Grammy-winning soulful blues and folk rocker Ben Harper has spent his career stretching musically and collaborating with veteran artists like the Blind Boys of Alabama, Ringo Starr and Taj Mahal. His latest album, “Get Up!” is another collaborative labor of love featuring legendary blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite. The eclectic album hits on gospel, funk, rock, soul and other shades of blues. Harper’s tour with Musselwhite brings him to The Fillmore Sunday for what he says may be his first gig in Charlotte in, well, ever.
He spoke to The Observer from Venice Beach about the new album, working with heroes and his next project.
Q. How did you discover Charlie’s music?
A. My grandparents and parents had been purveyors of American roots music since 1956 with The Folk Music Center (a music store outside Los Angeles). The doors are still open. Charlie is one of the holders carrying the torch of this music. It was handed down to him from Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin Wolf – the founding fathers of American blues. Those records were a steady staple growing up.
Q. Did you dream of working with him as a kid?
A. As ambitious as I was I could’ve never thought to aim that high. Although the other side of that coin is music is something I feel like I’ve always meant to be a part of. On one hand it feels natural and a natural part of the progression of my musical growth and it’s an unattainable dream come true.
Q. When did you meet?
A. I opened for John Lee Hooker in the early ’90s. Charlie was sitting in with John’s band at the time.
Q. How did “Get Up” start?
A. In 1996 John Lee called me and Charlie into session with him on what would be his final studio album. John Lee commented on how well my guitar and Charlie’s harmonica went together. When we’d cross paths or share the stage, it was always the first item of conversation.
Q. The album touches on so many facets of blues. Were you writing to that end?
A. I wasn’t putting out to the band or to Charlie what I was reaching for. Secretly I had an idea of this record being a journey through the blues and different facets of my journey through blues over the years. I didn’t want it to be a history lesson, but I wanted to have an arc, ebb and flow and a journey through different styles of blues that were cohesive. “I Don’t Believe A Word You Say” touches on Muddy Waters and Led Zeppelin. “She Got Kick” is more Elmore James. (The songs are) a bridge to one another, but I didn’t say that. I brought what I thought were my strongest songs into the studio and it ended up becoming that. I did hope.
Q. A lot of popular artists wouldn’t take the stylistic risks you do.
A. It’s really rewarding because I love branching out. It keeps me inspired. I never wanted to be a jukebox. Even my own records are diverse at times. I don’t like to be classified or sit still. How can I do that over the years and decades if I can’t do it over the course of an album? It’s great to come back to the root of it, too. This connects so deeply with my roots and where I come from. I’m hoping people will connect to it.
Q. Where has that freedom come from?
A. When your race is run, your race is run. In the meantime I don’t want to look back on having compromised my creative instincts. I’m not trying to lean on past successes for future recognition. The hits I’ve had have almost been on accident. I’ve never wanted to serve an opinion. I’ve always wanted to serve creative instincts and improvisation. My life is improvised, why shouldn’t my music be?
Q. What’s next?
A. My next record will be a duet record with my mom.
Q. What’s that been like?
A. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and it’s not easy ’cause I’m producing it. It’s not easy asking my mom to do another take.
Q. You’ve worked with a lot of legends. Did you overcome being star-struck?
A. I get nervous around Taj Mahal to this day. I just collaborated on a song with Jack Johnson. I get nervous even when I’m going to the studio with Jack, and Jack used to come to my shows. I get nervous when I’m around greatness. It’s one thing to do your thing, but it’s another thing to sit in with someone else’s creative instincts. It’s a good nervous. That means you have the potential for some kind of breakthrough.
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