Ben Harper sounds off on new CD

TORONTO -- Right, right. The album is called "Both Sides Of The Gun." But as singer-songwriter-producer Ben Harper tells it, his latest release does more than just showcase his acoustic and electric halves.

Even though critics have lauded his decision to split the record's alternating ballads and rockers onto two separate discs, Harper says this record, probably more than any of his other previous six solo releases, shows off all his musical sides.

On a bright April morning in an upscale hotel in downtown Toronto, Harper, 36, perches himself forward before rattling off what he means. "Even though the 'Both' of the title infers two, there's more than that," he says, looking vigorous as he nears the end of a short North American promotional blitz.

"Because I love acoustic, rock, the blues, that sort of folk-soul type scenario, and hip-hop, I've realized that if there's such a thing as four sides to a gun, it's in there," he says.

Recognizing the different sounds that were coming out of the studio, Harper figured that splitting up the songs would give the album room to move. "The moods were great as bridge to and from one another, but they were confronting each other on one disc," he recalls.

So, not fixed to a standard ten-song format, "Both Sides Of The Gun" ends up painting his most wide-ranging musical landscape yet. Opening with the hushed, string-laden, "Morning Yearning," the 60-plus minute listen is an excursion in seductive, half-whispered balladry ("Waiting For You," "Never Leave Lonely Alone," "More Than Sorry," "Crying Won't Help You Now"); rippling rockers (the Black Crowes-sounding "Get It Like You Like It" and the eight-minute-long, "Serve Your Soul"); Dylanesque protest songs ("Old men who send children/ Off to die in vain/ They will hear death's constant whisper," he sings on "Gather 'Round The Stone"); funk-imbibed political attacks (his skewering of President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina on "Black Rain" has generated headlines); and Middle Eastern-tinged psychedelic philosophy (singing lines like, "I'm a living sunset/ Lightening in my bones/ Push me to the edge/ But my will is stone," he deigns to be the word of God on the album's first single, "Better Way").

After 2004's collaboration with the Blind Boys Of Alabama, "There Will Be A Light," some fans might be wondering how much his approach to music shifted when it came time to record this album.

"The writing process didn't change because I'm putting pen to paper everyday," he says, sipping from his glass of orange juice, sunlight piercing its way into the back of the room. "Some songs came in one motion, while others emerged a word at a time."

Staring intently, he insists the fact that he plays over half a dozen instruments on the record merely accommodates a musical itch he just had to scratch. "I've been wanting to make a record this way for a long time," he says enthusiastically. "The first instrument I had ever played was drums. And, just so you know, every guitar player is a closet bassist."

"Both Sides Of The Gun" came about, he explains, from the simple need to keep things interesting, both for himself and his listeners. "I think it's redundant to say, but if you're not expanding as an artist you're making the same record twice," he says. "For me, what excites me about music is constant soulful expansion. I need it."

"I think if I had put out 'Both Sides Of The Gun' as my first record and was just now releasing 'Fight For Your Mind' or 'Welcome To The Cruel World,' people would have been asking, "What happened to 'Both Sides Of The Gun'? You changed." There's no avoiding a certain amount of fall out in that regard, but I've always tried to present my songs in any number of different ways."

Sporting a tri-colour skullcap, Harper eagerly unwraps a plastic baggie containing a powdered energy drink that he mixes. Relaxed and animated, he doesn't mince words when asked how he's maintained his fierce popularity over the past 13 years. "Dumb luck," he deadpans. "And the music is completely outside of what's considered mainstream. I've always known that if these songs became the least bit mainstream, it was because the time changed not the music."

Reflecting on a career that has yielded highs that include chart-topping singles ("Steal My Kisses"), Grammy wins (for 2004's "There Will Be A Light") and sold-out globetrotting tours, the California-based musician doesn't mind getting older.

"You hear things so differently as time goes on," he says with a slight grin. "I'm a big fan of Richard Ashcroft and Wilco, and I'm hearing different things in their music all the time. It's almost as if we're growing together. That's what I hope people experience when they listen to my songs. I want them to not only hear the music, but other little things that will make the songs resonate even more as time goes forward."

Although he has toured relentlessly over the past decade, Harper maintains that when he's in front of an audience, the experience still has the ability to transport him to celestial highs. "It's a feeling I can't get anywhere else," he says thoughtfully. "Right now, and for the past 13 years, I am deeply present in wherever the song might be, whatever emotion it might be uncovering."

"Judging from people's reactions, it seems my fans are going with me," he adds. "And no matter how sad or sorrowful or desperate something may seem, to know that people are with you as you're singing about these things is a powerful feeling."

Not that there have been many, Harper says he has been deaf to all the critics and naysayers. "People can challenge your ambition and challenge your sincerity, but they can't challenge the process. They can't challenge the fact that I'm putting pen to paper. It's too honest to challenge. You can criticize American Idol all you want, but the bottom line is they're up there singing for their lives. They're doing it. They're singing for their dreams. I've always insisted on playing live and constantly writing knowing that that is the most sincere part of me."

Here are the Canadian dates for Ben Harper's upcoming tour:

May 28: Burnaby, BC -- Deer Lake Park

September 2: Toronto, ON -- Molson Amphitheatre (on sale April 22)

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