Like many talented musicians, Ben Harper likes to collaborate. He’s worked with Ringo Starr, Jackson Browne and Taj Mahal.
But his most recent collaboration isn’t typical for a rock star: Harper teamed with his mother, Ellen Harper, a gifted songwriter and capable singer, to release an album called “Childhood Home.”
Listening to the album reveals mutual respect and appreciation between mother and son.
Ben wrote six of the tracks; Ellen wrote four, which range from the singer-songwriter folk of “A House is a Home” to the hillbilly bluegrass of “Farmer’s Daughter,” which laments that the farm “all belongs to Monsanto.”
“It’s produced like early Elvis,” Ben Harper told Rolling Stone. “Not one thing is plugged in. It’s all acoustic. I think they’re going to call it Americana, but it’s soul, California, folk rock.”
Ben Harper performs a solo acoustic show on Sept. 13 at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. Harper was on vacation throughout August and not available for an interview.
Known for his plaintive voice and remarkable range, Harper leaps from gospel to guitar-heavy rock without missing a beat.
Before he was born, his maternal grandparents had opened The Folk Music Center and museum in Claremont (about an hour’s drive east of L.A.), a musical instrument shop that remains open to this day.
Harper’s parents encouraged young Ben to try out the guitars, banjos and ukuleles in the store during his childhood in the 1970s. He learned how to repair some of the instruments, according to a Los Angeles Times story published last June.
Renowned musicians such as Leonard Cohen and up-and-coming talent including David Lindley and Ry Cooder would stop by, Harper says on his website, and “provided master classes in creativity and philosophy.”
“Without that upbringing, I don’t think I’d be doing what I do,” Harper told the Los Angeles Times in 2004.
Born to an African-American father and Jewish mother, Harper grew up in a family that valued music as a vehicle for progressive politics.
His father, Leonard Harper, took Ben to see Bob Marley when Ben was still a child; his mother grew up listening to Woody Guthrie and the Weavers, according to the L.A. Times. Leonard and Ellen divorced when Ben was 5.
Harper said he and his mother had discussed making an album for more than 15 years before they went into a studio.
“I’m glad you didn’t wait until I was 90,” Ellen, who is in her late 60s, told the L.A. Times.
The album has a spare, raw, sound. “As sparse as it was, at a certain point it couldn’t be touched. I had to leave it alone,” Ben Harper told the L.A. Times.
He added that the topics had to be chosen with care. “It’s not easy for a mother and son to sing a duet. You can’t just sing about anything.”
Harper is a three-time Grammy winner: He’s received awards for best pop instrumental performance and best traditional soul album. This year, he won the best blues album award for “Get Up!” recorded with Bay Area harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite.
One of his biggest hits is the irresistibly catchy “Steal My Kisses,” from his 2000 album, “Burn to Shine.”