Ben Harper is constantly looking for inspiration. The singer-songwriter/ guitarist keeps an ever-watchful eye on his internal sonic clock for guidance on what direction to go next. That desire to dabble wherever his muse takes him has led to a variety of projects. He’s doing everything from recording with his longtime backing band, the Innocent Criminals, and teaming up with music greats such as Blind Boys of Alabama, Charlie Musselwhite and Mavis Staples to collaborating with supergroup Fistful of Mercy (also featuring Dhani Harrison and Joseph Arthur) — and his mother, Ellen.
While the three-time Grammy winner has accomplished quite a bit as a performing musician, he remains committed to pushing the musical envelope. Recently, his internal clock told him it was time to record his first instrumental album, the 15-song Winter Is for Lovers, which came out in October. That’s not to say his prowess on guitar — specifically slide and lap steel — has been lost on fans or himself. Rather, he wanted his guitar to be the focal point this time.
“I’ve been taking aim on this record for a long time,” Harper says. “There’s always a number of directions I can go in, but this one was raising its hand the highest. There was a certain point a year and a half ago where it was the only thing I was working on. And that’s usually a signal that when I end up focusing on a specific sound, it ends up taking over and leading the charge.”
He attributes his specially crafted Monteleone lap steel for providing the impetus for the project. In 2017, John Monteleone gave Harper the guitar, which was dubbed the “Radio City Special Deluxe,” during a visit to his guitar shop. It was the first lap steel model that Monteleone had created.
“The making and construction of that instrument kicked it into high gear, for sure, because [it] was everything I had dreamt, and more,” Harper says.
Fulfilling his vision for the album came with unique challenges, most notably not being able to hide behind his voice. Instead, he had to adjust to the “physics of just being stripped bare, under really fine-quality microphones, without a voice or drum set to hide behind.
“Having that much focus on every single note and overtone, for one song, it’s one thing. For two or three songs, it’s one thing,” he says. “But for an entire album, I had never been down that road.”
In addition, he had to be realistic about how the songs would sound, which includes coming to terms with the fact that the sonics might not always be pristine.
“I’m a perfectionist, but I also like to let things be honest and raw. Not that perfection isn’t honest and raw, but you don’t want to sanitize it. So I had to find that balance between keeping it clean but keeping it rough,” Harper says. “Every once in a while, the string finds its way to muting out sooner than you’d want, or a harmonic rings out louder than you had expected in that moment. And just letting it be a living, breathing sonic organism compared to actually trying to conform it into being a sonic robot was important to me because not everything needed to be quantized and aligned. And there’s no click track. There’s no roadmap. It’s really just me sitting down with my instrument.
“If I had been playing solo guitar for the last 27 years, then this would be something that was routine to me. But while I do solo work in my sets every so often, that’s different than doing it for a lifetime. And there’s a responsibility that comes with being that stripped down. It leaves you with no choice but to be fully exposed.”
LAP STEEL INFLUENCE
As he focused solely on guitar for Winter Is for Lovers, Harper found freedom to move unopposed between his many influences, showcasing his wealth of musical knowledge. Flamenco, classical, Hawaiian and blues are some of the textures that can be heard on the set, which journeys around the globe with titles such as “Joshua Tree” and “Istanbul.”
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