Ben Harper Teams Up With Mom For 'Childhood Home' Ben Harper comes from a musical family that goes back generations. NPR's Scott Simon talks with the folk musician and his mother, Ellen, about a their new collaboration, Childhood Home.

Ben Harper Teams Up With Mom For 'Childhood Home'

Ben Harper Teams Up With Mom For 'Childhood Home'

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Ben Harper comes from a musical family that goes back generations. NPR's Scott Simon talks with the folk musician and his mother, Ellen, about a their new collaboration, Childhood Home.


Music has defined Ben Harper's family for generations. His grandparents founded the Folk Music Center and Museum in Claremont, California. He spent a lot of time at the center growing up where strummed, sang and played the keyboard with regular visitors including Leonard Cohen and Taj Mahal.

Ben Harper is out with a new album. It is co-written and he also performs with his mother Ellen Harper. The first track called "A House Is A Home" harkens back to when music was practically another family member sitting at the Harpers' dinner table.


BEN AND ELLEN HARPER: (Singing) A house is a home even when it's dark. Even when the grass is overgrown in the yard. Even when the dog is too old to bark and when you're sitting at the table trying not to starve. A house is a home even when we've up and gone. Even when you're there alone.

SIMON: Was music to the Harpers what politics is to the Bushes and Kennedys?

BEN HARPER: I prefer the latter. I'm not sure...

ELLEN HARPER: (Laughing) It's more like the Kennedys - well - than the Bushes.

B. HARPER: The Naders - I don't know.

E. HARPER: (Laughing) The Naders.

B. HARPER: Yes. The answer is yes, in a word.

E. HARPER: Well, my mother got involved in the folk music movement early, like late '40s and '50s where, you know, it wasn't just folk music was a whole political movement. And she put on little concerts and shows and hootenannies and all kinds of things. And then we moved to the West Coast and continued and expanded that.


B. HARPER: Yeah, and for me I was the fortunate recipient of my grandparents' and parents' incredible - what I feel is incredible - musical taste and palate. And I've often said that there's three of us brothers - I have two brothers - there was three of us and the fourth brother was music. It was so present at all times from morning to night.


E. HARPER: (Singing) She was his high school sweetheart, till death do them part. Wife of so many years, been through blood sweat and tears. She raises his kids, while he went out and did all of those things a successful man does.

SIMON: Ben Harper, you have children of your own right?

B. HARPER: Yes, four.

SIMON: How does that steer what you do on this album too?

B. HARPER: It is certainly in there. For them to get to see their grandmother and I doing this in this way has brought them so much joy and excitement.

SIMON: Ellen Harper, did your - may I ask - did your grandkids know you as a singer, performer before this album?

E. HARPER: Well, they had seen me get up on stage with their dad a time or two, but I'm not really sure they thought of me in the same way.

SIMON: I must say, I'm certainly very interested in trying to get our daughters to understand about both their grandmothers - is that, they weren't just put in this earth to bring them milk and cookies.


SIMON: But they, you know, had full lives before that.

E. HARPER: That says it all. And - but I think maybe on this album - has helped me to realize Ben is a full person and not just son...

B. HARPER: Yeah.

E. HARPER: But fully formed and realized...

B. HARPER: Not just someone you reprimand.


E. HARPER: I haven't for a while.

B. HARPER: Yeah, but still, you haven't needed to. You did it enough to have it resonate.


E. HARPER: And hopefully - if I may continue - he sees me as, you know, something other than mom.

B. HARPER: Absolutely. A musical creative peer.

E. HARPER: Thank you.

B. HARPER: Yeah.


BEN AND ELLEN HARPER: (Singing) Learn it all again tomorrow, learn it all again tomorrow. Nothing I have you can't borrow or steal. Yes, I think we have a deal.

SIMON: What's foremost in your mind when you think about what you've learned from the person sitting next to you?

B. HARPER: You know, from my mom, she wouldn't demand I be, look, act a certain way. I - you know, there was a moment in my musical creative youth that I could have - people in singing schools who thought I may - I could do commercials.

E. HARPER: He could be Michael Jackson and a this that or the other.

B. HARPER: And yeah - all that kind of nonsense. And she said, no, you may or may not have a talent, but that's not - you know, that's going to be your lot, it'll be waiting there, but all things in its due time. In other words, my mom wanted me to learn something that couldn't be taught.

SIMON: And Ellen Harper, we learn something every day from our children too. I wonder what's foremost in your mind as to what you might have learned from the person sitting next to you?

E. HARPER: Boy, I have learned so much just on this whole record process, from the recording to the mixing to the mastering to the marketing to the everything...

B. HARPER: It's a lot.

E. HARPER: And I've learned a lot and I watch him closely. And, you know, a lot of times I'm taking my cues right from Ben.


BEN AND ELLEN HARPER: (Singing) Where the edge of the hill meets the end of the road, we make memories of gold. Our memories of gold...

SIMON: I have to say, if I might, Ellen Harper, happy Mother's Day.

E. HARPER: Thank you. Thank you very much.

SIMON: Ben and Ellen Harper, they joined us from member station WFUV in New York City. Their new album, "Childhood Home." Thanks so much for being with us.

B. HARPER: Thank you so much for having us on.

E. HARPER: Yes, thank you.

SIMON: And you can hear more of the Harpers' music and interviews on You can follow our show WEEKEND EDITION on Facebook and on Twitter at @NPRWeekend or me - @NPRScottSimon, all one word. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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