For fifteen years, Ben Harper’s unique blend of gospel, R&B, soul, hip-hop and folk blues has earned him a massive, loyal following not only in America but in Europe, where transcendental performances have turned him into a minor deity. On his sixth album, Diamonds on the Inside, he continues to pay tribute to his idols: Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and the great Delta bluesmen. “When I was ten, I heard Mississippi John Hurt,” says Harper, 33, as his tour bus rolls through Southern California, where he grew up. “At that point it was obvious what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”
What is your first musical memory?
Motown. Me and my dad sitting around the house listening to Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book is my first memory as a kid, period. He must have played it until the grooves wore out. He also played congas, and I remember him playing along with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
Your grandparents ran a folk center, right?
Yeah. It was in Claremont, about sixty miles east of Los Angeles. It was our baby sitter. Every day after school, I’d come to the music store, and we’d spin different records or kick around on some instruments: East Indian tablas, banjos, dulcimers — all the folkie stuff — sitars, harmoniums. Then later I started working there pretty much full time, and working there full time became synonymous with playing there full time.
Do you remember your first performance?
I remember that after the first gig I said, “I am never going to do this again.”
It was a coffeehouse series. I didn’t even know if I could play a full song from the beginning to the end. I was in a time warp from the first song to the last. When I was done, I was like, “What was that?” But I kept wanting and needing to feel that way I did onstage.
You said about performing, “It’s like sex, it’s a drag when only one half gets off.” How else is music like sex?
The way that you feel when you’re done and you’ve done it well. Your relationship with music is similar to a relationship with a partner.
You’ve built your career with great live performances. Is there one night that stands out?
Yeah, we were doing a show with Gov’t Mule in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was toward the end of the Burn to Shine tour [November 2000]. When you go onstage laughing and you come off laughing even harder, that’s when it’s really on.
What’s the best song ever written?
Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” I’ve always wondered what Bob did right after that song was done. Did he hop in the car and get a burger or something? What did Paul do when he wrote “Yesterday”? Did he watch a football match?
With three young kids running around, you must listen to tons of children’s music.
I could do a Raffi covers album from memory. I’ve listened to that stuff as much as anything over the last six years. It’s reintroduced me to Beatles music, in a way. Melodies that are childlike but so lovely. But you know how kids make these forts? We make these forts and I call them my recording studio, and I bring in my little tape player with a mike, I’ll play guitar, and we will just make up lyrics, you know, freestyle shit. And it’s on. My oldest is six, so he makes tapes and plays them to his friends.
I read that your girlfriend, Laura Dern, has an amazing voice.
She has a lovely voice. We harmonize around the house. Some Kate Wolf songs, Emmylou Harris. She takes lead, she steps out.
Do you have a favorite video?
Yeah, that new Missy Elliott video, “Work It,” is just killing me, man. It’s just so jumpin’.
Any new bands you like?
I like the Strokes and the Vines and all of that gear. I’m not going to try to front, I don’t know it intimately, but what I hear fucking knocks me out.
Are there any songs you wish you’d written?
Yeah, the Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work,” by Richard Ashcroft.
So, do you ever smoke pot, um, for a creative advantage?
I have eased way up on that. It has too much of an impact on my voice. Some people can smoke and it makes them better, it adds an edge to it. But for me, it’s not in my metabolism to balance it out. You’re not gonna give me a blood test after saying that, right?
And you have a pretty slick wardrobe. Whose personal style do you emulate?
It’s all a cross between Run-DMC and Gram Parsons.