Ben Harper is sitting at the center of his rehearsal space on a folding chair, reading the latest issue of Rolling Stone with utmost concentration. A few minutes later, he walks over — a giddy, satisfied grin on his face — to chat about his latest album Lifeline, which the iconic magazine gave an outstanding review. It's the first time the mag has paid him serious respect in his two-decade long career, which, for Harper, is like "getting etched into rock history."
Harper calls Lifeline, a neo-soul album recorded on analog tape without the help of Pro Tools and AutoTuning, a "step away from everything" he's done before, rather than a step forward. Though best known as a rocker who can play roots music festivals, he's become increasingly experimental in recent years, from 2004's There Will Be Light, a traditional gospel album recorded with the Blind Boys of Alabama, to 2006's double-CD concept album, Both Sides of the Gun, which he recorded in response to Hurricane Katrina.
"Music has a way of defining itself by the way you hear it and feel it in that moment," he says of the decision to record a stripped-down soul album on tape during a week in Paris. "We came up with the idea of making a collaborative band record. It just felt like something this band could do."
Collaboration is something Harper is doing more of these days. Lifeline marks the first time he's co-written an album with his band, the Innocent Criminals. "It's hard at any age, but, especially now, in my 30s, it's hard to get out of my own way," he says of the experience. "It's those ways that got you where you are, so how can you not be extremely settled in them?"
Lifeline seems like a reflexive retreat from the politics and social commentary that compose Both Sides; instead of anger and frustration, his latest radiates warmth and a frenetic joy for both the music and life in general. On "In the Colors," the singer beckons the listener to come dance with him into the colors of the dusk. It's like he's channeled everything that was pure about Marvin Gaye and Al Green and filtered it through a lens composed of what he's learned from his previous seven albums.
Even more remarkable than the sound Harper and the Criminals managed to pack onto Lifeline in a week is the fact that the album was recorded at the tail end of a nine-month-long world tour promoting Both Sides. Songs were composed and rehearsed during sound checks and, when the time came, rather than head home to recoup, the friends went right back to work.
"We had to be at a song and a quarter per day," Harper explains of the strenous recording schedule. "There was just no compromise. We didn't have a choice." To make matters worse, the musicians discovered they didn't have 24 tracks to record with as they had been told, and that the 16-track machine only had 15 working. But Harper and his crew weren't fazed. "To be honest, this band was ready to do it with two tracks," he says. "We were ready to do it live, direct to tape if we had to. That's where this band is at right now."
Positive press for Lifeline aside, Both Sides of the Gun — an album that holds great personal importance to Harper and is arguably the best music he's ever recorded — still lingers like a shadow over Lifeline's success. "I was actually surprised by people who didn't get it," he says.
"I was like, wow. People complain about me not being political enough and then I put out a record like Both Sides of the Gun and they don't really catch onto it. Then I make Lifeline and they say, 'What happened to the politics?' That's not the point, though, is it? As far as pleasing people, the minute you start pleasing anyone besides your creative instincts, you've sold out."
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