An interview with the relentless Ben Harper

Creative force Ben Harper brings Relentless7 to town on the heels of a live release and the completion of their second album.

Seasoned singer-songwriter Ben Harper can deliver a soulful pop-infused love song dedicated to the woman he loves with just as much heartfelt sincerity as he does a socially conscious roots reggae number about instituting change or an easygoing acoustic rock ditty about burning one down between friends. He plays electric, acoustic and lap steel guitars with the confident ease and offhanded skill of a person who's always had music in his life, and he has a rich, R&B-velvety tone that can be flexed to fit any occasion, whether it's dipping into a low and tender croon, rising in a gospel soul wail or making an aggressive hard-rockin' demand.

The 40-year-old multi-ethnic artist grew up in Southern California and passed much of his time at his maternal grandparents' musical instruments shop/museum, where he was exposed to the folk and blues that continue to influence his sound. Harper's musically inclined family encouraged his creativity: he played his first guitar at age 7, picked up slide guitar as a teen, and continued refining his style while repairing and restoring guitars in his grandparents' shop until age 20, when blues musician and shop regular Taj Mahal took Harper under his wing and onto the road.

Harper has carved out quite the career in the 16 years since his debut, experimenting with a range of styles, incorporating those that fit best, and growing into his own as a musician along the way. He's won two Grammys — both in '05 for There Will Be a Light, his album with The Blind Boys of Alabama — and has released nine full-length LPs to date as a solo artist, with his longtime band the Innocent Criminals, and most recently, with his new four-piece project, the Relentless7.

Harper originally met Relentless7 guitarist Jason Mozersky a dozen years ago after a chance encounter with one of Mozersky's then-bandmates ended with Harper landing his band a record deal. Mozersky and Harper continued their friendship in earnest over the years, until Harper invited Mozersky to perform on his 2005 album, Both Sides of the Gun. The chemistry was undeniable. Soon enough, they were hitting the studio with bassist Jesse Ingalls and drummer Jordan Richardson and laying down the tracks that would eventually become 2009's White Lies for Dark Times.

With Relentless7, Harper brings less soul and folk-tinged balladry to the table, and more ragged-edged blues, funky bumps and grinds, and unapologetically thunderous rock 'n' roll. I spoke with Harper on a Thursday afternoon; among other things, we discussed his band's new release, Live From the Montreal International Jazz Festival, and a forthcoming second studio LP tentatively titled Give Till It's Gone that features guest spots by Ringo Starr and Jackson Browne.

CL: What inspired you to release that particular live performance?

Ben Harper: We just felt so strongly about the music that night, and also, unbeknownst to us, they had cameras rolling and a professional audio truck hooked up to the soundboard. So not only did we feel strongly about that night's show, but it was documented so well that it just made perfect sense.

Is there a moment in that show that stands out to you most?

Yeah — "Why Must You Always Dress in Black" into Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" is, for me, one of the finest moments. Another is our re-working of an older acoustic original, "Another Lonely Day." That translated into full band form, I think, really well.

What was your motivation for putting together the Relentless7?

There wasn't a motivation beyond the motivation of the music itself. I'll give you the Cliff's Notes. In '98, I was in a van in Austin, Texas, and the van driver popped in his demo while he was driving me to my gig. And the music was so great. That was my introduction to this particular Austin-based band [Wan Santo Condo]. I became a fan and a friend of the band — the guitar player in Relentless7, Jason [Mozersky] was the guitar player in that band — and helped them get a record deal. But they broke up soon after that.

I stayed friends with Jason in particular because we're guitar freaks. We love it, that's our thing. So we stayed really close. Then I made a record in 2005 called Both Sides of the Gun, and told Jason, "Come on in, play some music on this thing." He performed on a song called "Please Don't Talk About Murder While I'm Eating." At that session, he told me about these two guys that I had to meet who were just amazing musicians. So I told him to invite them down and let's see what comes out of it. And what came out of our meeting the next day was a song called "Serve Your Soul" that also made it onto Gun, and it was the chemistry in that recording session that was the impetus for this band.

How is the dynamic different as far as songwriting, chemistry, studio styles, in comparison to what you do with the Innocent Criminals?

Dynamically, it's not all together different as they are both great bands and they are both bands that have incredible musical ideas as individuals and are able to apply them in a collective setting. But different players are going to bring out different instincts and are going to push you in different directions.

Did you already have ideas when you went into the studio?

Excuse the pun, but I'm super relentless when it comes to writing. Every day I write pages and pages, and that's my process. But when we went in to make White Lies for Dark Times, we didn't do it to become a band or make a record; we went into the studio wanting to revisit the chemistry we'd found in Both Sides of the Gun. So we had no agenda, and having no agenda quickly turned into the collaboration of different guys' ideas, that would become one song and roll into another song, and the next thing you know, we not only had an album's worth of material, but we felt strongly enough about the need to define ourselves as an official band.

And that's why, when we made White Lies, becoming a band wasn't even anywhere in our dialogue, which is the beauty of it, really. I didn't say "I'm going to get three other well-known musicians and start a rock band to make rock. It just kind of came together organically ...

And to take that one step further, we didn't make that record as a band, that record made us into a band. So this record that we just finished as a matter of fact, at 5 a.m. this morning, it's the first record we've officially made as Relentless7. And I'm very excited to show the world how we evolved.

Tell me more about the new album, Give Till It's Gone.

Oh God, it was one of the great recording experiences of my entire life. It's taken me to a whole new place and given me a whole new enthusiasm about how records can be made, and how four grown men can be in a room working at that level of connectedness — it was groundbreaking for me.

Did it have anything to do with the guest artists?

That was a part of it. You know, having Jackson Browne and Ringo [Starr] endorse what you're doing musically — that brings a heightened level of excitement to what you're doing that only fuels the process, in a way that is unexplainable. You just have to keep it together, really. Having Ringo come in and make music with us — we could sit around and talk about the experience for three days straight and not hit another note, and we wouldn't be wrong. But, we use it for fuel and just keep pushing forward every day. And having Jackson come in and sing with us, it brought not only connectedness throughout the band and the players, but it brought a heightened level of awareness that we must be doing something incredibly right, to have that honor in front of us.

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