Ben Harper's goal for his new album was simple, but it wasn't easy.
"I wanted to dosomething that would push the limits of acoustic soul music," says the37-year-old singer-guitarist, whose eclectic body of work stretches from the urgent folk rock of Welcome to the Cruel World, his 1994 debut, to the haunted gospel of There Will Be a Light, his 2004 collaboration with the Blind Boys of Alabama. Recorded and mixed on all-analog equipment over seven days in Paris immediately following a tour with his longtime backing band, the Innocent Criminals, Lifeline finds Harper pushing limits by stripping down. "It's as live a record as I think you'll find today,"he says. We sat down with Harper at his favorite organic-foods spot in Venice, California.
You made Lifeline without taking a break after coming off the road. Had you wanted to do that for a while?
For the longest time. But it was always a matter of the tours being superlong, or only having the time at the end of a year's worth of touring, or just the expenditure of it all. This time, I just stumbled on a time in my life when it was all possible. We had the time, the place, the technicians, the instruments.
Even though they were recorded differently, do you think any of your older albums have Lifeline's immediacy?
The closest I got was the Blind Boys record. There was a week or two-week gap [between touring and recording] on that one, so you still had that grease on you and you still had your chops in your back pocket. I've discovered that the more time you take off, the more you really have to recommit to your chops. And then you end up leaning on technology: "Let's do it over and put this there and the other thing in the other place." Coming right off the road, it's an absolute extension of touring; second takes don't make sense. If you have to overdub harmonies or whatever, okay - there's a certain amount of embellishing you do. But recording live gives the foundation that much more stability.
I've recorded entire records on Pro Tools, proudly. So I'm not trying to insult the other process or say that one is better than the other. But this record had to have that sound for it to have its sonic, emotional, musical authenticity. I thought if I'm gonna make a record right off the road - and if I really want it to be as raw as possible - I've gotta keep that out of the equation.
Did the songs you'd written for Lifeline demand this kind of recording process, or did you write songs with the process in mind?
A combination of both. I wrote to the goal. But also, I got to the first sound check of the first show and said to my band, "We've spared no expense to bring the best sound humanly possible to our fans. You guys are the best musicians in the world. Let's do something constructive with this time." So everybody brought to the table all the ideas that they had accumulated in their lives. As a band, we all wrote the music together; then I threw the lyrics on top.
Was everyone in the band on board with the idea from the get-go?
Right off the bat. There was no hesitation. The only challenge was: Could we really be that democratic? There was a time when this band wouldn't have been able to do this record. But we've grown and evolved to the place where we could actually hear each other instead of hearing our individual egos.
You're able to lead the band and at the same time function as a member of the band?
I think this record proves that I am.
Were there battles over the music while you were in the studio?
It was 98 percent battle-free.
What did the two percent have to do with?
Just a differing of opinion as to where things should start or end. You know, "Should we go this chord or that chord?" It was nothing that would derail the session on any level.
Do you think you'll make your next record like this? You seem more interested in changing methods than sticking to one, even when the one yields good results.
The thought of having to make a record that sounds like something else I've done terrifies me. That's why when "Steal My Kisses" [from 1999's Burn to Shine] came out, I was like, 'Okay, I won't be doing anything that sounds like that for a while!' It's not that I'm trying to avoid having a hit, I'm just not going to get tied into a formula.