Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite - A Match Made in Blues Heaven
Photography by Dan Monick
Grammy Award winning, multiplatinum-selling artists Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite have collaborated once again with their new album, No Mercy in This Land. The album is their second collaboration since the 2013 release of 'Get Up!, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Blues Albums Chart and won a Grammy Award for 'Best Blues Album.' A musical expression of the kinship between the two, the album recounts both Ben and Charlie’s personal stories and adds to the sonic history of American struggle and survival.
Whitney Hubbell [WH]: Can you describe the variance of sound between your first album and No Mercy for this Land?
Ben Harper [BH]: After about a billion miles on the road and a couple hundred shows, I’d say that Charlie and I developed a musical shorthand that already existed but it gave it the chance to form into what has become our second record. I think you can hear all those miles and those hours on stage together in this new record. Which makes it, in my humble opinion, a step forward.
WH: What is your working relationship like with Charlie?
BH: It's seamless. Every time in the studio, it feels like the most natural extension of the music I make, record and write. Our working relationship is one that we lean on each other, we feed off of one another and the entire band taps into that. And it becomes one singular movement.
WH: Writing, creating and producing music must be a very vulnerable and intimate experience… what is your creative process of writing and creating music as a duo, with Charlie?
BH: Writing music, recording and bringing songs to life - you can bring songs to the table and they can go in any number of directions but the right musicians bring out the song the way it was born to be played. And the only way to bring out the way the song was born to be played is to be playing with people you were born to play with.
And that's this band… It's a great cross-pollination of everyone knowing what to play instinctually and everyone’s being open to one another suggestions. And that’s not easy. I think that’s what they call chemistry.
WH: Do you ever find yourself conflicting in the creative process or are you always on the same page?
BH: I don't want to over-idealize it - but Charlie and I have never NOT been on the same page. [laughs] It feels like for me, the music I was born to play - I was born to play with Charlie Musselwhite.
WH: It sounds like you guys just have the best relationship and that really comes across in the music.
BH: I’m so thankful you can hear that. You have no idea. Really, that means that what I feel this is - is what it is. Not that at this age and stage you need validation, but every record needs to be validated to a degree and the only way to get that validation is from strangers. And for you to be hearing, I don't want to say ease, because we work hard at attaining the textures and sound in production, but the ease at which we co-habitat our musical space is something incredibly rare that I’ve never found with anyone else.
WH: What is it like on the road with Charlie?
BH: We both have a deep love of food, we both have a deep love of literature and we both have a deep love for the blues. Whether we’re trading books, trading recipes or trading links - it’s just never a dull moment.
WH: How did you guys initially meet and decide you wanted to make that first album together?
BH: Charlie and I initially met in 1993. I was opening for John Lee hooker, and Charlie happened to be sitting in with John that night. Mind you, I had been listening to Charlie Musslewhite records all my life growing up, and of course John Lee Hooker as well. And to get to meet both of them at the same time was incredible. And the three of us formed a friendship [Charlie and John Lee were already close friends ] they welcomed me into their circle in such a rare way and our relationship has grown ever since.
WH: What was the moment you guys decided to make the album together, what was that like?
BH: That solidified in 1997. John Lee Hooker invited Charlie and I to play with him on what was to be John Lee’s last studio record called, ‘The Best of Friends.’ Charlie and I, for the first time, played music together. And John Lee himself, said, you two need to do this together more often. That was a huge signpost - because John Lee never wasted words like that …ever!
What kept us from doing it together so long? Charlie and I are two of the hardest working and touring musicians on the circuit. So we would cross paths often and always say, 'When are we going to do this?!' It actually took fifteen years for our schedules to open up, as crazy as that sounds! But any sooner than that, I wouldn’t have been ready.
It was fifteen years worth of setting songs aside in preparation for 'Get Up.’ I set aside key songs knowing that we would, at some point connect in the studio. So once we connected, we were ready to go. And that first record was like an explosion. That's what set the stage for this record… once the floodgates broke. I had something to aim for as a songwriter, and that was Charlie.
Blues to me is a good long look in the mirror. I’ve played so many different kinds of music it’s almost become it’s own genre. It's a weird eclectic genre of it’s own. I enjoy the pursuit of other genres; however, the blues is in everything I’ve ever done. It’s where I started, and to come back and play with Charlie - it’s coming back to my beginnings. To me, it's kind of surprising that I could have travelled this far and end up where I began -- at my roots with the blues - it's very exciting.