|Singer-songwriter Ben Harper. (MARK O'NEILL/SUN MEDIA)
Ben Harper's new acoustic soul album, Lifeline, found the musician -- whose genre-bending sound over the past decade has encompassed folk, blues, funk, rock, reggae and gospel -- recording in Paris for the first time with his band The Innocent Criminals.
Harper, who plays two shows at Massey Hall tomorrow and Saturday nights as part of a seated theatre tour of North America, says it was a dream come true to work in The City of Light.
"You never know what's around the next corner but you know you want to get around it, you know you want to make the turn," said Harper, 37, who lives in Los Angeles with his actress-wife Laura Dern and their two small children. (He has two older children from a previous marriage.)
"It's about the fact that people have been gravitating to that specific country and that specific city for ages in the name of creativity."
Harper, who recorded acoustically live off the floor on analog equipment, made the album in just seven days, after using soundchecks to work through the new material during a seven-week European tour for his previous album, Both Sides of the Gun.
And for the first time, Harper also co-wrote all of the songs on Lifeline with The Innocent Criminals.
"Everything about this record was a recipe for frustration," said Harper, during a recent promotional trip to Toronto. "But at the same time, it also had the markings of what could exceed my expectations and did, which became this record. Because songs like this, that are written like this, that are in this sound and style, the danger is in the technology, the danger is in the overstating. The danger is in overthinking them, so by giving myself seven days, it insisted that we get out of our own way.
"So I said, 'Okay, I'm going to make a record that could make Van Morrison proud or Neil Young proud.' Not to say that I've done that. But I'm also not going to be so self-effacing that I won't admit to feeling like this is some of this band's strongest work. And a soul record that can stand the test of time for 100 years."
Europe generally is a better market than North America for Harper, but Canada has always appreciated him.
For example, he fondly remembers last year's Molson Amphitheatre show in September, which he co-headlined with Jack Johnson during a particularly nasty night of weather.
"I've got to give it up for the fans, first of all, the fans in Toronto for being at a three-hour show in the lightning and the rain," said Harper. "I can never thank this city enough. And seriously, I don't think any other place in the world would have done that. They were there and it was raining and it affected me. Like I'm emotionally affected by that night and I can never thank Toronto enough for that. That show will stand out for me, forever."
Singer-songwriter-musician Ben Harper briefly appears as a piano-playing, cigarette-smoking character in his wife, actress Laura Dern's film, Inland Empire, with director David Lynch.But Harper says has no acting aspirations.
"I showed up to pick up my wife and (David) said: 'Man, you look cool. Get in here.' And I was like, 'Ohhhh-kay.' "
Otherwise, he's a big fan of father-in-law Bruce Dern's new HBO show about polygamists, Big Love.
"I've seen every episode," he said. "Bruce Dern is like a father to me and I love him. Our relationship is as defining as mine and Laura's -- well I won't go that far but I can say it's so familial and familiar and my destiny with him is as strong as my destiny with my wife. He's just one of the greatest people I've ever known."
One thing Harper is passionate about, other than Dern and music, is politics.
"These motherf---ers need to be watchdogged," he said of politicians. "If politics isn't closely monitored by its culture and its citizens, it will be a rogue dictatorship, which is what we're experiencing in America right now. So it's all of our responsibilities, and I've got a big microphone, and I'm going to yell into it very loudly."
Harper has already backed Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, and performed at a recent rally for him in New York City, "because of his innocence."
"To me he's the first candidate in a long time who has made it to his position of political stature with his heart and soul intact and that excites me."