Interview: Ben and Ellen Harper on ‘Childhood Home,’ Monsanto and Loving Barbra Streisand

By Brian Ives

Over the years, Ben Harper has jammed with everyone from Ringo Starr and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones to Questlove and Pearl Jam, but according to the singer, the most significant collaboration of his career has been with his dear ol’ mom, Ellen.

Indeed, Ben and his mother Ellen Harper have just released their first record together called Childhood Home and when they spoke to, they had just made their live debut at New York’s intimate Rockwood Music Hall. Backed by a three-piece band, they played a set that included the entire album, along with a cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Tomorrow is a Long Time.”

While Ben told us that he felt that they did a good job of representing the album, Ellen admitted she had a few nerves going into the performance. “But after about four or five songs, I realized I was having fun,” she said, which earned a good chuckle from her son.

When we got on the phone with them–each at their respective houses, which just so happen to be a few miles away from one another–they were still getting over the thrill of their debut concert, but managed to let us in on what Ben was like as a kid, Bruce Springsteen’s influence on the album and why being hip isn’t that important. Ben, your mom joined you onstage a few years ago, and you said it was the biggest thrill for you. So what took so long for you guys to get in the studio together?
Ben Harper: Mom?
Ellen Harper: It was something we’ve talked about since then, and even earlier than that. But lives take certain paths, and people get busy, and it turned out that now was the right time.
BH: I’ve been setting aside songs for this record for years and making sure they didn’t get used in any of my other formats, Fistful of Mercy or the Innocent Criminals. I’ve been earmarking songs knowing that I’d get into the studio with my mom at some point. But the prospect of working with my mom… it set the bar really high. A mother and son can’t just sing any old duet, it’s not going to work, it has to be a specific dialog.

The album could be branded a novelty if it wasn’t good enough.
BH: Exactly. And if that were the case, we would just have waited longer [to get the right songs]. We held out this long. My mom allowed me to listen to [her songs] and she listened to my songs. She had to choose my songs [for the album] as well. And then, all of the sudden, we were having a dialog not only personally, but lyrically, with what was going on in our songs. Which is to say that the process pushed me to places I’d never gone lyrically. And to be able to say that at my age, doing what I do for this long, is quite an arrival.

Ms. Harper, was this your first time recording?
EH: I’d done some demo recording, but nothing as complete as this. I really didn’t know what to expect going in, but when I walked in the door, Ben was at the piano and said, “Come on over,” and I sat down and we just started. I think that was the best way, and once we sang together, the nerves disappeared. I was grateful that he was the producer, so I could leave the decisions to him.
BH: And why not? Hopefully we can all raise our kids to be worthy of such a responsibility.
EH: I’d been writing for years, and I had some stuff set aside. I had some things I knew I would like someday to do with Ben. Ben actually vetted a lot of the songs, and choose the ones that he thought were best for the album.

Was Ben rebellious as a kid?
EH: He did have his rebellious moments, yes he did. He was the oldest. He taught me a thing or two about what I thought I knew about parenting.
BH: She’s being very generous, and I appreciate that, Mom. I was incredibly rebellious and headstrong.

Would the rebellious teenage Ben be surprised that he’d go on to record an album with his mom? 
BH: The reason why there’s no point in my life that that would have been shocking, was because of our family’s music store [The Folk Music Center in Claremont, California], so that never wouldn’t have made sense.

The album reminds me a bit of Bruce Springsteen‘s Nebraska, and I know you’re a fan of that album, since you covered “My Father’s House.” Were you influenced by that album?
BH: Not directly. I suppose I’m thinking about Bruce Springsteen in every song I write, consciously or subconsciously. But I grew up with Nebraska, that was one of the records in Mom’s record collection. It was very influential. I connected with Bruce through that record. When I played the Kennedy Center Honors for Bruce, I had a wonderful conversation with him and his mom about “My Father’s House.” So many of his other songs [were] available, and that kind of affair usually is really hit-driven. But it meant a lot to he and his mom that I did that one.

“Heavyhearted World” felt kind of Nebraska-like, with the lyric, “If I could only keep from sinking so low, strapped me down and into the void I was hurled, with nowhere else to turn in this heavyhearted world.”
BH: The song  was something that I was kicking around, I just kind of put myself, in true Bruce Springsteen form, in someone else’s shoes, and then went for a run. When I was done with that song, I thought of Bruce, I thought, “I may have just done something that might make Bruce proud!”

Ms. Harper, let me ask you about “Farmer’s Daughter.” You mention the agricultural company, Monsanto in that song…
EH: Monsanto is known for shutting down small farms, organic farms. I have friends in organic trade organizations that try to take them to court, to protect their farms, and they always lose. Drive through central California and try and find a berry that isn’t produced by Monsanto, and been treated with [Monsanto created herbicide] Roundup, you can’t.

Ben, on “Learn it All Again Tomorrow,” you sing, “I wish someday I could truly be empowered to say exactly what it is I meant.” That’s surprising for a guy who has been writing lyrics as long as you have.
EH: That line: “To say exactly what it is I meant,” I love that line. And even from my songwriting experience, which is not huge, I think one is always trying to say exactly what they mean, and you can’t always say it in four verses and a chorus. That’s what I think about when I hear that. You can write a few chapters in a book and maybe say what you meant, but with songs, you’ve got to be concise!
BH: Yeah, mom, that’s what I meant! “To say exactly what it is my mom meant!”
EH: “To say exactly what it is that Ben meant!”

Ben, I see you have a number of acoustic shows overseas and then you’re coming back and doing more shows with Charlie Musselwhite [they released an album together called Get Up! in 2013, which won a GRAMMY ]. But are there plans for more shows with you and your mom?
BH: My take is, I’m kind of approaching this the way I approached the Charlie record. I don’t just assume that people are going to like what I put out, just because I’m putting it out. I’m just not that arrogant. I hope people will dig this: I do. We put out the Charlie record and did a couple of shows, and I thought, if people react, we’d be honored to serve it, and go out on the road, and represent it. And people responded, and we did [tour]. So if there’s that kind of reaction and response to this record, by all means, in the fall, we should go out and do some small shows.

Do you have any songs left over from the sessions with Charlie?
BH: We were just emailing back and forth about Charlie’s availability this year, to see what his schedule looks like, and to figure out when we can get back in the studio. There’s a couple of songs, the only reason they didn’t make it on the album was because I’m a strong believer in the ten song record now. And so there’s some left over material, and there is a whole bunch of new stuff, just waiting.

Are there any plans for a second record with Fistful of Mercy?
BH: Right now, that’s just a matter of scheduling. We have material set aside for that record as well, and we need to get… yeah, there’s a lot going on.

I saw that you posted a video on YouTube to mark the 20th anniversary of your debut, Welcome to the Cruel World. Are you going to do anything else to celebrate that with the Innocent Criminals?
BH: Right now, I just… I’m just creatively at a crossroads and I’m going to have to figure it out. I’m just glad I’m at the crossroads with this record. To be able to make these decisions from a record like Childhood Home is like hitting the reset button. So I’m just going to take some time after this record and see which way the wind blows.

One other question along these lines: you did “Save the Hammer For the Man” with Tom Morello on his 2011 album World Wide Rebel Songs, were there any other songs from that session that haven’t come out yet?
BH: No, that was something that he and I wrote on the road together, from a conversation we were having. But we’ve talked about it, and about doing some duet stuff, because it worked, so it’s definitely out there to be done.

Your version of “Jamaica Say You Will” was features on the Jackson Browne tribute album, Looking Into You. How did you choose that song?
BH: I’ve always felt a connection with that song. As a matter of fact, I know Jamaica, who the song was written about. Jamaica is a person, she’s a mutual friend. She’s an amazing musician in her own right. It’s an incredible song, I couldn’t believe it was [still] available.

Related: Bruce Springsteen, Ben Harper, Bonnie Raitt Highlight Jackson Browne Tribute Album

Do you have any other songs or collaborations that haven’t come out yet?
BH: I just did a duet with Johnny Winter, it was so much fun! To get to wake up in the morning, and say that you’re going to go record a duet with Johnny Winter. From a blues musician’s perspective, there’s nothing you could do or say after that, that could affect my day adversely!

It’s cool how some of the artists you mention, like Springsteen, go from being hip to not so hip, and then back.
BH: Well, I think people who know, know. And people who know have always known. It doesn’t matter to me who was popular when, or whether someone is “trending,” certain music transcends any and all musical trends. And just because somebody is a flash in the pan fly-by-night success, that doesn’t have anything to do with longevity. It just doesn’t have anything to do with cultural or musical or artistic significance. And I don’t believe in musical hipness. I believe in musical relevance. In the material itself, and how time sustains it, and defines it over the years. That’s all I ever care about. I’m anti-hip. I love Barbra Streisand. I love show tunes. Don’t even get me started on hip. I drive through Silverlake and vomit out my window! It doesn’t mean anything to me. Either you’re not intimidated by a blank page, and you step to it, or you cheat on your test. At the end of the day, time won’t allow you to cheat on your test.

Catch Ben and Ellen Harper on CBS This Morning this Saturday where host Anthony Mason visits the two at the Folk Music Center in California. Then two will also perform a special Mother’s Day performance on set.


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