It’s a little bit blues, a little bit rock, some funk, soul harp and didgeridoo, but it’s definitely not a gimmick. American-based Aussie musician Harper is the real deal, and his constant touring schedule with blues, world music and jam band festivals prove it.
The man has played harmonica with America’s Journey, received a Gold Record for “Sailing Australia” (America’s Cup Theme), was invited to perform at a Royal Gala and has the accolade of being the first international artist signed to America’s Blind Pig records. His constant touring schedule sees him playing small venues, clubs and large festivals, and we caught up with him during a recent (quick) break to discuss learning to play the didgeridoo, the best small towns in America and missing Australia.
You’ve been pretty busy touring here for a while.
Yeah and we’ve been doing a lot [of touring] in Europe. We just got back from Belgium and Italy and I guess we’re going back there again in February of next year. We’re going to go back there and do another tour. We do about 290 dates a year, that’s pretty full on!
You have an interesting background. You were born in the UK, grew up in Australia. Can you tell me, in a nutshell, what influenced you and what made you a musician?
Well I guess when you’re young, the music’s just in you. I was just playing harmonica forever, was just mucking around with it, not taking any of it seriously at all. When I was a boy back in England (we moved to Australia when I was 11) my grandfather was the guy who turned me on to music. When I would hang with him we’d bring out the music and play it, and when I was in school in Perth (that’s where I grew up, in Perth) I joined a brass band and learned to read and write music and that really helped me with songwriting because you really do need that extra knowledge to arrange music and get it sitting in the right position. So that was great for me, and then I just got into a band when I was 18 and just fell in love with it, you know, performing. It was all original music. I didn’t want to do the cover band thing, I always wanted to create and write stuff. And as time went on, of course I got more and more involved in the solo writing aspect and started doing film work and started doing session work which gave me a lot of insight into studio work so I could build my own studio and I guess it just became part of my life! I guess it’s just one of those things that keeps going and going and going and now I don’t think I’d be able to do anything else.
So how did you start incorporating traditional Australian Aboriginal sounds into your more Western Blues-Roots music?
Well we used to play at The Beach Hotel [in Byron Bay] and play the festival there every year, the East Coast Roots Festival. There are a lot of Aborignal guys there. I remember when I was a kid in Perth, there were a lot of Aboriginals there [as well]. I always felt like hanging with them, and I never really thought about the didgeridoo at all until 7-8 years ago. I met a guy who played it and I just got him to jam with me on my original songs and it just sounded awesome. He was with me for a year and then he left to do his own thing. I was stuck without a didgeridoo player, and was like “What am I going to do?” My manager, Bobby, said “Why don’t you learn to play” and I said “Yeah that’s going to be easy.” And it wasn’t, but what was great about it is that I had two great [Aboriginal] friends that I helped out many times before. And they took me into a store and and told me which didgeridoo to get and they taught me how to play it. They taught me the history of it. I asked permission to play – I didn’t want to be disrespectful at all. I have a great respect for them as a people, and beacause I was writing songs about the way they were treated over the years, I think they liked what I had to say in my music and [the songs] just naturally needed to have didgeridoo [in them].
I didn’t want to become gimmicky – the didgeridoo is part of my music now, but it’s not in every song. It may be 4 times in an hour and half that I’ll pick it up, like only when it works in a particular song. I didn’t want to do that Australia thing with the Fosters and the Outback Steakhouse and all that weird stuff. We have no idea what a Bloomin’ Onion is, so I try to steer away from that. I try not to push that side of it, I just use [the didgeridoo] to purely tell stories about different aspects of Australia without being clichè or boring.
Most of them just accept the fact that there’s this crazy long haired dude with a didgeridoo in front of them. They love the sound of it, and I always talk about where it comes from. We actually do a lot of schools too, especially in poor neighborhoods, and we’ll go into schools and show the children the history of the Aboriginal people. We show them the way they do their painting and tell them about the didgeridoo being one of the oldest instruments in the world. We actually teach them to play it which is always a lot of fun! I think it’s good for schools because like it is in Australia, when schools cut funding, they usually cut the arts, so we’ve been trying to sneak it back in as history and education and that gets the music back in. Then kids who might not like the didgeridoo say “oh I like your guitarist” or “oh I like your drummer.” We do a lot of work with special needs kids too, and the didgeridoo – they love that. Especially children who are deaf – they can feel the vibration and you can just see the smile on their face. So that’s one great thing about learning the didgeridoo.
Do you have any interesting stories about some small towns in the USA?
There are some amazing place here. We do this club in Iowa – that tells you how far away from reality that is – in this little tiny town, this small town. There’s nobody there and half the buildings are falling apart, but there’s one great club there called Byron’s, and it’s a Grateful Dead tribute club. I mean they have Grateful Dead things everywhere, and the guy who does tie-dye there is the world champion tie-dye guy. I mean you wouldn’t think – you’re in the middle of corn fields and out of nowhere there’s this cute little bar in this town, and the first time I went there, I was like “No one’s going to come here, who would come all this way?” But they came and it was like a full house. And this was like a Sunday afternoon and this place was packed and they loved the music and were enjoying it, and it was crazy! It was like one of those small town in Australia where you’re like “Who’s coming here” and then it gets packed with these interesting characters. So yeah we get a lot of that. The little town I’m living in now is great, and it’s not too far from reality if we need it. It’s great for song writing. The politics here are great for song writing, it’s crazy.
What do you miss about Australia?
Surfing! A lot. There’s something about Australia that’s pretty unique, and that’s us. The people who live there. We’ve got this kind of – we’re less aggro- unless you get a couple of beers in a person at the club and they don’t like the girl you’re with, but I don’t know. I think we’re more down to earth than most people. I don’t know what it is but you always feel comfortable when you’re in Australia. No one’s staring at you and no ones judging you and it just seems more – easy going is a good word, but our work ethic has always been very good. But I think outside of work we’re more easy going and don’t care what religion you are and don’t care [about this or that]. I think that’s one thing I do miss – I think [Australia's] more down to earth. I’ve got a couple of New Zealand friends and all we do is talk about cricket all the time and that’s fun.
So you’re touring extensively, throughout the end of summer, correct?
Yeah. This is the big time now because it’s festival time so we do a lot of festival work. It’s which is fabulous because I get to see other musicians. Pretty soon I’ll be doing one called the Concert of Colors in Michigan, it’s kind of like WOMAD. It’s like world music, there’s bands from all different countries and that’s where my interests are. I like discovering new types of music that I’m not always listening to all the time so that’s really handy for me to find out about that.
What kinds of music do you like listening to?
Anything I’ve never heard before is usually pretty good! You know I love listening to other countries’ traditional style of music because since I’ve been doing the didgeridoo, learning that was such an experience that I need another experience like it. So I have to find something else.
Would you like it if more Aussies came to your shows?
I’d love ‘em to come! I mean that’s what we’re here for. If more Australians came to the shows, we’d have a blast – we’d have a good time! And they’d dig the music too because it was made in Australia! I’ve still got a lot of friends in Australia, and they’ll tell me when a new movie comes out. Like Red Dog, that was really good. I think Kenny was one where the guy ran the port-a-loos and we watch all these comedy shows like Summer Heights High so we can keep in touch with our reality check. My mum says I’m sounding a little too American now, but yeah. The Aussies need to come along to stop me sounding American!
Speaking of Aussies, do you have any advice for Aussie musicians trying to make it over here?
Make sure you do your work visas, because they have a lot of people sneaking in as tourists. If you do really well, and you will because people love Australian musicians, that’s going to be a problem. The IRS is onto people. Make sure you have your paperwork done, it’s worth it. If you do really well here, and it’s done under a tourist visa, you can’t do anything with it. You can’t put it into your bios. I think that’s an important thing. It is great fun here to tour, I mean there are so many venues, don’t be scared to go to Iowa, or Michigan or anywhere. I think the only state I haven’t been to is Alaska. I’m going to attempt to do that at some stage because I’d love to see the Northern Lights – that would really be something special. But it’s good fun. People love Australians. I don’t know what we’ve done good in this world, but they love us! We can’t go wrong! Well some people can like Murdoch I guess, but the real ones, we’re very becoming! Don’t listen to the news, Americans aren’t like those you see on the news. Americans are some of the most beautiful people you’ll ever meet, just like Australians, they’re just good people. They’re very warm, I’ve noticed over the years. And they’ll buy all your CDs! They just love buying stuff…so you know. Bring it on!
For Harper’s upcoming live touring dates, check out events section or the upcoming tours section of his website. His latest album, “Live at the Blues Museum,” was released in April and more information about it and his previous releases is available on his website.