Editor’s note: In April, the singer, songwriter, and stellar acoustic guitarist Christopher Paul Stelling toured as the opening act for Ben Harper and his reunited Innocent Criminals. AG asked Stelling to sit down and chat with Harper about songwriting, guitars, growing up in a famous music store, and his recent trio of very different projects: Call It What It Is, his new release with the Innocent Criminals; Childhood Home, his acoustic-folk duet album with his mom Ellen Harper; and Get Up!, his blues-rock collaboration with harmonica legend Charles Musselwhite. The two conversed not as journalist and subject, but as fellow musicians.
You’re known for traversing multiple genres, but you do it so effortlessly and you’re always Ben Harper, whether it’s a folk song or a reggae song or a rock song. That’s been really inspiring for me to see while touring with you this month. What’s the common thread that ties all of these genres together for you?
The common thread is they can all be stripped back bare to me and a guitar, and they stand up. That’s the test for anything—if you can strip it bare and it’s still the song, then you can take it any direction you want.
I heard Chris Cornell, the singer from Soundgarden, do “Billy Jean”—Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”—solo acoustic, and it’ll stop you in your tracks. At that point, I guess, the through-line is: It’s folk and blues, you know what I mean? It’s all folk.
One of the things that I love is when you look into old Hank Williams stuff, or Skip James or Bill Monroe, even though they’re later considered the fathers of their individual genres—country, blues, bluegrass—they all refer to themselves as folk musicians, and the root of folk music is just people with acoustic instruments.
That makes sense to me. If we strip it back and it has a life, that’s the through-line. As a songwriter, I like when people talk about the process. I’m not going to ask you the typical, “What comes first—the music or the lyrics?” because we know the answer to that: It’s whatever comes first. But do you have any rituals when you sit down to write? Do you create any sort of environment for yourself?
I’ve never really insisted on setting a mood, nor have I pursued any mood to be set. I spent the first 12-plus years doing a couple hundred shows a year, so back [in earlier days] I never had, nor could I afford, the luxury of providing this ideal environment.
If a good song taps you on the shoulder, you run with it and, hopefully, if you cross the finish line, lucky you! If not, you got something in the bank to work on.
I mean, I’ve been to places where I went, “God, this is so beautiful!” But sometimes experiences are beyond even songs. To write a song would take away from being present in that moment. Never mind taking a picture! So, I’ll just let that be a moment and then carry that away and bring it into a song [later] if I can.
I think a lot of songwriters go through this situation in the beginning where you come up with maybe an idea for a verse and an idea for a chorus, and then stagnate on that. But lately, when I find that first verse and I find that chorus, I’ll sit down and commit to getting all the verses—getting more material than I need, because it’s easier to take away from than to add to later when you’ve lost that flame.
That resonates deeply with me. No matter what I have to get to, [finishing a song] ends up, for the most part, taking precedence—sitting with it while there’s that sort of rush of blood to the heart.
For me, sometimes it can take ten minutes to write a song, and sometimes it can take six months or a year. Is there a song that you have a memory of that came out fully formed?
[There’s a knock at the door.] Come on in. [The door opens, but no one is there. Stelling and Harper laugh.]
That must have been a song at the door, fully formed.
And it was a soft knock, too. [Laughs.] But, um … yeah, on this record, the title song, “Call It What It Is,” came out fully formed, and “After the Storm” came out fully formed. I love it when that happens. When that happens, we’re like little school kids or something, bouncing around with a new toy.
To me, “Call It What It Is” is a quintessential, modern-day folk song—almost a murder ballad.
A hundred percent. [Editor’s note: “Call It What It Is” is an acoustic-blues tune with the opening line, “They shot him in the back, because it’s a crime to be black.”]
photo credit: Terry Shear
And it’s about social justice, which has always been a theme of yours.
It hurts, right, seeing all this stuff these days?
Yeah, it’s definitely in a tailspin—politically, socially, culturally. It’s quite a place to arrive at after having come so far. Which makes it so fascinating, I think—how ingrained it is in us all.
So, that song came out really quickly?
That was in one sitting. Barely took longer to write it than it does to play it. Others were crafted, like “How Dark is Gone” and “Bones.” There’s a great Tom Waits quote. . . He was crossing a bridge and couldn’t find a pen; he was in his car and just said, “All right”— I’m paraphrasing—he said, “All right, God, or Song Gods: If this is good enough, if you want me to remember this, I don’t need to write it down.”
Willie Nelson said something similar: “If it’s good enough to remember, I’ll remember it.”
And I’d love to think like that, but I know how fleeting the muse is. [Snaps.] Things can come and go in a nanosecond, and all of a sudden you’ve . . . Who knows what you’ve missed? I just don’t trust my memory enough to subscribe to that, because no sunset will ever be the same, no two people are the same—and no melody will ever come out in the same way. So, get it down!
Before you released Call It What It Is, you did Childhood Home, with your mother, and Get Up!, with Charlie Musselwhite. They’re drastically different albums, sonically, but they have this certain thing in common on a tangible level. How was it working with your mother, and then, how was it with a longtime hero and friend?
Two of the best musical experiences of my life. I’ve said that phrase “the best experience of my life,” and fine, that’s all good and well, and maybe I’ve had like 20 best musical experiences in my life. But the difference with those two is they were so fresh and so new and so … not necessarily surprising, but they were signposts that there’s still so much to accomplish, there’s still so much to look towards, creatively. They were great reminders, that yeah, these are different directions that you can go in singularly and have them exponentially broaden not only your perspective, but your outlook. I mean, I don’t think I would have ever made a blues record—a record that I was comfortable calling the blues.
Man, I can relate. I’ve always loved the blues, but I feel like it’s a church that you almost have to be initiated into . . .
Yeah, I’m so glad you said that, because that’s where I’m at, too. That makes a lot of sense to me. Like in a way, it chooses you.
My earliest connection to music was folk and blues, and probably in that order, because my grandparents were folk musicians. My grandmother taught autoharp and dulcimer and banjo and guitar. The first voices I heard were folk-based, and they would do “Takes a Worried Man to Sing a Worried Song,” “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Lay Down Your Head, “Tom Dooley”—you know, a lot of union songs and labor-organizer songs, and everything like that, up to “John Henry.” But my grandmother would even do Lightnin’ Hopkins songs—blues in folk-ese, just strum ’em out, you know? So those are ingrained.
But the first music that just yanked me and said, “Come in”—that summoned me—was the blues: Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, and then the electric stuff from there. It was just a wide-open field.
‘There’s an entire dialogue that we have with ourselves and with people we don’t even know, and that is a very rare place that’s beyond words. I think music, if anything, is the bridge to that.’ —Ben Harper
The other night, I overheard you saying, about recording with your mom, “I didn’t make a record with her because she’s my mother, I made a record with her because she’s good.”
Yeah . . . that’s the deal. So getting through the Charlie thing and then mom’s, these two records signal slight departures and arrivals at the same time. I’d always dreamed of being able to just be in the company of Charlie and make a record like that, so that was a dream come true. Then, to make a folk record that celebrates not only our music store, but our family heritage and my mom and her songwriting chops as well as the material I’ve written that’s just purely folk-based. Just pure artistic appreciation.
Let’s talk about your growing up in a music store. It wasn’t just any music store—it was the famed Folk Music Center in Claremont, California, that your grandparents started.
Yeah, a museum even. It’s certified.
Some of the most memorable names in folk music and other styles of music came through there. It obviously had an influence on you. Would you elaborate on some of your most indelible memories from that place?
As impressive as the names that have come through that door and influenced me, it was also the environment. Growing up in the Folk Music Center, I started the day sweeping the front, getting all the cigarette butts out, vacuuming the floor, tuning all the instruments, tightening all the drum heads, getting everything set for the day. And there’d be somebody waiting outside.
Once everything was swept up and ready, we’d open the door at 9:30 and a guy would just throw down his 10-speed bike, come in, and ask if he could pull a sitar off the wall. Just some white kid from Claremont College—long hair, short pants, Vans, tank top. He’d pull down a sitar, tune it—and he’d sound like Ravi Shankar! A complete badass. And after an hour of completely transforming the environment, he’d say, “Thank you” and walk out, get on his 10-speed, and you’d never see him again. Or you’d see him again in two years: “Oh, there’s the sitar player.” And it turned out his parents were government people who had gone to Sri Lanka, Calcutta, New Delhi, and the music had just jumped in him. You learned people’s stories after they came back in a few times.
That kind of thing would happen every day on a different instrument. Some guy would come in straight off a plane and say, “Where can I get oud strings?” He’d come in the store, get his oud strings, play that oud, and the next thing you know it’s . . . it’s like you’ve heard the best oud playing since like Udi Hrant! The guys would just have the chops of a master and then leave. It was just crazy!
But I’m sure there were also some serious names, right?
Yeah, there was like Leonard Cohen, and there was David Lindley, who introduced me to the Weissenborn. I mean, I’d heard the Weissenborn before David, because people would come in and play it and be fascinated with it. But David Lindley was the first cat who devoted his life to that instrument and transformed it into a single-handed orchestra. But the guys you wouldn’t know influenced me as much or more than the guys who you’d recognize by name.
Maybe because they were a little more approachable, or a little less assuming?
In all fairness, Jackson Browne was the most approachable cat on the planet. He really was. He’d come in and play for hours and talk to my grandfather about philosophy and poetry and instruments and history. His playing—you’d just sit and listen to him, so beautiful and melodic.
Your mom said to me the other night at the Beacon, “We called the record Childhood Home, and there was a picture of our house on it, but our real house was the music store.” Do you feel the same way?
Yeah, we shared that, she and I. She was brought up in that store and she brought me up in that store, so yeah, we’ve spent as much waking time in that music store as we have our house.
‘At heart, I’m still just a small-town kid of a music-store owner. I mean, that’s what I am, that’s my family lineage.’
That’s still one of the first things I do when I roll into a new town: “Hey man, where’s the local music store?” I think anyone reading this will identify with that.
Yeah, and we’re among the few that are left. Even through Amazon and eBay, we’re survivors. At heart, I’m still just a small-town kid of a music store owner. I mean, that’s what I am, that’s my family lineage since 1958. My kids are the fifth generation to work in that place.
Another thing I’ve also enjoyed while touring with you this month is watching your commitment to your fans. You refer to it as a 20-year conversation. How does it feel to have fans that have been behind you for so long?
Just straight-up lucky and fortunate. It feels fortunate, it feels lucky, it feels like a blessing and a privilege; a real rare place to have stumbled upwards into.
So many of your fans, they’ve grown up with you and gotten married and had their own kids, and now their kids are fans, too. But that’s not stopped you from writing and performing new material. They’re still on this journey with you, and you with them.
Yeah, time has proven that to be the case. Because, you know, music . . . How can I put this? There’s an entire dialogue that we have with ourselves and with people we don’t even know, and that is a very rare place that’s beyond words. I think music, if anything, is the bridge to that.
Music almost makes a time stamp on people’s lives. When you hear a song, don’t you think back on where you were and what part of your life you were in?
Absolutely. Like it genetically or spiritually encodes [itself on] you. Like memories. Good memories are almost better as memories than they were as experiences. And music lives there. So, to be able to share the music that I’ve made that has connected over the years—to share a special part of people’s lives—I’ve never, for one second, taken that for granted.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.