Really good artists can be right under your nose sometimes, but you just never get a chance to hear their music. What if I told you there is a guy who has won three Grammy awards, but there is a strong possibility you’ve never heard of him? Seems strange, but it’s probably true. Today we look at an artist whose popularity spans multiple continents, sold millions of albums—but hasn’t quite found his way into the hearts of mainstream America.
Benjamin Chase Harper was born in October of 1969 and grew up in Pomona, California. Harper’s father was African-American/Cherokee Indian, and his mother was Jewish with ties to Russia and Lithuania. His parents divorced when he was 5 years old which had Ben spending more time with his grandparents who owned a music shop. He picked up a guitar and started playing early, but it was at age 9 when he attended a Bob Marley performance in Burbank that cemented his passion for music. Ben had his first show at 12 years old, and spent his teenage years refining his talents on a various array of guitars and instruments.
His first studio album Welcome to the Cruel World was released in February of 1994. Up to this point, Ben had just done some local touring and put out a limited LP album. That was enough to make a deal with Virgin Records and this album was really set out to be the litmus test for his unique style. The debut effort would end up doing platinum in France and be marked gold in both Canada and Australia. While seeing decent popularity in the states, Harper was a bonafide superstar in Australia, New Zealand, France, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. He’s received huge amounts of airplay in those areas as well as various awards and critical acclaim. He was even France’s artist of the year in 2003.
Describing Ben Harper’s music is fairly difficult, since his vibe really changes album to album. This particular record is rooted in blues, strumming slide guitar, light drums and a very laid back feeling. There are certainly elements of folk rock here as well, and you can hear the passionate songwriter coming through, even though I’d argue he hadn’t quite found his stride yet in that area. There is a subgenre of ‘chill music’ out there, and one could argue Harper created that movement. This is the type of music you put on really just relax. Sometimes there are messages in Harper’s songwriting, but that might be lost on the extremely laid back nature of his music.
I’d personally credit Harper for getting me tuned into this type of music, and I can say I’m a pretty big fan. He paved the way for other major artists like John Mayer and Jack Johnson, putting this type of music on the map. I don’t think I’d argue Welcome To The Cruel World is Harper’s best effort, but it was his first, and one that opened many eyes to the genre. Take your hard earned five bucks today, and give him a shot.
Top 3 Tracks: