Harper brings soul to ‘Lifeline’

-- For JAM! Music

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

TORONTO – “So, how’s my namesake doing up here?” Ben Harper asks, sliding into a booth at the Senses bar on Wellington. “Not too good I hear.”

But fresh from a weekend that saw him sandwich a gig at Baltimore’s Virgin Festival in between a headlining spot at Chicago’s Lollapalooza and surprise appearances with Pearl Jam, the 37-year-old folk rocker is too giddy to let the conversation stray too long on politics.

“I wasn’t going to miss PJ at Lollapalooza, no way,” he says, tucking into a plate of fruit. “I got in Thursday, ran to the Vic Theater, which holds like 1,500 people, and sat in on ‘Indifference,’ then the next night, Ed joined us for Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War.’

“Saturday, I was down in Baltimore for V Fest, which was hot, sticky and rad. Then Sunday, I shot back up to see the Pearl Jam show and ended up sitting in with them again on a new unreleased song, ‘No More.’

“I’ve seen 20 Pearl Jam shows and I’ll tell you, they’re still getting better.”

And it isn’t long before the Californian’s recollection for last weekend’s fun is replaced by his enthusiasm for having got a chance to perform new songs from his soon-to-be soul classic, “Lifeline.”

Recorded with his longstanding backup band, the Innocent Criminals – Oliver Charles (drums), Leon Mobley (percussion), Juan Nelson (bass), Michael Ward (guitar) and Jason Yates (keyboards) – live in Paris’ storied Studio Gang over a seven-day period, “Lifeline” was an exercise in old-school record making born out of, of all things, sound check.

“I was tired of being redundant,” he confesses. “So, when we were in sound check I said to the guys, ‘Hey, let’s get it on. You guys are too genius. You guys have too many great ideas, I have too many great ideas, let’s work on new material.’”

The splashy Motown-flecked jive of “Say You Will” was hammered out first, and by the fourth song, Harper “booked a studio.”

Ironed out at the tail-end of the European leg for last year’s “Both Sides of the Gun” tour, “Lifeline’s” 11 tracks indulge Harper’s softer side (“Younger Than Today,” “Needed You Tonight,” “Put It On Me”), while letting him show off his smooth soul grooves (“In the Colors,” “Say You Will,” “Heart of Matters”)

“Being out of the States was a huge step creatively,” he says. “When you’re at home, you wake up and you’re on the phone for an hour. God bless them, you’re running the kids to school; you’re taking the dog to get shots; you sit in traffic for 40 minutes and pass about fifty-thousand strip malls to get to the studio; you get there and then it’s supposed to be like a switch you can flip. As if to say, ‘I’m turning that off, and I’m turning on inspiration.’

“It just doesn’t work like that; you carry everything into the studio.

“But look man,” he leans in casually, “it hasn’t really hindered my other records; I don’t have to make those less to make this more. It’s only fair to say, though, that when you’re walking along the Seine to record, and you’re passing French classical music in the park or an accordion player in the subway, it’s a different creative process. And I had to be a part of it to discover that it does mean something to get out of your comfort zone and isolate yourself in an environment that you can be a hundred per cent creative in.”

Saying that the aim was to create a type of “musical conversation,” “Lifeline” was recorded on an analog deck, with no digital enhancing. “We collectively agreed that we wanted it to sound fresh with no clichés,” he explains. “And no horns or strings; just each band member and their respective instrument.”

Vocal in his dissatisfaction with the Bush regime on his last disc, Harper is game for talking politics; he just didn’t want to sing about it this time. “I’ve never sat down and said, ‘OK, it’s time to write this or that.’ I’ve always let the times define the sound.

“In times like this it would be appropriate to just write culturally and politically-directed music, I feel that as strongly as anything. But this record, with the band, just took its own course.”

Fans get a chance to make up their own minds as Harper and the Innocent Criminals take “Lifeline” on the road for a series of smaller shows, including a stop at Toronto’s famed Massey Hall. A departure from the amphitheatre treks he’s taken to in recent years, Harper says the album has a “certain intimacy” that lends itself to smaller venues.

“I think this record has a certain directness, and I want to present it that way,” he says. “So in the name of rolling it out with the right feel I wanted to present it in intimate venues.”

And plugging the disc this way allows Harper to take a stab at the unconventional. “Surprises?” he smiles, taking a sip of his latte. “We’re looking to do a little Bill Withers, some Stevie Wonder, maybe even a little Frank Sinatra.

“BHIC has had one of the most unique relationships with any fan base in the history of music, and I think time will prove that because there has never been a fan base so willing to go on this very musical journey,” he says.

“I’m going to totally overstate my point, but seriously man, it’s never happened like this. We’re going from ‘Waiting on an Angel’ to ‘Better Way’ to ‘With My Own Two Hands’ to ‘Fight Outta You.’ That’s north, south and east. We’re going in a lot of different directions and we’re breaking new ground together.

“It’s been quite a dance.”

With the Rogers Centre visible from his hotel, talk of music turns to his other main love: baseball. The Yankees are in town and Roger Clemens is making his first start in Toronto since 2003. “Man, that’s almost worth sticking around for,” says Harper excitedly.

“I know that this is tough to hear, but the Yanks are going to be hard to beat this year. Trust me. I’m a Dodger fan. I bleed blue.”

Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals play Montreal's Theatre St. Denis on Sept. 24-25, Toronto's Massey Hall Sept. 28-29, and Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre Nov. 13.


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