Collaborations are nothing new for famed musician Ben Harper. The man’s recorded more than a dozen albums since 1992’s Pleasure and Pain (which was basically a collaboration with Tom Freund), and several of his most recent albums have been collaborations as well, like 2004’s bluesy record with The Blind Boys of Alabama (that went gold in France and Australia, where Ben has always been best received), or his last record, Get Up! (with harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite) which won him a Grammy for the Best Blues Album.
His latest, Childhood Home, released just before Mother’s Day, is a full-on collaboration with his mother. She wrote four of the songs, he six, and they’re both present on each of the ten tracks. Childhood Home also happens to be his best album — or at least his most natural, pure album — since the string of four internationally acclaimed albums that launched his career: Welcome to the Cruel World (1994), Fight for your Mind (1995), The Will to Live (1997), Burn to Shine (1999). Those four albums blended rock, folk, blues, and soul music into a genre of singer-songwriter that set him apart from so many contemporaries of the 90s. Ben had really peaked around 2000, and made a huge impact and influence on a generation of new musicians who cut their teeth on those four albums, and gave us much of the great singer-songwriter albums of the 2000s.
Harper played his first gig at the age of 12, and by 20 was known for playing Weissenborn (a very rare form of slide guitar). His career really got started when blues legend Taj Mahal extended a personal invite for Ben to tour and record with him. That was 1990, he’s since toured the world, won some awards, lived a life exclusively in music, even married and divorced a Hollywood actress.
Since the release of 2006’s great double-disc, Both Sides of the Gun, Harper seems to have somewhat lost his original audience, and picked up another, but Childhood Home feels like a very natural return to the simple, elegant music he sounds so at home in. Maybe collaborating with your mom can be just what a man needs to reconnect to the roots he came from.
Ellen’s parents established The Folk Music Center and Museum in Claremont, California. “It was there, amid guitars, banjos, tablas, ukuleles and all manner of instruments from around the world, that a distinctively musical family took shape. Ellen Harper, a talented multi-instrumentalist in her own right, encouraged her family to use the store (which she still operates) as a musical laboratory. The center was a magnet for up-and-comers such as Ry Cooder, David Lindley and Taj Mahal, who became extended family members, providing master classes in creativity and philosophy, all of which the young Ben Harper soaked up like a sponge.”
The new album is a collection of 10 folk songs, tinged with blues, and coloured with minimal drums. It’s a bit early for sweeping hyperbole, but if last year’s Surprisingly Good Duo of Old-timey Music was Billie Joe Armstrong (of Greenday) and Norah Jones’s Foreverly, this year’s might be Ben and Ellen Harper’s Childhood Home.
The series, “Come from Away Thursday,” features artists not from Newfoundland who are either visiting, or, have just released a new album of note.