The cover of Ben Harper's new album, Bloodline Maintenance, appears to be a photo of a little kid poking the relaxed, shades-wearing Harper in the chest with a blue toy shovel. But when Harper calls in for an interview from Paris, France, where he's just finished a seven-week European tour, he quickly points out that things are not always as they seem.
"That's actually me poking my father," he explains. "Many have made that mistake, but I am the current spitting image of my father."
It turns out that Harper's dad was the inspiration for much of the lyrical content of Bloodline Maintenance.
"This album represents picking up a conversation with my dad that I should have done long ago," says Harper, "but had been thinking about and really didn't have. I did my best to transform a mirror into an open window, lyrically, once and for all, and this pandemic really put that mirror in front of me as far as never having processed the loss of my dad. That was one of the many things I ended up sitting with in solitude during the pandemic, writing my way out of."
The notion of loss, and coming to terms with it, was not just confined to thoughts of the elder Harper, though. The album was actually dedicated to the memory of Juan Nelson, Ben Harper's longtime bassist and collaborator, who died last year at the age of 62. One of the ways he's keeping Nelson's memory alive for himself—besides putting "a lot of Juan" in songs like "Smile at the Mention"—was to play all of the bass guitar on the album, including mostly acoustic standup bass.
"I just felt that that was the right thing to do," notes Harper, "and it actually connected me to his memory in a very specific and special way. Special to me, I should say. Loss is such a huge, unfillable void that I found playing his instrument helped fill that in just a little bit."
It's not the first time the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist has handled the bottom end, however. He grew up in a music store, where knowing your way around a four-string came in mighty handy.
"You have to learn to play bass," he says, "because someone always shows up that doesn't play bass. You know, everyone's always showin' up with a handful of songs, and they're usually playing a guitar or piano, so bass is the fallback in a small setting. And growing up in retail music has never been harder than it is now, but back then, you know, one of my grandfather's sales tactics was that if you could play a couple of songs on every instrument in the shop you were sure to sell it. So that lent itself towards me learning upright bass at a young age. And I've always loved it.
"Juan actually played upright bass every so often," he adds, "but I just needed to play bass—electric, upright, whatever—I needed to feel that rumbling low end of Juan Nelson so I could actually, somehow, grieve. You know, it's a terrible thing when grieving is getting you nowhere, and I was finding that to be the case until I picked up the bass. And it started on electric bass, but I had more to say for this record, for whatever reason, on the upright bass. That's where I was finding the material for the songs, so I just dove right in."
As well as all the bass, Harper also played drums, lap-steel guitar, regular guitar, and a lot of keyboards on Bloodline Maintenance. So does he prefer taking the DIY approach when it comes to making records, or would he rather have a full band along for the ride?
"I do like 'em both," he says. "It's great to have people to feed off of in the room. I think that can bring out exciting things in a novel way where other people are throwing ideas into the pot and helping me stir. The challenge is in the mix, because everyone always wants their instrument turned up. By the time everyone's instrument's turned up you have a very non-dynamic mix. So then it's nice to just be able to put the instruments where you want them in the mix at all times. And, to take away the crutch—walk on your own, as far as what you want."
Harper was definitely walking on his own with his previous album, 2020's Winter is for Lovers, an instrumental outing that was just him playing his Monteleone lap-steel guitar. Each track was named for one of his favorite places in the world, and Toronto and Montreal both made the cut. So should Vancouverites feel snubbed?
"Oh, you know, I'm so embarrassed because there's a Toronto and no Vancouver," he says, half-jokingly. "That'll be for my next instrumental record. Because I'll tell you, I have as fond memories of walking through Stanley Park as anywhere in this world."
There will be no sauntering in Vancouver's prized park when Harper makes his next visit to B.C. however, as he's booked to play the four-day Rifflandia festival in Victoria. He's only performed in the Garden City once before, at "a very small club a long time ago", so islanders who've been waiting to see him in their neck of the woods will finally get their chance.
His current band includes two of the original Innocent Criminals members, drummer Oliver Charles and percussionist Leon Mobley, who've been with him for 30 years, and three new guys: bassist Darwin Johnson, second guitarist Alex Painter, and keyboardist Chris Joyner. They'll be topping a bill that includes Bikini Kill, Pussy Riot, Cat Power, Bran Van 3000, Art d'Ecco, Gold & Youth, and the Choirs YYJ.
Harper's travels will continue this fall with a tour opening for Harry Styles that runs from October 23 to November 15. So does he expect that the more pop-oriented Styles fans—not to mention the followers of Styles' former boy band, One Direction—will embrace Harper's deeply sensitive songwriting approach and give him a fair listen?
"Well, we're gonna find out aren't we?," he replies. "I mean, really, it's songcraft. He's a master songsmith, and a deeply important artist that's just scratched the surface on his genius. He's a genius! And I think his fans will recognize, hopefully, they'll recognize some type of thru-line lyrically between what Harry does and what I do.
"But also, I played on his new record, I'm a session player on a song off his new record called 'Boyfriends'. I play guitar, which was also nice, and maybe word will get around that that is the case, and pique interest to get some fans in the seats early."
Ben Harper performs at the Rifflandia Festival in Victoria on Friday, September 16.