Q’s With: Ben Harper On Music As An Art Form & Teaming Up With Harry Styles

images uploads gallery EXCLUSIVE Ben Harper Photo Credit Jacob Boll 8 1
 Photo of Ben Harper by Jacob Boll

Ben Harper got to experience a full-circle moment with his daughter Harris – who initially introduced him to Harry Styles’ music years ago as a One Direction fan – when he invited her and his son CJ to perform during his set supporting Styles’ run of residency dates at Southern California’s Kia Forum.

Though the musical styles of the 53-year-old blues/folk rock multi-instrumentalist and 29-year-old pop star may seem vastly different, the two singer-songwriters share an ability to genuinely connect with an audience.

The live pairing came about after Styles invited Harper to play guitar on the Harry’s House track “Boyfriends.”

A few days before kicking off his 2023 Australian tour, Harper talked to
Pollstar about how he embraced the opportunity to join Styles’ tour and his latest album, Bloodline Maintenance, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

Harper’s schedule also includes an appearance at Bluebird Music Festival in Colorado April 30.

Pollstar: Can you talk about the message you hope listeners take away from your latest Grammy-nominated album?
Ben Harper: Themes and messages, I try to leave as wide open as possible for the listener. That’s not a creative way to give you a non-answer, I promise. … There’s emotions I’m trying to convey more so than messages.

Anything you can share about the emotions you were experiencing during the songwriting process?
When it comes to music, the last thing I want to feel is to be told. When I listen to Radiohead’s “Creep” or “High and Dry,” or when I listen to B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” I don’t need an explanation or a definition. I just want it to hit me. … There’s this space between music and listener. For me, it’s what gives music its rightful place as far as being defined as an art form. That’s that silence between what I say and play and what someone else hears and feels. So the minute I fill that space, it makes it less of an art form.

With the recent news about Florida’s Education Department blocking a proposed AP course on African American studies, it seems like your song “We Need To Talk About It” couldn’t be more fitting.
And that’s where I want that song to live. That’s where I’m taking aim. So for you to hear that, it fulfills me as an artist because that was the target, right?
I also read about reparations potentially happening in California.

Well, nice to hear some positive news for once.
Yeah, yeah. When I picked up the paper and read that in The New York Times, mind you, it was exciting. It’s important for me to say I’m not a liberal or conservative. I’m a rationalist.

That’s a good way to put it. Let’s talk live. You joined Harry Styles as support at the Kia Forum. How did you approach the performance?
My daughter, who’s an extraordinary songwriter, came out for a song with my son. They have a duo together and they performed her track “Longest Apocalypse.” So that was nice to have in the set, for numerous reasons. One, is because she was a huge One Direction fan and through her I became a fan.

My kids through the years have introduced me to incredible music, and I’ve been influenced by their tastes. So from her going to One Direction shows and having 1D posters on a wall, to then being able to bring her up to do her own music opening for Harry was just a great familial full circle moment.

I also had a trio of vocalists come up for a couple of songs. But for the most part, it was me and a bunch of instruments. I specifically selected that route compared to a larger production because I felt like taking a 20,000-seat arena and attempting to make it intimate was a clear path to connecting in that situation than coming out full decibel band-style. … There were so many [residency] shows that I could have shifted as far as going from solo and employing the band to come up if it wasn’t working, but after the first night, midway through the set, I was like, “Wow, this is comfortable.”

Ben Harper and Harry Styles hug it out at the Forum in Inglewood, California, during Styles’ “Love On Tour” 2022 residency. Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media

What was it like being an opening act again?
I hadn’t been an opening act for a minute. And it just felt itself in a way like home. That really speaks to Harry’s fans too, giving what I was doing a chance. I felt like the connection was made and it was nice to have a solid showing of my fans there, as well. I could hear them in force.

You included “Boyfriends” in your set?
Harry wasn’t playing “Boyfriends” on this tour. He and I discussed it and we concluded that perhaps I put it in my set. And at first I wasn’t sure if it would work, but he felt it would. You know, “You’re on the song!” He was very welcoming. I think you can call it slightly unorthodox for the opening group to play a song off of the headliner’s new record
We rehearsed it. It was fun to play. It was sounding strong. We did it the first night. And it was on. Not every night, but I did it the majority of the nights I played. And then on the final night Harry played it and I sat in with the band.

I was glad to have it on loan, and it’s probably going to make its way into my [headline tour] set now because I love playing it.

Have there been any other interesting pairings you’ve taken part in, either as support or headliner?
In situations where I was the headliner, it was wonderfully exciting to invite out a completely unknown Jack Johnson to open for me for the course of a year and watch his incredible ascension.

And then when I was opening for Pearl Jam, back in the day, there was that feeling of really connecting heart and soul. … I remember Pearl Jam taking pride in exposing their fans to what I was doing and how excited I was to introduce my music to people who have now attended my shows for decades.