Ben Harper - Biography
By David Downs
Known predominantly for his soulful voice and acoustic slide guitar work -- folk, blues, rock singer/songwriter Ben Harper emerged out of Claremont, CA. in the early '90s with debut LP Welcome To The Cruel World (1994-Virgin) and embarked on a fruitful, tour-heavy career that found commercial success with the radio single “Steal My Kisses" in 2000. Other singles such as the acoustic "Steal My Kisses", the Hendrix-inspired rock of "Faded", the pop of "Diamonds On The Inside", the protest content of "Better Way", stoner anthem "Burn One Down" and the gospel tinge of "With My Own Two Hands" helped him garner numerous awards including a two 2005 Grammys for Best Pop Instrumental Performance and Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. His definitive work Fight For Your Mind (1995-Virgin) went gold in the U.S., ditto for Burn To Shine (1999-Virgin) and Live From Mars (2001-Virgin). A relentless explorer of musical possibilities, he enjoys a dutiful fanbase in America and an even bigger one abroad, and was named 2003's "Artist of the Year" by the French branch of Rolling Stone. Ben Harper and his backing band The Innocent Criminals continue to tour and record as of 2008.
Benjamin "Ben" Chase Harper was born on October 28, 1969 in Claremont, California, a suburb of Los Angeles in the Pomona Valley. Harper's father, Leonard, was African-American percussionist while his mother was of Jewish descent. She sang and played guitar. They divorced when he was a child, and Harper has two brothers, Joel and Peter Harper. Born into a musical family, Harper began playing guitar as a child while being schooled in music at his maternal grandparents' music store The Folk Music Center and Museum. His family also emphasized blues, and the situation was drilled home with visits by Leonard Cohen, Taj Mahal and David Lindley, as well as the erudite humanism of his Shakespeare and Frost-quoting grandfather.
Despite growing up in the '80's heyday of heavy metal and rock, Harper began to play the slide guitar, mimicking Robert Johnson. Combined with his learning of the lap slide guitar made by Weissenborn, the foundation of Harper's sound was laid. He began to perform regularly as a preteen and an offer to tour with Taj Mahal expanded the twenty -year-old musician's horizons.
In 1992, Harper signed his first record deal with Virgin, and he debuted solo live on February 23rd, 1993 at Cafe Largo in West Hollywood, CA and two years later, debuted an album, Welcome To The Cruel World (1994-Virgin). Produced by Ben Harper and JP Plunier, the album is almost entirely written by Ben Harper. The title track exhibits early Harper in classic form, singing soothing words over slowed tempo, minimal percussion and the characteristic slide guitar. Traits of Harper's protest spirit appear in “I'll Rise”, built around Maya Angelou's 1979 poem “And Still I Rise”. He continues to close sets with the song to this day. The up-tempo “Mama's Got A Girlfriend Now” is pop simplicity incarnate and evocative of later work “Steal My Kisses”, the chorus being the title of the track, while "Don't Take That Attitude to Your Grave" expounds on the gospel themes and life philosophy that would characterize his future work.
Harper's follow-up Fight For Your Mind (1995-Virgin) was chock full of singles including critical darlings as well as college radio favorites and would be certified gold by the RIAA. Produced again by Harper and Plunier, the album demonstrated Harper honing his lyrical themes of protest and while expanding his sonic palette. Evocative of Harper's Dylan, Marley, and Hendrix influences, single “Ground On Down” again leads with the slide guitar before electrical flourishes and a distinctly more animated Harper take the energy up. When combined with single “God Fearing Man”, Harper's religious and moral themes come into the fore. However, “Burn One Down” tacitly endorses marijuana usage in a libertarian context, and would become a staple of his live show. Lead-off track “Oppression” exhibits Harper in folk protest music mode, a pose he would adopt many times over his career. Harper toured hard to support his second album, earning thousands of new fans across the globe while writing new music for two years with his backing band the Innocent Criminals. The group soon entered the studio with Plunier for one month, playing live to replicate the tour sound, adding Harper's Weissenborn and effects afterward. Harper's third album The Will To Live (1997-Virgin) was released June 17, 1997 and climbed to #89 on The Billboard 200. Single “Faded” is one of Harper's most energetic songs to date, evoking Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix with a distorted guitar hook, yet the lyrics indict drug abuse and its attendant lack of self-esteem. The intro of "Roses From My Friends," displays Harper's studio experimentation, using multiple Weissenborns back-tracked underneath one playing forward.
In 1999 Harper met then-unknown Jack Johnson, who was attending UC Santa Barbara and gave Harper a demo tape during a performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Harper forwarded the demo to Plunier, who would produce Jack Johnson's first album, setting off a multi-platinum career. That year, Harper would see his career's biggest success to date with the release of Burn To Shine (1999-Virgin). Demonstrating a level-headedness and stability unseen in many artists, Harper again worked with Plunier and The Innocent Criminals over the course of six months venturing into jazz and hip-hop. Released September 21, 1999, it hit #67 on The Billboard 200 and was certified Gold by the RIAA. Single "Steal My Kisses" opens with beat-boxing before going into a poppy, acoustic riff and classical pop song structure, taking it to number fifteen on the Adult Top 40 chart. Title track “Burn to Shine” evokes the live setting Harper excelled -- full of up-tempo, driving guitar infused with a certain swing and solos.
However, the pensive “Less” and “Alone” exhibit Harper's earlier, softer, more meditative traits. Harper headlined world tours and a synergistic spot with Dave Matthews Band's 2000 tour. Material from the period was collected on Live from Mars (2001-Virgin). Containing covers of Led Zeppelin, The Verve, and Marvin Gaye, the record went gold as well. In addition to his American fame, Harper found a huge fan base in France, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, and The Netherlands, as well as Brazil and Australia.
Now a seasoned world tour veteran, Harper returned to the studio with broader ambition for his next record. He self-produced his fifth studio effort, and increased contributions to the record past The Innocent Criminals, bringing in nineteen musicians on the album including Ladysmith Black Mombazo. Diamonds On The Inside (2003-Virgin) was released on March 11, 2003, hitting #19 on The Billboard 200. Single “With My Own Two Hands” is driven by a reggae beat, and the inspirational track includes backing vocals from Leon Mobley and Oliver Charles as well as lead guitar work from Al Anderson and Greg Kurstin on organ and clavinet. Single “Diamonds On The Inside” is a solid piece of mainstream pop songwriting supported by an acoustic guitar riff and basic chord structure over Harper's tale of a mixed up girl with inner potential. “When She Believes” is the album's most lush track, incorporating accordion cello, clarinet, double bass, harp, trombone, violin and viola. “Picture Of Jesus” features Ladysmith Black Mambazo on vocals. That year, Harper received French Rolling Stone magazine's 'Artist of the Year' award and he played packed arenas across the continent.
Harper's longtime religious themes and gospel background came to the fore in his next outing, There Will Be A Light (2004-Virgin). Following a European tour with The Blind Boys of Alabama in 2004, the two recorded ten tracks in two different sessions at Capitol Records' studios. They released the collaboration on September 21, 2004 and the album hit #81 on The Billboard 200 as well as becoming the #1 Top Gospel Album. A live version Live at the Apollo (2005-Virgin) also went gold.
Ben Harper brought back The Innocent Criminals for his next album, the double disc Both Sides Of The Gun (2006-Virgin). Released March 21, 2006, the album debuted at #7 on the Billboard charts. And number one in Australia, but critics liked it less than past work. Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals then recorded Lifeline (2007-Virgin) in Paris after coming directly off of a tour. The band took their road setup into Paris' Studio Gang, recording and mixing in seven days on a sixteen track analog tape machine. Released August 28, 2007, it hit The Billboard 200 at #9. Live at Twist and Shout, (2007-Virigin) soon followed, recorded during an in-store performance and made exclusively for independent record stores.
Also notably, Harper has been instrumental in helping other musicians and various causes. He appears on Jack Johnson's break-out hit Brushfire Fairytales (2001-Universal). In October 2004, Harper's political roots led him to participate in MoveOn.org benefit Vote for Change . Harper also donated a live recording of the song "Oppression" to For The Lady, to benefit Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. Harper also briefly appears briefly with wife actress Laura Dern in the 2006 David Lynch film Inland Empire. His success in Brazil and Portugal can be linked to his collaboration "Boa Sorte/Good Luck" with Brazilian singer Vanessa da Mata, which hit #1 in the Brazilian Top 100. Harper is also a member of No Nukes, and recorded a music video of a cover of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth". Harper released White Lies For Dark Times in 2009. In 2010 he formed a band called Fistful Of Mercy, releasing their debut LP As I Call You Down that same year. In 2011 Harper released his next solo LP, Give Till It's Gone. This was followed by Get Up!, recorded with blues legend Charlie Musselwhite in 2013, then came Childhood Home- a collaboration with his mother Ellen in 2014. His latest- back again with his band The Innocent Criminals, titled Call It What It Is, was released April 8, 2016.
Harper married longtime girlfriend and Jurassic Park actress Laura Dern on on December 23, 2005. They have two children, son Ellery Walker and daughter Jaya. Harper also has two children from a previous marriage, son Charles and daughter Harris. In 2010 Harper filed for divorce from Dern. The nriefly reconciled, yet Dern refiled for divorce in 2012.
Folk, blues, rock and gospel influences from his musical family set southern California native Ben Harper on a path toward a musical career. But it was his sober choices musically and personally that led to his success. Musically he pursued a contrarian, folky path given the grunge and gangster rap currents of the day. Yet Harper found plenty of fans for his acoustic ballads, and cemented his relationship to them with herculean amounts of touring. Unlike many artists, he stuck with the same label, the same producer, and much of the same backing band for more than a decade, producing new albums relatively quickly after little studio fiddling. Grounded in what amounts to his religious upbringing, he remains a vital, if a bit staid member of contemporary popular music.