LIANE HANSEN, host:
Ben Harper's voice is unmistakable. His unique folk and blues style has won him worldwide acclaim and two Grammys. Since his first album release in 1994, Harper has incorporated his signature sound on collaborative projects in gospel, R and B, and rock. But for his latest project, Ben Harper is flying solo for the first time in more than five years.
(Soundbite of song, Don't Give Up On Me Now)
Mr. BEN HARPER (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) It's not what you do, it's what we do with what we feel. Take off your hat, stare it down, and whisper devil no deal...
HANSEN: His new album, "Give Till It's Gone," is out this weekend. He joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome to the program, Ben.
Mr. HARPER: Thank you, Liane.
HANSEN: Now, this is, you know, you're flying out there without a net. What were you hoping to accomplish with this particular recording?
Mr. HARPER: I was hoping to accomplish musical growth and evolution, musically venturing out. Without making a polka record or a rap record. it represents musical places I've never been until now.
HANSEN: Your most recent studio releases have been collaborative. You worked with the Innocent Criminals and the Blind Boys of Alabama and your band, Fistful of Mercy. Why did you want to do a solo project at this point in your life, in your career?
Mr. HARPER: I've always based and gauged whether or not my records would be band or solo by feel and timing, and it just felt like the right time. And the songs felt lyrically like they were leaning towards it being a solo record. Now, there's also more to it than that. This is my 10th and final record on Virgin/EMI.
So, it's one of those rare situations where I've come to the end of a 10-record contract. And my first record in 1994 was called "Welcome to the Cruel World" and it was a Ben Harper solo record. And this last record, I wanted to go out the way I came in. It just felt like the right thing to do.
HANSEN: I want to listen to the first single from the album. This is a great number. It's called "Rock and Roll is Free."
(Soundbite of song, "Rock and Roll is Free")
Mr. HARPER: (Singing) Say goodbye to tomorrow, and hello to today. Take a look at tomorrow, in a brand new way...
HANSEN: It was inspired by Neil Young. What was it about Neil Young that inspired this particular song?
Mr. HARPER: We were opening up for Neil at Hyde Park in London and he was closing the first part of the set with "Keep on Rocking in the Free World." And when you're about to write a song, there's this feeling you get. And it's kind of like if you had the ability to sort of pull back the second hand just a little bit, things kind of stop and bend around you. And it started happening during that song. And he was playing "Keep on Rocking in the Free World," and all I heard was rock is free, rock free, rock free, rock free...
(Soundbite of song, "Rock and Roll is Free")
Mr. HARPER: (Singing) Rock and roll is free if you want it. Rock and roll is free, so come and get it. Rock and roll is free if you want it. Free if you want it. Free if you want it...
HANSEN: So, is rock and roll really free or does it come at a price?
Mr. HARPER: Well, at the moment, both. But as far as I'm concerned, rock and roll is free to be made without the constraints of your typical A and R guy telling you what's good and what's hot and how you should sound as well. I love that that's shifting. But also if there's a kid who's in Nebraska or in my hometown of Claremont or anywhere, if he can't afford Ben Harper music, has no money, I'd rather him just rip it and have it then not have it at all 'cause he can't afford it.
HANSEN: You are an activist as well as a musician. Why is your music, you think, a good conduit for you to be able to advocate for issues that are important to you?
Mr. HARPER: I'd like to think I'd advocate for issues that are important to music or no music. I think that life is an opportunity to make your voice felt and heard in a way that can represent progress, and so I'd be doing it either way.
HANSEN: I want to play "Feel Love" simply because it does seem to give a nod to earlier in your timeline and the evolution of your work. First, let's hear a little bit of it.
(Soundbite of song, "Feel Love")
Mr. HARPER: (Singing) I given up, I've given in, given out and back again. Now that we're in from the cold, our days are made of gold. When we feel love, we sleep and share the same dream love. When we feel love...
HANSEN: Would you say you're going back to basics on this song?
Mr. HARPER: Yeah.
Mr. HARPER: That's exactly what that is. That's a one-take vocal. I stepped to the mike, sang it once and it was done.
Mr. HARPER: All the way down. Nothin'. No punching in or cutting it up.
HANSEN: And it seems with this album though you're kind of breaking free.
Mr. HARPER: Thank you, thank you. I'm so relieved and excited to hear you say that, because I feel the same way.
HANSEN: There's a comfort level here, and given that you've been around for so long I can understand how you might get tied up in knots working with a record label and touring and stuff.
Mr. HARPER: You know, after every record, I still don't know what the hell I'm doing. Every single time I step into the studio, I say, can I still do this? Do I still have it? Have I ever had it? I get, I suppose there's a good amount of self-loathing that goes into any form of artisanship, but every once in a while you make a record where you say - not only do you say: can I do it again, but, boy, I may make more records but they won't be better than this. And I've only said that three times - "Fight for Your Mind," "Diamonds on the Inside" and this record.
When I finished this record, I stepped back from it and I said I may make more records but they're not going to be better than this one.
HANSEN: When you're on tour, and Lord knows you've done quite a few live performances and you seem to be touring non-stop both in this country, Europe and Australia.
Mr. HARPER: Yes, yes.
HANSEN: When you stand backstage, do you say to yourself, can I still do it, do I still have it?
Mr. HARPER: Before every show.
Mr. HARPER: I get as nervous as the first time I've stepped on stage. That's the only thing that makes me wonder how long I can keep doing this.
HANSEN: Yeah. And given that you've been doing it for so long, there must be, I mean, in those moments wondering what the expectations are.
Mr. HARPER: I'm just starting to get that down now, Liane.
Mr. HARPER: Just starting to recognize how to - it's a shame it's taken me this long to know how to make a great set. But I figure half a set, if you can do two to two-and-a-half hours is a good show.
Mr. HARPER: So, I figure if you can do that represents 20 to 25 songs. So, if you have a 25-song set, half of those have to be what got you there. So, material from the past - that's 12 songs; five songs have to be just me and a guitar, 'cause there's plenty of people who only want to hear that too - so, that's 17 songs. So, that leaves me with exactly eight songs that can be covers and more up-to-date material.
HANSEN: Man, you're a man with a plan.
Mr. HARPER: I've finally come to that and it's been working.
(Soundbite of song, "Do It for You, Do It for Us")
Mr. HARPER: (Singing) Tattoo your name across my heart. Every letter, bows and darts...
HANSEN: "Do It for You, Do It for Us," from Ben Harper's new album, "Give Till It's Gone." The record comes out Tuesday. Ben Harper joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Ben, what a treat to meet you. Thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. HARPER: Liane, thank you for your time and thank you for NPR.
HANSEN: You can hear more from Ben Harper's new album at NPRMusic.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.