Musician & Activist Ben Harper

On healing our pain, feeling everything, reuniting with the Innocent Criminals, how hiding is not an option, and the role of art in social change.

Maranda Pleasant: Hi, Ben, how are you?

Ben Harper: Great!

MP: Through your work, you can tell that you’ve gone through some shit in your life, and you’ve reflected on it, and you’re so close to the rawness, I think, more than any other artist. And when I tell people you’re going to be on our cover, they tell me their personal connection to your music. They say, “Oh, did you hear that part in ‘Skin Thin’? Those lyrics had a huge impact on me or got me through a rough time.” You’re considered a visionary who can put words on pain for deeply-feeling people, and those of us who have gone through a lot in our lives. When I hear your music, I find it very healing and people seem to connect with you in a way that is different from other artists.

BH: I just feel really fortunate that there’s someone out there that gets it. You know, because some do, some don’t, some will, some won’t. You just hope it hits the mark and it reaches a destination. I appreciate that something I’ve done has found a safe place to land.

MP: Your music is vulnerable and so strong at the same time.

BH: The good news is at this point as I get older, the load has gotten heavier but my shoulders have gotten wider because I’ve gotten happier so it’s a damn good thing. For other people it goes the other way and they’ve got to check out other things and methods, but to go through this life and see it through—what it really is—and not be insane or addicted, is a minor miracle for anyone.

MP: That’s amazing: to go through this life and not be insane or addicted is a minor miracle for anyone.

BH: To look at it straight in the eye is brave, if you’re really clocking it and if you really care and how easy and pleasant it would be to not care or not feel . . . there is a wonderful fatalist argument to be had. It will be another species’ turn next, but you’re not living next. You’re living now; this is it. You’re living life in real time, man, and we’ve got a good amount of work to do for each other. Hiding is not an option and you’re going to step out and you’re going to make mistakes. I’m going to look stupid. I’m going to say things I want to retract. I’m going to sing notes I wish I could have back, there’s just no getting around the stumble, but if you stumble enough times you’re going to fall off the edge and have no choice but to freakin’ fly.

MP: Well, you’re describing my week. And this is why you just let Ben Harper talk.

BH: But you’re on the front lines. I don’t kid myself in thinking that I’m on the front lines. I know the people who are on the front lines. I mean there are people in some freakin’ significant places making on-the-ground social front line change. I’ve marched. I’ve put feet on the ground for what I believe and what I’m against with no compromise. And there are people who are risking a whole hell of a lot more than me to make change, that’s for damn sure. So, I don’t kid myself but I also don’t kid myself in regard to the role of art in social change.

MP: Can you tell me about a struggle you’ve had and if there’s something that has helped you transform that?

BH: What’s at the core of my struggle—that’s really the question. I can’t not put myself in the shoes of every person I pass. I don’t know how to not become every person I walk by. That makes it a little tough.

MP: Are you a water sign?

BH: Yeah, Scorpio.

MP: Oh shit, you feel everything. I’m a Cancer so we’re screwed; we feel everything. Do you mean your core struggle is that you feel deeply?

BH: Yeah. And also, I’m not sure—regardless of experience, therapy, good fortune, privilege, blessings, whatever, that can somehow make a difference for the better in anyone’s life— I’m not so sure as a species if we’re able to completely heal because I went through some shit as a kid, as everyone does, and I want to be able to not be that person. I want to try to not be the child that had to go through too much too young. I want to be who I am now and not who I was then. I want to try to be who I am today, not who I was yesterday. So, you know, I’m fighting the fight not to be that child who had to react at too young an age to too deep a pain.

MP: I was just having the same conversation about how when you start leading things, you have to make sure you’re not leading with the wounded child.

BH: That makes so much sense to me. And when aren’t we? How couldn’t we?

MP: I think pain has been my greatest teacher and then getting to the point where I can’t fucking repeat this thing in my life one more time because I won’t survive my own self-induced cycle of heartbreak. It’s amazing work, how the pain of childhood, how much of yourself, if it’s not checked, keeps repeating our reactions. I don’t know if it can be completely healable, either.

BH: But we’re working it out, that’s where the best conversation and dialogues come from, so it’s necessary. What we’re doing now is necessary. If interviews are just interviews or if music is just music, why are we even doing it? You only get so many hours in a lifetime, man. I mean, David Bowie just left us, for crying out loud. Let’s not hold punches and waste time here. If I’m going to talk to someone and this someone just happens to be yourself and clearly we’re in this together. This is great, there’s got to be a back and forth here. I just can’t waste time with anyone; neither can you. So, to be able to come this far and to meet at this time in both of our lives is great.

MP: What does love represent for you, as a person and as an artist?

BH: Love for me is my North Star. It’s the highest form of grace. And I love that there’s different levels and different ways of showing it, and different representations of it. Whether it’s love shown to a stranger, love to a sibling, your child, your parents, your partner. It turns out that there is something more magnificent than nature. It’s love.

MP: And we can have love in nature, even better. {Laughs.}

BH: And then there’s that, right? I mean, for crying out loud, between the two of us we’ve probably seen some views, and imagine the most beautiful view you’ve ever seen and it pales in comparison to love.

You’re living life in real time, man, and we’ve got a good amount of work to do for each other. Hiding is not an option and you’re going to step out and you’re going to make mistakes.

MP: How does this album feel different? Were you in a different place emotionally writing and creating this album?

BH: Yeah, the place that this record was written from is different than any place I’ve ever been, and of course, we’re always moving forward in different places physically and psychologically. But the place where this record was written from was incredibly grounding. I was very grounded, very centered, and to come back to that sense of home, with the guys, with the band and everything we had come through together, collectively being put into the sound, the songs, the record, the community, the conversation. It’s all in here in a way that I think is fresh and it’s grounded in, anchored in, a sound that is highly recognizable from this collective, but it’s taking what I hope is a step forward creatively, as well.

MP: Is there a particular song for you that was like, man, that one ripped me apart? I know it’s like picking a favorite child, but is there a song that was unique in some way?

BH: Yes, the title track, “Call It What It Is,” and also “Don’t Know How to Say Goodbye to You” is another one. Like you said, it is a challenge at this stage to pick one over another, but those two in particular, if I had to start.

MP: Wow, I don’t know how to say goodbye to you? I’m going to have to meditate before I listen to that one.

BH: I think I did before I wrote it.

MP: I think healing is serious fucking business. Is there anything you want to say about healing?

BH: It’s amazing all the different perspectives and directions and angles that healing encompasses. It’s so infinite. I don’t want to be reckless in discussing something that is so important, but it’s easy for me to say, “There’s so much there, there’s so much to heal for.”

MP: That’s beautiful, there’s so much to heal for.

BH: It can depend on what you have to heal from as to how much there is to heal for; those two are somewhat inextricably linked. Don’t let what you have to heal from blind you to how much there is to heal for.

I went through some shit as a kid, as everyone does, and I want to be able to not be that person. I want to try to not be the child that had to go through too much too young. I want to be who I am now and not who I was then. I want to try to be who I am today, not who I was then.
NEW ALBUM: Call It What It Is, OUT NOW!

Photos: Danny Clinch