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Ben Harper to release new album

Ben Harper

Feature by Jack Foley

BEN Harper is set to release his seventh studio album, the double-disc Both Sides of the Gun, on March 20.

Promising more of his signature mix of rock, soul and folk music, the album is also said to venture into new territory, while journeying back to explore some of his roots.

“I was hoping I could come back to the root of my earlier records, the sparseness and intimacy,” says Harper. “But also to branch out further in a produced sound than ever before.”

Album highlights are said to range from the blazing Curtis Mayfield/Stevie Wonder-style funk of Black Rain to the gentle sway of Morning Yearning, to the full-on power ballad Waiting for You. With 18 songs to look forward to, there promises to be plenty to impress.

Harper says he approached the new album with a newfound sense of ‘absolute fearlessness – just diving into a song and ripping it wide open, with a lot of one-take vocals and guitar solos that are nasty, loose, raw, immediate’.

For the first time, the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist decided that the strongest way to present his new material was on two discs.

“I’ve always found some way to blend the different ways that music plays down – hard songs, fast songs, soul songs, folk, rock, reggae, ballads,” he says. “But this time I couldn’t find it. When I’d come out of a ballad into something hard, it was too much like getting hit in the face with a cold bucket of water.”

Despite his initial hesitations (“double records come with such baggage about being overindulgent and unfocused”), Harper realised that he had chosen nine harder songs and nine ballad-based songs for this album, and that, conveniently, one of them had the title Both Sides of the Gun – and the structure of the album became clear.

“I hate to call it the hard disc and the soft disc,” he says, “because sometimes the soft stuff hits you harder than anything else.”

With each disc clocking in at just over 30 minutes, Harper compares the experience to listening to old-school vinyl: “It’s like flipping a record, turning it over to the next side.”

Since debuting in 1994 with Welcome to the Cruel World, Ben Harper has established himself as one of the world’s most versatile and hard-working musicians.

In the years since releasing his last album, 2003’s world-music-inflected Diamonds on the Inside, things have been really hectic.

After completing his usual extensive tour, Harper had started writing his next album when he got a call from legendary gospel dynasty, The Blind Boys of Alabama.

“They asked me to produce a couple of songs,” he says, “and that quickly turned into its own world.”

The “world” it became was the critically acclaimed, 2X Grammy-winning 2004 collaboration There Will Be a Light, which was in turn followed by the riveting Live at the Apollo DVD.

Harper says that working with these legends, on stage and in the studio, quite simply altered his entire approach to making music.

“Before the Blind Boys, I used to sing,” he says. “With and after the Blind Boys, I may have become a singer.”

The experience only fired his passion for the new material.

“I’ve been so hungry to make this album, we’re lucky it’s not a triple record!,” he says. “I’m glad I waited, though, because if I had gone in right away, it would have sounded too much like Diamonds.

“The Blind Boys thing came along like a bolt of lightning and gave me a much clearer vision of how I wanted to make my next record.”

That attitude is perhaps best exemplified by Black Rain, a song written as a direct response to the days following Hurricane Katrina.

“I had to make the picture as clear as the event,” says Harper of the string-powered slice of soul. “Because if that can happen here – that disregard for human life – and we allow that to happen to the citizens of this country, then all bets are off.

“And if there’s no justice in day-to-day living, there’s for damn sure gonna be some justice in my music.”

One thing’s for certain – Both Sides of the Gun looks set to hit home with all the accuracy of a bullet from a gun, marking another exciting chapter in the Ben Harper story.

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