A Deeper well

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From moment to moment, audience members are asked musically to decide whether they are hearing the ghost of Blind Willie McTell, or no, wait, Blind Willie Johnson, or maybe Robert Johnson or Josh White Sr. or perhaps Jimmie Rodgers. But the music that the audience is hearing and being moved by is Harper's. In his voice, traces of Robert Pete Williams intertwined with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye emanate from a kid singing in a voice clearly his own, about issues both personal and global. His politics aren't preachy &emdash; they come from inner experience &emdash; and his love songs radiate with a grace and warmth that belie his years. One cannot help but be won over.

In the ensuing years since the release of his first album, Welcome to the Cruel World, which featured an inventive mix of acoustic music that carried blues, soul, folk, country and even reggae inside of it, Harper's artistry and reputation have grown. He now has under his belt two more recordings and countless road dates with his band, the Innocent Criminals.

Harper's latest album, The Will To Live, is his most ambitious yet. While it departs from his previous work by not showcasing the music in entirely acoustic terms, it's not so radical in its approach as to deny the root of the sound Harper has developed as his own. It careens in its grooves from acoustic folk and blues-inspired tunes to rockers to reggae tunes to gospel and funk numbers, all of them woven seamlessly together.

Harper's sound comes from what folklorist Alan Lomax called the "deep river of song" that is American music. It is not so much an experience of a culture, as it is subcultural or even transcultural.

Harper comes from a family that celebrated all manner of music in its life together. And from familial roots to the external influences he has internalized &emdash; not assimilated &emdash; via his endless appetite for listening, Harper has created his music. From the melding of styles to the nuances of the personal and interpersonal, Harper doesn't cross boundaries, he embodies them. Further, he uses musical history as a pointer toward the future, not merely to reflect or resuscitate the past.

"I couldn't make the same record twice," Harper says from Athens, Ga., in the midst of a number of phone interviews for this latest leg of the Will To Live tour. He's cordial, enthusiastic and considers each question carefully. He clearly loves to talk music.

"When I made Cruel World and Fight For Your Mind, those were the records of where I was at the time, of what I had learned. I have a root in my sound and that is the Weissenborn guitar, an acoustic instrument. That is the constant and keeps me down in the roots of the American music that I am discovering more about each day," he says.

"This (new) record was about taking it not to the next level, but a deeper one. To explore all that I have learned and fallen in love with musically É but the root of my own sound is in everything I do. I won't be abandoning the Weissenborn guitar for a rack of keyboards, because that wouldn't be honest. But I can take my sound and move into places it hasn't been before; that's the whole point and that's what Will To Live is about musically and, I hope, lyrically," he concludes.

As a lyricist, Harper has developed a reputation for getting to the point quickly and without compromise. In the beautiful and haunting "Roses For My Friends," on top of layers of guitars, Harper sings, "I could have treated you better/but you couldn't have treated me worse/but it's he who laughs last/is he who cries first/Sometimes I feel I know strangers better than I know my friends/Why must beginnings be the means to an end/the stones from my enemies/these wounds somehow will mend/but I cannot survive/the roses from my friends."

In his delivery, sadness is eventually replaced by resignation. It shines in its serenity as the song closes and becomes an almost spiritual anthem.

When asked whether the songs he treasures hold up night after night on his rigorous touring schedule &emdash; it seems like the man is always on the road &emdash; or if they begin to lose their meaning, he delivers an emphatic "No."

"The band and I have taken to changing the set around nightly, trying material out from all three albums, and rearranging it and slipping and mixing songs in so as not to let that happen," he explains.

"Consequently, what has happened is that in these live settings with the different mixes, the songs are taking on new meanings for me, revealing things as I sing them that I didn't know before. And even the covers, whether it be Stevie Wonder's 'Superstition' or Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing,' become new songs for us as we play them. The true test of a song, for me at least, is playing it live."

One wonders if, for Harper, the growing audience is having an effect. His label, Virgin, is clearly behind him and not worrying about the fact that he fits, really, nowhere in the marketing bin.

"I think that people are grabbing onto the fact that we play each night with the enthusiasm that the music is alive. I get tapes from kids every night who are playing. I have kids telling me they bought some blues record because of something they heard on one of my albums. That inspires me; it makes me grateful that I get to do this," says Harper.

"I am glad the record is starting to do well and that I don't fit anywhere. I want to play the new music that is presenting itself in my head that I haven't the ability to learn to play yet &emdash; the music that puts Hank Williams in the mix with Hendrix and Kurt Cobain moves me &emdash; all this music, all of it alive and breathing. And to have an audience pick up on that is a real blessing."

In Harper's case, what is happening is essentially what happens in all popular music which connects deeply with listeners. Those listeners bring their own experiences to the threshold the artist has built for them, go inside and bring it back out again into their worlds. They add to it and extend it to others who in turn do the same thing. And all that means is that not just the audience gets bigger and more diverse, but the music itself gets deeper and more rooted in the culture.

Harper, who is still at the very beginning of his creative exploration and popularity, has a rare opportunity to play a major role in that process. And it's not just he who benefits from drinking at the rainbow well. Thom Jurek is a music writer living and working in Ann Arbor. E-mail [email protected]. follows his own loopy

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