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“I’ve never made a record that was such a timeline,” says BEN HARPER of his album Give Till It’s Gone (2011). “It’s a real extension of the last year and half in my life, and all these sounds are inspired by my experiences. It’s as honest a musical statement as I could make.”
The recent past has certainly seen Harper at a creative peak, juggling several high-profile, far-flung projects. Yet somewhere amidst all this activity, he found the time and the focus to write a new set of songs that represents the most personal and diverse collection in his career.
The first clue to his intentions can be found in the fact that Give Till It’s Gone is credited simply to Ben Harper. “You can’t tell which band is playing – it just sounds like me,” he says. “I wanted to create a fresh sound that was also directly connected to the feel of everything I’ve ever done.”
The songs on Give Till It’s Gone are nothing less than a revelation. They express one man’s struggle, confusion, and, ultimately, redemption. Harper lays it all out in “Don’t Give Up On Me Now,” the album’s opening track. “I need to change / I don't know how,” he sings. “You can wait your whole life not knowing what you’re waiting for.”
Elsewhere, he offers both defiance and tenderness, veering from fury in “Dirty Little Lover” to the surrender of “Feel Love.” At times, his fears and his vulnerability are almost too much to bear; “my last line of defense is gone,” he pleads in “Pray That Our Love Sees the Dawn.” Harper has never been afraid to dig deep into his emotions for his songs, but there’s a sense of maturity and experience on Give Till It’s Gone that add new weight to his efforts.
He rattles off the ways in which different encounters have left their mark on his work, such as the impact of a recent show in London at which he opened for Neil Young. “He was singing ‘Rockin’ in the Free World,’ and my mind turned into a tunnel,” he says. “All I heard was ‘rock, free, rock, free.’ I went back to my room and I wrote the song ‘Rock n Roll is Free’ in its entirety, I was so inspired by Neil that night.” Harper notes that he intended that the title of this liberating anthem, the album’s first single, to have multiple meanings. “Rock ’n’ roll has never been as free as it is now, in every sense of the word,” he says. “It’s just waiting for you all the time, and it won’t cost you to take musical chances, to expand your palette and your mind. It’s great to be part of this transitional age that’s happening.”
The “turning point” in Give Till It’s Gone, Harper says, came with the recording of “Spilling Faith,” a psychedelic-tinged song that sounds like an outtake from Revolver, featuring the inimitable drumming of Ringo Starr. The two musicians became friendly after meeting at a benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall in 2009, and Harper’s band Relentless7 backed up Starr on a number of promotional shows. “Ringo came in the studio and we all just talked for an hour,” says Harper. “He said, ‘I want this to be a really positive, uplifting song’ – he laid out the guidelines. So we all co-wrote the song, and the recording is live, exactly as it went down. That song unlocked the entire record,” says Harper. “It was a huge musical moment for this band, and I’ll never forget that day as long as I live.”
Other musical heroes played different roles in the development of songs for Give Till It’s Gone. Jackson Browne’s studio in Los Angeles was the location of most of the album’s recording sessions, and when Harper was cutting “Pray That Our Love Sees the Dawn,” he had a sudden flash that he should add the pioneering songwriter’s unmistakable voice to the song. “I played it for him, we set up the mics, and in an hour it was done,” says Harper.
The inspiration for “Don’t Give Up On Me Now,” meanwhile, came at a birthday tribute concert for Roy Orbison. “I was with his family, and I was deeply affected by him that night,” Harper says. “I could just hear him singing this song.”
Harper’s non-musical interests also helped steer his direction. “I’m a skater,” he says, “I do it a few hours a day, and it’s a huge part of my life now.” He points out some lyrics on the song “Clearly Severely” – “If it hurts, do it twice / avoid the void” and “there is no breath left for words” – and explains that “if you’re skating and you start talking and lose focus, that concrete is a pretty severe confrontation.”
This sense of physical risk mirrors the emotional tightrope Ben Harper walks on Give Till It’s Gone. “It’s not a safe record,” he says with pride. “Hopefully, it has a grittiness, a sense of confrontation. There were a couple of songs where I thought, ‘Am I really going to put that out there?’
“But it’s great to be this many years in and still be uncertain, still feel like you don’t fully have it down. When you think you have something down, then it never really sounds the same.”