Musician Ben Harper

The musician and singer shares about his new album “Call It What It Is”.

Singer-songwriter Ben Harper creates music that blends an assortment of styles. Born into a family of musicians, he was singing chords at age 4 and started playing the guitar at age 6. By age 12, he was performing for live audiences. The three-time Grammy winner is a master of the slide guitar and has collaborated on records and in concerts with such artists as John Lee Hooker, Metallica and The Blind Boys of Alabama. Harper recently released his first new album in 8 years, titled Call It What It Is, with longtime band, The Innocent Criminals.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ben Harper back to this program. The Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter recently reunited with his band, The Innocent Criminals. I always liked that, The Innocent Criminals [laugh].

They are currently on tour and this week released their first album in nearly nine years. It’s titled–and I love it–“Call It What It is”. I love this track. Before we get into our conversation, first a clip of Ben performing the title track, “Call It What It Is”.


Tavis: Ben, that thing is so cold, man. I love that. That song, it’s a powerful, powerful piece of work.

Ben Harper: Thank you. Thank you. Really, I–yeah.

Tavis: Let me start–having said that, let me start at an unorthodox place perhaps to start our conversation. You been here so many times over the years and I’m always honored to have you on…

Harper: I’m honored to be here.

Tavis: I don’t know how I’ve never asked you this, but somehow the juxtaposition of this factoid to this song just hit me and I feel stupid that I’ve never asked you this before. So you’re from Claremont, California?

Harper: Yes.

Tavis: Which is like rated by CNN like the fifth best place in the country to live.

Harper: CNN gave it…

Tavis: Fifth.

Harper: Fifth.

Tavis: Yeah. They call it the City of Trees and PhDs.

Harper: That’s it.

Tavis: And your advocacy work, your lyrical content, this song, “Call It What It Is”, is murder. You see what I’m getting at, right?

Harper: I do.

Tavis: Claremont, with this privileged upbringing and this advocacy, how does that happen?

Harper: It was–well, family. My grandmother pulled my dad up out of a situation, brought him to Pasadena in an area where Blacks weren’t allowed to live at the time. That connected the dots with moms. Claremont has always had a strong musical scene and a social scene as well.

Between the trees and the PhDs is that friction between town and gown and, through the thriving music and arts, poetry, political scene in Claremont, Pasadena and Claremont were for a while kind of like sister cities and my parents linked up.

My dad charmed my mom by walking up to a stop sign pole and he just turned his entire body horizontal and that did it. Up to then, moms wasn’t quite sure and pop did that and I’m here with you.

But how does Claremont translate into that? I just don’t want to take up too much of your time and I have to encapsulate such a big subject into that because my dad should have been Martin Luther King and, in his own circle, was.

You know, he got held back by some things, but nonetheless, was one of the most brilliant men I ever knew. And my mom’s family, my dad’s brilliance was countered by my grandparents and my mom’s mastery of all things social, critical, political, literary and otherwise. So they were…

Tavis: So you got it from both sides.

Harper: I got it from both sides. I really did.

Tavis: How did that training, all that was being poured into you by both sides, express itself, though, in music? Why music as opposed to–you said your dad should have been Martin Luther King. You could have been something else. How did that all gel into you becoming an artist?

Harper: It all comes back to my family’s music store. On my mom’s side of the family, we have a music store. It’s been in our family since 1958. It’s called the Claremont Folk Music Center and it’s one of the most special musical environments on the planet.

Tavis: Are there still music stores in America [laugh]?

Harper: I know, exactly. Trust me. Every year, my mom and I say that to each other [laugh] as we run the store.

Tavis: All right, all right, all right.

Harper: I’m glad you brought that up too, because people will literally walk in–it’s a museum as well, okay?

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, sure.

Harper: So they’ll walk in and they’ll bring an instrument up to the counter and they’ll just hold their cell phone right in your face, like inches from your face, and say, “This is what I can get this on Amazon for. Deal or no deal?”

I mean, God, that’s what mom and pop stores have come to. It’s ruthless. You get it on Amazon, you can’t play it. It’s a wrestling match. You get it from my family’s store, it’s all set up. The action’s set up, the machine’s oiled, it’s all ready to go.

So, yeah, you got to pay retail, but they’re cutting out the middle man. Amazon Online, man, they’re cutting out small businesses. It’s rough.

Tavis: Let me shift to music since we’re talking about that. Nine years since you and the guys got together.

Harper: Yes.

Tavis: Why so long?

Harper: I think it was as long as it was because I just got busy. It wasn’t supposed to be that long and things started heating up and the work was going in. Between what was going on for me creatively and being a dad, I would have never imagined some of the opportunities that came about in between time.

I didn’t see that coming. I really didn’t. Solomon Burke, Rickie Lee Jones, Fistful of Mercy band with Joe Arthur, one of my favorite songwriters, Dahni Harrison…

Tavis: Your Blind Boys stuff.

Harper: The Blind Boys–that was a little bit before, but producing with Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks, working with Ringo Starr, yeah. Now I’m just name-dropping [laugh].

Tavis: Let me just reach down and pick up that name you just dropped down there [laugh].

Harper: Need a new hat. Walked out here and need a new hat size.

Tavis: When you’ve been apart for almost a decade–I mean, you’ve had all these blessings in between. When you’ve been apart for almost a decade, when you get back together, how do you know that you still have it?

Harper: Man, you just get everybody in the same room and hope for the best because you don’t know, you don’t know. You know you think you have the songs. You know you have a brotherhood and the comradery, but you can’t pick up where you left off.

Old friends can pick up where you leave off because there’s nothing but the friendship. But when you’re picking up and trying to make art, if you pick up where you left off, you’re just running in place. So we had to pick up with the ball well down the field if we were going to get anywhere and if it was going to work.

Tavis: So then tell me what you’ve done here. Tell me about the project.

Harper: We have made an 11-song record entitled “Call It What It Is” because, of course, what you think you’re doing and what you are doing aren’t always the same. But I think what I think I’ve done–I hope I’ve done what I think I’ve done, and I think that is make the strongest Innocent Criminal record to date. That’s what I think I’ve done.

But then again, who is that up to? The critics? The fans? Time? “Pet Sounds” wasn’t a hit. You know what I mean? Not to say that this is–I’m not unconsciously compared–never could, never will be. But in my own genre, I think it’s as strong a record as we could have made.

Tavis: How will your fans hear this as compared to your past material? How will they hear this? How do you want or hope that they will hear this?

Harper: It’s a challenge getting people to hear new music these days and especially it becomes me versus me. You know, the older I get, well, that isn’t that. But, again, you just have to be confident in the work and hope people actually hear it for what it is and can hear it with fresh ears.

I think it’s been enough time–maybe that’s the way you do it. Maybe you allow enough time in between records so that people can hear it fresh again, although I’ve made a lot of music in between that.

But whether the base that will hear an Innocent Criminal record is the same that will hear the Charlie record that we were here for, that’s to be determined because they seem to be different crowds even within the people that recognize what I do.

Tavis: I assume you’ll be touring aggressively for this one?

Harper: We will be, we will be. I’m hoping this record can actually galvanize everybody who’s ever been the least bit interested in the music I’ve made and can hear it fresh. But getting people to hear you for the first time after 22 years of making music is its own challenge.

Tavis: When I first heard–and thanks to you, I got a chance to hear it before it came out, obviously. When I heard “Call It What It Is” and discovered that that as going to be the title track for the new project, I didn’t know what to expect because that song is so all that.

Harper: Okay.

Tavis: It’s such a social statement. It’s such a powerful, poignant social statement that needs to be made right about now. So I didn’t know what the rest of the record was going to be like and, when I got it, to my surprise, to my pleasant surprise, I heard some truth on there in that song.

I heard some love on there in some other tracks. I was like, wow. I didn’t know where you were going to take me, but it’s got a lot of stuff on it.

Harper: I hear exactly what you mean. I could have overwhelmed the spot with a certain tone.

Tavis: It could have been “What’s Going On” and the whole record could have been…

Harper: And how lucky would I have been [laugh]?

Tavis: I didn’t mean it like that! It could have been a record…

Harper: Well, you could have done that. You could have put out…oh, well.

Tavis: That’s not what I meant [laugh]. Tavis puts foot in mouth.

Harper: But I deserve it [laugh]! But even if there’s a piece of that, yeah. I mean, I’ll take–hey, the fact that that even came up, I mean, “What’s Going On” came up, I don’t think Marvin–I can’t say, but I don’t think Marvin would be the least bit mad about “Call It What It Is”. Do you know what I mean?

Tavis: Not at all. That’s my point.

Harper: All right.

Tavis: My point is, when I heard that, I thought the whole record was going to be other stuff like that.

Harper: But when you…

Tavis: And when I heard it, I heard some love on there. I heard some–I mean, it was a variety of stuff, yeah, yeah.

Harper: Yeah, yeah. But you know what? Hopefully, this is “What’s Going On” was to Marvin. Wouldn’t it be great if that could be the Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals? Because those guys are my brothers. The Innocent Criminals are the most special people.

Out of all the musicians I’ve ever worked with, they’re special. I’ve just known them all of my adult life and worked with them all my adult life. I’d love for this record to be their moment as well as my moment and our moment collectively.

Tavis: Before I say something else stupid, let me just say goodbye and goodnight [laugh] to Ben Harper after I remind you that Ben’s new project–nine years for those of us who are fans of his work with his group, The Innocent Criminals, the project is called “Call It What It Is”.

We played just a snippet for you at the top of the conversation, but just trust me on this. You will love that song, the title track, and I think you’ll love the project as well. Ben, you’re doing great work as always. Good to have you back, my friend.

Harper: Thank you, Tavis. It’s an honor to be here.

Tavis: I appreciate you as always, my friend. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 15, 2016 at 7:54 pm