The Blues Disciple: Ben Harper’s Path To ‘No Mercy In This Land’

Harper discusses his new album with Charlie Musselwhite and his long journey into American blues tradition

ben harper interview

Photo by Dan Monick

Ben Harper has finally found something that he’s been searching for. The genre-hopping songwriter has recorded over a dozen albums (and appeared on countless others), but there’s something different about No Mercy In This Land, his new LP with Charlie Musselwhite. During a phone interview, Harper explained that he has spent much of his long career looking over the horizon at his next project – but No Mercy In This Land has changed that for the first time. “I don’t want to say it’s a sense of completion,” he said, “but there is a component of this being the top of the hill for me. It’s really odd, man.”

No Mercy In This Land is Harper’s second full-length collaboration with renowned blues harmonicist Musselwhite. Their last album together, 2013’s Get Up!, won a Grammy Award for Best Blues Album. Their new record brings a lived-in sense of the blues to captivating songs that touch on love, loss, and vulnerable explorations of self (“I’m a stranger,” Harper sings on the album’s opener, “even to the people I know”). To discover what the album represents in Harper’s creative arc, we’ll have to examine his long pursuit of the blues.

Ben Harper was raised on a wide variety of influences. When he was only nine or ten years old, he witnessed a Bob Marley performance that left an indelible impression (“I can see it as if it was yesterday.”). But the blues, he said, was the first genre to absorb him completely. “I’ve studied the genre,” he explained, “I’ve lived it. I’ve chased down as many living blues legends as would have me at the hem of their garment. But in the beginning, I almost had too much reverence to do a blueprint of any sort, because I hold the genre in such high regard.”

His career began with Welcome To The Cruel World, his 1994 debut on Virgin Records. He said that the album signaled the potential for the journey ahead, including his newest album. “It has taken me twenty-five years to arrive at a place where I could make a record like No Mercy In This Land,” he said. “At the age of twenty-three in 1993, I couldn’t do that. You can almost only play what you’ve lived. But that brings into question all kinds of young prodigal players, and players that seem to just be beamed in – like Hendrix. If he’s only playing what he’s lived – my God – that’s almost a nod to past lives.”

The blues legends that have played a part in Harper’s journey include John Lee Hooker, Mavis Staples, Solomon Burke, and Taj Mahal. Hooker encouraged Harper’s pursuit of the blues after hearing Welcome To The Cruel World, and the two became friends. Harper and Musselwhite performed with Hooker on the icon’s 1998 duets album, The Best of Friends. When the session ended, Hooker leaned over to the pair and said, “You two need to do more of that together. You two have something.” Harper said it was a profoundly encouraging remark: “That sat with us heavy.”

ben harper interview

It was one of many such moments in the fruitful collaboration between Harper and Musselwhite. Harper explained that the harmonicist is a musical north star, as well as an artist who broke down racial barriers in his genre. “Charlie has done for blues what the Beastie Boys did for hip hop,” Harper said. “There are people that come along and they are like a mirror. They say, ‘You’re the one hung up on race, not me. You see the world in black and white, I’m trying to see it in technicolor.’ But they don’t have to say that or explain it; they just live it. Charlie is cut from that cloth. It’s a very rare cloth that can do that in a way that you don’t even know it’s being done. You just wanna be with him. You just wanna hear what he has to say, hear what he has to play.”

Harper said that his audience makes his journey possible – and functions as an active participant in his work. “People finish the songs with their lives, man,” he mused. “Music is an art, but it’s also a means of communication. There’s always one last verse at the end of every song and that’s somebody’s reality and the lives they’ve lived and can apply to what you’re putting out. That’s what makes music a very unique art form. … To be able to have held that attention for going on three decades now – that’s the privilege. When I was young, I thought I deserved [an audience]. Now that I’m older, I know that I don’t. That’s the blues: knowing that you don’t deserve shit, and there’s someone right behind you twice as good and twice as ambitious.”

No Mercy In This Land is the blues defined on Harper and Musselwhite’s terms, and a document of their shared experience. It’s a blues record that’s deeply personal – but the journey is a shared one. Harper is careful not to assign himself a torch, but said that he feels excited about his opportunity to be aspoke in the wheel, a thread in the tapestry of carrying original blues into the twenty-first century.”

Again, he seems almost stunned when he takes stock of his current moment: “I’ve never finished a record and said ‘I can’t do any better’ – but man, I can’t.” His audience surely knows that he’ll outdo himself again next time – but for now, it’s time to reflect on the path that led here.

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite’s No Mercy In This Land is due for release on March 30th and is currently available for preorder. Stream the title track here:

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