Ben Harper says he’d be a fool not to bounce stuff off wife Laura Dern



By Steve Newton

Ben Harper has always surrounded himself with primo players. His previous band, the Innocent Criminals, included such ace guitarists as Michael Ward and former Black Crowe Marc Ford. Now Harper’s formed Relentless7, with whom he recorded his latest album, White Lies for Dark Times. But unlike some big-name artists, he doesn’t extol the virtues of his current group over his last one.

“They’re just two world-class groups of musicians who I’ve been honoured to share time and musical space with,” says Harper, on the line from the beachfront California home he shares with his wife, actor Laura Dern, and their two kids. “And that’s no party-line bullshit, man. The Innocent Criminals are just incredible cats, you know, but music insists on growth and insists on movin’ with what’s in front of you and what you’re feelin’ the strongest in the moment, and it was time for me to hit the button with these guys.”

The guys he refers to are Relentless7 guitarist Jason Mozersky, bassist Jesse Ingalls, and drummer Jordan Richardson, who provide the ideal accompaniment for Harper’s soulful vocals and smouldering slide guitar on burning White Lies tracks like “Shimmer and Shine” and “Why Must You Always Dress in Black”. On the guitar-drenched disc Harper favours a six-string lap steel custom-made by luthier Bill Asher of Venice Beach, California.

“It’s built in the Weissenborn tradition in that it’s got hollow chambers in it,” he explains, referring to the vintage acoustic guitars he used to favour. “But it’s capped like a Les Paul with a maple top over mahogany, so it gets an electric resonance and sustain.”

In layman’s terms, Harper’s lap steel kicks ass. With skilled practitioners like him taking the instrument to a wider audience, it might not be long before would-be rockers start reaching for lap steels in music stores rather than just Les Pauls and Strats. His fiery fretwork—which earned him the cover of July’s Guitar Player magazine—has impressed scores of music lovers, including the more than 100,000 souls he played to at the Montreal International Jazz Festival two months back.

“That’s a heavy scene,” he says of performing to that many people, “a heavy moment in one’s life. And it just so happened to be Relentless7’s best show yet—and it’s on tape! Ten high-def cameras, recording truck. So I think we’re gonna release it pretty soon as a live DVD/CD.”

Until then, Harper fans will have to settle for the superb White Lies and the other fine recordings he’s made, such as 1995’s college-radio fave, Fight For Your Mind, his first of four gold albums. With his 40th birthday coming up on October 28 (“I think about that every day when I wake up and have the sore-back blues”), he reflects modestly on his accomplishments so far.

“It’s a great start,” he offers. “It’s been a series of great building blocks from which to jump off into this new technological age.”

Harper won’t be making that leap alone, of course. As well as recruiting the top musicians to get things done, he’s always willing to seek career guidance from his talented soulmate, who recently won a Golden Globe for her role as Florida congresswoman Katherine Harris in the HBO special Recount.

“Before I got on the phone we were givin’ each other advice,” he explains. “Laura’s not only an incredible actress, she’s the smartest woman I know—I mean, other than my mother, I suppose. I’d be a fool not to bounce stuff off of her.”

A week after our chat Harper is booked to begin a tour with his “dear friends” in Pearl Jam, and he’s particularly psyched about playing with them in Vancouver.

“It’s been one of the best cities on the planet to us,” he raves. “Imagine, from the Orpheum to Deer Lake Park—that’s a dance, man, that’s an incredible experience over a lifetime to be able to have that span and that growth and the ability to share your music with different people in different situations like that. And I just look forward to it growin’ further, so thanks to the city and the heads there that illuminate what I do.”

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