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Ben Harper Interview Friday, 24 July 1998

by Angela Chiew


Virgin Records: Ben Harper is on the phone for you.

Angela: Great.

Ben: Hi

Angela: Hi

[noise]

Angela: Hello?

Ben: Hello.

Angela: Hi. How are you?

Ben: Good … good …

Angela: Are you on a hectic schedule today?

Ben: No.

Angela: No? OK … are you in the middle of a tour right now?

Ben: Yeah.

The Jeff Buckley Eternal Life Mailing List

Angela: Yeah I heard you played the Horde the other day …

Ben: Yeah - where are you?

Angela: I'm in Adelaide but um, I'm on the Jeff Buckley mailing list so - word travels fast.

Ben: Right!

Angela: [laughing] Yeah a girl emailed the list saying, "I met Ben Harper and I was wearing my Jeff Buckley T-shirt and he said …"

Ben: Yes I met her. That's absolutely right. God that was just the … we had just arrived …

Angela: Yeah at the signing. [Laughing] How is that!?

Ben: That's the most tight-knit web site I have ever, ever heard about.

Angela: Yeah I know - it's the coolest! Hey we've actually communicated before.

Ben: OK.

Angela: I'm a friend of Leah's.

Ben: Oh right!

Angela: And I'm the one that wrote her a letter …

Ben: Yeah.

Angela: Which I think you went to her house and saw it …

Ben: Yeah. That was very nice.

Angela: Oh thanks. I said to Leah, "I'm finally interviewing Ben, what should I ask him?" And she said, "Ask him how much he misses me now that I've left Virgin."

Ben: [laugh]

Angela: Yeah, your name does come up a fair bit on the Jeff thing.

Ben: It must because I hear about it often.

Angela: That's how I originally heard - but that was about three years ago.

Ben: Oh.

Angela: There was a guy who gave me a Jeff poster and he said, "I have this other tape of a guy you have to hear" and he threw in a tape out of good will and yeah, I was completely drooling at the mouth …

Ben: That's very nice. Thank you for listening to the music.

Angela: No, thank you.

Ben: I'm glad we've finally got the chance to talk.

The Mama's Trippin' Freedom Remix

Angela: [laugh] Now I think you are doing promos for the new single.

Ben: Yeah.

Angela: And [laugh] the one that has been getting the most airplay, like JJJ just won't stop playing is the Freedom remix.

Ben: Do they play that a lot?

Angela: They play that all the time. I mean constantly.

Ben: Oh.

Angela: Yeah so how did it come about. It was about the most unlikely thing I expected to hear Mama's Trippin' mixed with.

Ben: We just decided to do a remix because remixes are the thing that people are doing now and I didn't want to put it into the hands of anyone else. So my friend, JP and I we got together and we did a remix and that idea for the Freedom chords and I used that sort of vocal thing you know that thing that plays with your vocal and put a different bass line and just had fun with it.

Angela: Yeah it's very, very cool. But how did you get the idea to mix it with Freedom of all the things?

Ben: Sampling is a cross between the cool things that you have heard that have left an impression on you. It's a cross between that and your record collection.

Considered Contemporaries

Angela: OK. So out of … the comparisons we hear made to you are usually past influences. Who do you consider your contemporaries?

Ben: Contemporaries … contemporaries. To me contemporaries can be just people my age making music really. Anyone who is bound to influence me whether it is like Pearl Jam or Jeff really. Just people whose music I find soulful and who I enjoy listening to.

Angela: OK. So do you get out to see a lot of live gigs? Do you have time?

Ben: I make time. Like at the Horde, I've seen Blues Traveller, I've seen Smashing Pumpkins, I've seen Government Mule.

Angela: OK so are there many of those influences or well like what are you favourite albums of the past year or whatever?

Ben: There's a blues guitar player named Alvin Young Blood Heart [?] whose just put out an album that is really, really good. And Beth Orton. I like Beth a lot. And Everclear.

Websites

Angela: Right so that's quite diverse. I don't know if you have seen much of the stuff that is on you on the interview, but I've been going through it over the past few days and there is just so much!

Ben: Is any of it interesting?

Angela: Yeah some of it is. Actually a couple of Australian sites.

Ben: I've heard about that.

Angela: From your last tour, just people who got to meet you … I didn't get to meet you last time in January because …

Ben: Awwww …

Adelaide

Angela: I was in Sydney when you did your Adelaide show, and then I was Adelaide when you did your Sydney shows so …

Ben: Adelaide. Isn't that where Cleland National Park is?

Angela: Yup!

Ben: With the kangaroos …

Angela: Yep.

Ben: I've been there and we had a blast with the kangaroos!

Angela: [laughing] Cool! But I did see you when you played Heaven the year before.

Ben: Oh right.

Angela: And I was trying to console myself by saying it would have been better that time because it was a smaller room. But I didn't get to see you at Thebbie.

Ben: Next time … next time …

Lover, You Should've Come Over

Angela: Yeah, exactly … Hey you know why everyone has heard about you on the Jeff list … because Michael Harris who met you backstage and said, "I know how to play, Lover, You Should've Come Over …

Ben: Oh that guy …

Angela: He's told absolutely everyone you could possibly think of that story!

Ben: [laugh]

Angela: There was a Jeff Buckley J Files on JJJ and he went on national radio and told everyone the Ben Harper story!

Ben: Oh I am still trying to learn!

Angela: [laughs]

Ben: I've got this far [starts playing the opening bars of Lover, You Should've Come Over faintly in the background!!!] Right?

Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk and Jeff Buckley

Angela: [grinning madly] Wow! You'll get there, you'll have to get there. Have you heard Sketches?

Ben: [still playing] Yeah.

Angela: And what did you think?

Ben: I like it a lot personally. I mean it's just kind of hard though because it's not a Jeff Buckley record. It's Jeff Buckley ideas. It's not a record until the person who is writing the songs says, "This is ready for the public to hear." Does that make any sense?

Angela: Yeah totally. I completely agree.

Ben: And if you can keep that in perspective. Because God knows what he would have written just by the time he was ready to record. I'm sure he was writing music every day. It just takes one day and you can have the greatest song ever, you know what I mean? And by now I'm sure he would've gotten together with the rest of his band and written more stuff. That record would have been every bit as good as Grace.

Angela: And it's just so different from Grace as well. Which was - I just thought was great. He just wasn't scared to just jump in the deep end. That was the thing with him. He just wasn't afraid of taking risks.

Ben: At all.

Angela: It's all very sad really.

Ben: I'm still finding it hard dealing with that reality. I just don't think … it's really one of the nastier ones in music history that because just one record that says so much. And just … it just doesn't seem like that was in the books. That, that's correct.

Angela: I know. I think it was just the last thing anyone expected.

Ben: Yeah.

Angela: I imagined having grandkids and [half laughing] having them going, "Grandma …get over him!"

Ben: [laughing]

Angela: Like a Bob Dylan - "OK alright, how many Jeff Buckley records do you want to play??" But actually when he … when it happened. Because I was pretty shook up for about a month just couldn't listen to anything and was really down for [especially] for about two weeks and there were only two things that I could bare to listen to. And that was that was Joni Mitchell. And the other one was you.

Ben: Oh wow. And that says a lot.

Angela: Yeah. Very uh … healing.

Ben: That's really … that's quite an honour even. Thank you.

Songs and Performance

Angela: You're welcome … [what am I saying?] no thank you. A lot of your songs - I'm thinking of a lot of the earlier stuff and even the stuff on The Will To Live are extremely - you write personally. Do you ever find that … like songs like Walkaway … have you ever found it hard to perform those because of what those songs mean?

Ben: Yes. Sometimes I won't even perform those because they ring too true in the moment and they are too personal. Although sometimes that's what I need to do, when I feel that the most that's when I need to play it. It helps me. Like sometimes it can help you listen to it, it helps you to play it.

Tim Hardin and Nick Drake

Angela: Yeah. Coz I actually have had moments when I haven't been able to listen to it because it's just too much. Now someone else asked me to ask you - I have a friend who seems to be stuck in the seventies but I played him one of your albums and he said that he thinks you sound exactly like Tim Hardin. And he wanted me to ask you if anyone has ever said that to you.

Ben: Yes, I'm a big Tim Hardin fan.

Angela: Excellent. Oh wow there you go.

Ben: Yes.

Angela: And even vocally perhaps a bit like Nick Drake.

Ben: I love Nick Drake as well. Yeah.

Angela: Awesome …

Ben: Yeah … yeah …

Avoiding The Three Dreaded Topics - Ange wins Ben Over :)

Angela: There you go. That's something I didn't know. See, I promised myself if I ever spoke to you I wouldn't ask you about the three things that everyone seems to ask you about, which is: religion; how old your Weissenborns are and skateboarding.

Ben: Argh!!! Thank you! God!!! You earn HUGE brownie points!!! You're like … yeah!! You're the best!! You're cool!!

Angela: [laughing] Yeah but I'm struggling here to think of questions to ask you about.

Ben: You don't have to ask me anything! There don't have to be any questions! There are no rules to this!

Ethnicity

Angela: Excellent [laughing]. Oh wait yes I do have a question that I wanted cleared up because I have heard different stories. What is your ethnicity?

Ben: What have you heard?

Angela: I have heard really bizarre things. Everything from having Russian blood somewhere there to uh - I don't know.

Ben: Let's keep that a mystery. Let's talk about Jeff some more.

Angela: [laugh] Oh but WHY?

Ben: [laughing, sounding slightly embarrassed] Because oh, I don't know! Yeah it's true, it's true. There's Russian Jewish, native American …

Angela: Wow so it is true. Because that's what I heard.

Ben: Yeah it's true. It's a mix of all kinds of things …

Angela: There you go. Jeff was a bit like that. He had a bit of everything.

Ben: He did?

Angela: Yeah he had Panamanian and a bit of French on his mother's side, everything.

Ben: Oh OK.

Meeting and experiencing Jeff Buckley

Angela: Did you ever get to see Jeff live?

Ben: Yeah.

Angela: Oh so you did.

Ben: In France.

Angela: Oh wow.

Ben: The Euro-Cannes festival.

Angela: He was amazing in Europe.

Ben: God, yeah.

Angela: I think he did some of his best performances there. Did you know him?

Ben: Yep.

Angela: And did you ever play together?

Ben: Alright, the closest we ever got to playing together was at the Euro-Cannes festival in Belfort. And he walked up to me and he had a slide and he had an acoustic guitar around his neck. And uh he walked in with his V-neck t-shirt and big steel-toe boots and just walked up and was, uhhh, "Yeah, you're Ben right?" "Yeah." "Jeff." Blah, blah blah. "You play slide. Would you show me some slide stuff?" I said, "Well I don't know man. I think you play pretty well yourself." …

Angela: {laughs]

Ben: … "No please." And then he gave me the slide and he handed me the guitar and I started to play it and it was tuned in the most awkward tuning! And I was like what the hell?! And we played a little bit. And then after, every time before we play we come into a circle and pray. And he joined us that day which was really nice.

Ben live

Angela: Wow. That's beautiful. Ohhhhh … [sigh]. Speaking of playing, I was reading all these concert reviews, from the net, I have not read one person's review where the person has not sounded like they are completely drooling, frothing at the mouth, completely flabbergasted by what they have experienced.

Ben: Well I think there have been some real nasty ones too. But hopefully - I hope they don't make it on the net!!

Angela: Oh really? I can't imagine there being a nasty one.

Ben: I think so. You know critics. They always have something cheeky to say.

Angela: Oh that's just awful. I could never do that. But I remember coming out from your show and just standing there and it was just so funny. Because I was looking around at all the faces around me and I swear everyone was just radiating. They were just beaming …

Ben: Really?!?!!

Angela: Yeah!! It was just beautiful!

Ben: Ha HA!! [Big joyful laughter] Alright!!!

Angela: [grinning madly and laughing] Do you realise your concerts are just like so … I've been to uplifting shows before. By the end of it everyone is just so united and uh … I don't know, it's just amazing!!

Ben: Thank you. Oh it's so good to know that people are responding in a positive way to what you are doing. And you're not up there wasting people's time and stealing there money, you know what I mean?

Angela: [laughing] No definitely not! Everything you give you get back ten fold.

Ben: Oh that's so good because that's what the music I love brings to me - that feeling. So when I hear that's what is brought to people - that feeling, it's like paying the highest tribute to the privilege of music.

Angela: So have you been to any shows like that for you, like other artists.

Ben: Absolutely. Taj Mahal. Stevie Wonder. Jeff.

Comparison with Jeff Buckley live

Angela: Yeah. Jeff was different though. Uh … I don't know how to explain it. OK, so my two favourite artists are Jeff and you. And Jeff I never got to interview which I never did … but I'm so glad I'm finally talking to you! But I … OK so the two concerts that have probably moved me the most are Jeff's and yours. But it was in different ways.

Ben: Yeah.

Angela: His kind of touched me in a very surreal type of …

Ben: There are definitely differences in the music and they definitely speak to different parts of people for sure.

Angela: Yours seems to be a bit more direct. And it really talks to the core of people, instantly.

Ben: Yeah. Yeah.

Angela: Yeah I think Jeff you have to uh …

Ben: He sort of uses other words that can describe another meaning.

Angela: Yeah and it's something that you can work your way into.

Ben: Metaphors and stuff, yeah.

Angela: Yeah and the fact that there are different layers as well. And it might take a while before you get into it but you can find yourself in there about a year later and find something new.

Ben: True. Yeah like, "Black beauty I love you so …" But then again Lover, You Should've Come Over is very direct. There are meeting points …

Angela: True. And uh Morning Theft off Sketches …

Ben: Yeah … yeah.

Ben's song writing

Angela: That … that I find it really hard to listen to that. So tell me about your song writing. Are you prolific?

Ben: Yeah I like to write all the time. If that makes me prolific then I suppose it does. I just always like to work on songs.

Angela: So are you working on a new album already?

Ben: Yeah. Yeah.

Angela: Oh good. And how is it evolving? Because things have pretty much evolved … well with like the last one was a bit more rockier than before , and [laughing] now this Freedom mix! Everyone's going - what's happening? So what type of stuff are you dabbling with?

Ben: Just different, different chords yet … I think it's growth. I can't - it's too early to say. The next album is going to definitely be musical growth, be it a big turn around. I like to shock people musically, pleasantly. Pleasantly Shock. That's what I'll title the record or something. Not really [laugh] but I'd like to like - it's got to be different. It's just been a growth lyrically, personally, musically so I think that will reflect in the record. It's definitely not going to be … it'll be rooted in the first two records but it will be it's own record in a really good way. Taking from like Roses From My Friends crossed with like Widow Of A Living Man and Will To Live but you know, just a step beyond those.

Angela: Do you write pretty much with … well how does it work with the band? Do you pretty much write with the band or is it pretty much you … and then the band?

Ben: This record I want to write with the band more although I've got a lot of finished songs. I'd like to just from scratch, from nothing, come up with songs with the band in the studio. Maybe with some lyrics or some stuff that I have, we'll work out music and fit them in sort of like a puzzle that way.

Angela: So do you … do songs usually come out of poems or do you write them together …

Ben: Both. Some times it's just lyrics, and some times it's just music, and some times it's both. Some times you will have lyrics kicking around and then you will work out a melody for them. Some times you will have a melody that you will work out lyrics for.

go to part two of interview