australian girl who transcribed her lengthy 1998 interview with Harper. In it, Harper validated my worst fears when he either humbly or sincerely admitted that he didn’t have much to say beyond his music.
“I’m not that interesting,” he said. “Certain people would find me extremely boring. I can’t talk about like 18th century literature or what really fine or pretentious people like. I don’t know about a whole lot but I know I love to make music.”
You can’t blame a man for that. But the rest of the interview was mainly an ingratiating account of all the times Chiew had seen Harper, mixed with the six degrees of people they knew in common, as well as her shameless attempt to connect with what she believed was Harper’s shared fanaticism of Jeff Buckley.
While Chiew’s admiration was endearing at first, it quickly became nauseating. I vowed to do my best to prevent the same excessive fawning.
I did learn from her not to ask Harper about skateboarding, religion or his signature lap-slide Weissenborn guitar—topics reporters repeatedly chose to address. And I wouldn’t dare call his new Both Sides of the Gun 18-track dual-CD a “double album”—he prefers to think of it as two different sides of the same old-school vinyl record.
This kind of musical polarity is familiar in Harper’s music. Both with his band, the Innocent Criminals, and solo, Harper makes music that veers from funk, rock, ska, reggae and hip-hop to folk, jazz, middle-eastern and blues. He even won two Grammys for his 2004 soul-gospel album, There Will Be A Light, with the Blind Boys of Alabama.
As I went to bed, nervous flashes kept my mind wide awake. I thought of the DVD Pleasure and Pain that I had seen a few years back documenting Harper on tour. But what stuck out for me as I tossed and turned in bed was when Harper was shown doing a series of interviews and a reporter asked some seemingly innocuous question that made him snap.
I remember at the time how I sympathized with Harper, thinking the toil of so much necessary but unpleasant media attention had taken its toll, and that the reporter should’ve had more tact or done more research to prevent such a fiasco. I also remember thinking that I would never want to warrant such a reaction from a musician I admire.
But what terrified me the most was that I couldn’t remember what the heinous question was. I couldn’t shake the idea that I could potentially, perhaps even subconsciously, conjure it up and ask it.
In an attempt to block the flurry of negative thoughts, I once again put on Harper’s latest double-CD, starting with the mellower first disc.
In the first disc, Harper poetically infuses his stripped-down acoustic ballads with symphonic strings and a lyrically romantic longing, emphasized by a raw, near-whispered vocal delivery. The result is a beautifully aching, impassioned and quietly imploring vibe—music that speaks to my melancholy soul in no way words ever could.
“I was hoping I could come back to the root of my earlier records, the sparseness and intimacy,” Harper said on his website bio. He also added that the recordings were guided by “absolute fearlessness—just diving into a song and ripping it wide open, with a lot of one-take vocals and guitar solos that are nasty, loose, raw, immediate.”
And it definitely shows in the second disc as well. Equally impassioned as the first but showing a harder, funkier edge, the songs of the second CD has critics drawing comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Curtis Mayfield and the Rolling Stones. Still naked emotionally, Harper turns his whisper into a scream through hopeful but angry anthems like “Better Way” and “Black Rain”—a song about the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the neglect that followed.
Needless to say, sleep was difficult. I was up well before the chaotic drill of my alarm clock at 6 a.m. I made the coffee extra strong and did a few yoga poses. On my way to work, I saw the kids in my neighborhood waiting for the school bus. It reminded of that time when all I wanted was to be older and done with school, so I could go where I wanted and when, and I wouldn’t have to be waiting for some stupid yellow box.
Then I decided that the interview wasn’t anything to worry about. It was probably going to go well. After all, I had questions I was sure no one had ever asked him before. We’d develop a rapport, even to the point of him asking me to come backstage after the show and say hi…
When I got to the office, I connected the digital recorder to the landline. I also checked the website advertising Harper’s tour dates. I opened my pad of questions, as well as some notes on the last album. To relax, I put on some light jazz and tried to remember to breathe.
Finally it was 7:30 and I called. The phone rang and rang. Then a female’s recorded voice came on and asked me to leave a message. No problem, I thought, he’ll call me back in a few minutes.
I checked out a video of Better Way, which Harper directed with his wife, and waited. A half an hour later, I called again with no luck.
Getting a little worried, I phoned the publicist. “Hmm,” she said. “Maybe you should try one more time.”
But it was no use. I told her perhaps we should reschedule. She agreed. So I wrapped up my notes, unplugged the recorder, went back to my desk and tried to come up with a backup plan. In other words, I stared at my computer screen and wondered what the hell I was gonna tell my editor.
About three seconds later my editor walked in and asked me how the interview went. I shrugged, launching into my pitiful explanation.
Then the phone rang. I stared at it. My editor stared at it.
“You better get that,” he said.
I picked up the receiver.
“Hi, my name is Ben Harper,” said the voice at the other end.
Delirious, I laughingly said, “get outta here” but Harper was more subdued. Panicked but awake, I asked him to please hold for a moment while I gathered my tools. Harper politely acquiesced.
“I’m sorry, I thought we were scheduled for 11:30,” he said. “I’m in the middle of a bunch of interviews this morning and got mixed up.”
Wonderful. A bunch of interviews. He’s been talking to reporters he’s never met working for publications he’s probably never seen all morning. But I assured him it was no problem.
I started to make small talk, asking him where he was (“Chicago”), where he was going next (“New York,” a bunch of places in Canada) and when he would be coming to Maui (“a couple days before the show”).
I asked him what a typical day on the road is like, what his most memorable gig on this tour has been so far, and what kind of influence growing up in the Southern California inland had on his music. His answers were thoughtful, but brief.
He listened patiently while I droned on nervously about Hawaiian music, growing up in the Southern California desert and how I could relate so well to his music—basically all the fawning I swore I wouldn’t do. He soberly and with as much detail as he could muster, answered my questions succinctly.
“I’m a big dork,” I said at one point. “I still make mix tapes.”
“No, that’s good,” he said, with some warmth.
I started to relax. Then I happened to glance down at my recorder. The word “battery” was flashing and the machine wasn’t doing anything.
I hadn’t recorded a word he’d said.
Not wanting to let on to my considerable technological blunder, I grabbed my pen and notepad and began scribbling his answers to the next few questions…
What songs would be on the soundtrack of your life?
John Coltrane, “Naima”; Wilco, “Jesus Etc.”; Richard Ashcroft (of the Verve), “Lucky Man”; The Be Good Tanyas, “In My Time of Dying”; Jimi Hendrix.
What’s the biggest musical lesson you got from your grandma?
Just watching her and her true joy, how free her music made her.
When was the last time you really laughed?
I laugh all the time. My band is really funny. Usually we’re laughing at something somebody said on the radio or a question we’re asked, we’ll have a good chuckle over later.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?
Say goodbye to loved ones.
What do you think happens when we die?
I’m still trying to get my head around that one. I hope it’s how I fantasize it, that it’s some kind of release, with greener pastures. Who knows? We may already be dead and in heaven. Or hell. But I dunno… it feels like we’re alive.
T he thing about doing a phone interview is that you lose a certain normal, conversational flow. There are long pauses while you catch up with your subject’s quickly verbalized thoughts. They can’t see you and don’t know if you’re even paying attention, but you’re too busy trying to think tangentially about the next question as you’re still writing the previous answer to worry about that. It can result in a stilted, awkward interview.
Thinking about this filled me with dread. All my social skills flew out the window, and I wished I could, too. I didn’t know what to ask him anymore. I was completely empty and felt like a loser.
I stared at the recorder and my barely legible notes. My entire reporting life flashed before my eyes.
I thought back to every interview I’d ever done, every generic question I’d asked, every rehearsed or spontaneous answer they facilitated and the more interesting ones that resulted in rare, editorial gems. But there was nothing more I could pull out this fateful morning. Nothing more I wanted to say.
And knowing that he had more interviews ahead of him, I figured Harper would be grateful for a quick goodbye. So I thanked him for his time.
“See you in Maui,” he said. And then he hung up. MTW