Ben Harper – Winter Is for Lovers: Steel strings to soothe the soul
Ben Harper is a three-time Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist. His new album is composed and played in its entirety on a lap-steel guitar, an instrument with mysterious origins. Some say that it was invented in 1889 by a 17-year-old Hawaiian named Joseph Kekuku. The story goes that while walking along a railway track he picked up a metal bolt, slid it along the strings of his guitar and was intrigued by the sound. He then taught himself to play this method using the back of his knife. Others say the instrument has its origins in the deep south, evolving from the African American use of the diddly bow. The lap-steel guitar gained popularity in the US in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in Hawaii. As the name suggests, it is played in the musician’s lap.
Harper originally conceived of this project ten years ago when reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, who described the book as a series of short stories fused into a larger narrative. Harper explains: “that is what I decided to do with this record. To create it as a single composition made up of individual sections.” The result is a “lap-steel symphony.” The concept of generating the depth of expression and emotion created by an entire orchestra with one player on a single instrument is simple but bold. It works because Harper is such an accomplished musician who has spent a lifetime exploring the limits of what is possible on the guitar. His playing draws on diverse influences: from blues, folk and rock to Hawaiian slide playing, flamenco guitar and the Indian slide playing of VM Bhatt. Because of this, the sound of Winter Is for Lovers is intricate and nuanced.
Each track is named after a location that has inspired the artist over the years. Some places are well-known (New York, London, Paris), others less so; Bizanet is the name of a commune in rural France, Islip is a village in Oxfordshire. Paris is what a walk in the city sounds like to Harper. Inland Empire is named after where he grew up, and consequently it’s the most introspective and intimate part of the collection: a lilting, caressing sound. As you might expect, the sound of London is instantly recognisable. It is the most distinctive and energetic track, inspired by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. The variety of sounds that Harper coaxes out of one instrument is amazing: at times the guitar is punchy and powerful; at others, it borders on the eerie fluidity of a theremin, rings with the haunting reverberations of a sitar, or becomes almost as delicate as a harp.
This album is a lovely surprise, both calming and invigorating. You might think the record would be one-note, but it’s hypnotic and moreish to the point of magical – you have to listen again and again, even if you’re not sure why. Steel strings to soothe the heart.
Photo: Jacob Bell
is released on 23rd October 2020. For further information or to order the album visit Ben Harper – Winter Is for Lovers’s website here.
Watch the video for London here: