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Harpers return to ‘Childhood Home’ with album, performance

In a world where everyone seems to be striving for polished perfection, Ellen and Ben Harper offer an engaging alternative.

The mother-son duo’s collaborative album Childhood Home, released earlier this month, delivers a dose of downhome reality, wrapped like a present in evocative Americana music.

The 10 tracks on the recording, which was released on May 6, explore the ties that bind and break in every heart and home.

A woman is sacrificed on “The Alter of Love” and becomes another struggling single mother. A “Farmer’s Daughter” sees the family homestead washed away by the tide of agribusiness. And “City of Dreams” offers a wistful look at the Inland Valley before citrus groves were replaced by suburban sprawl.

In “A House is a Home,” their voices blend in the kind of harmonies you can only get through genetics and proximity as they sing about the way we all make do.

“A house is a home, even when it’s dark/even when the grass is overgrown in the yard/even when the dog is too old to bark/and when you’re sitting at the table trying not to starve. A house is a home, even when there’s ghosts/even when you gotta run from the ones who love you most.”

The album, which is Ben’s 16th record, is receiving considerable media attention. It was touted on RollingStone.com, where visitors could listen to “A House is a Home” in advance.

Ellen has joined Ben on his latest tour, performing a few songs each night in venues throughout Europe, including stops in England, France, Switzerland and Italy.

A rock star collaborating with his mom is enough of a novelty that the media has come calling. The pair has undertaken a number of national TV and radio appearances, including spots on “CBS This Morning” and WXPN’s “World Café.”

An internationally renowned musician who has garnered three Grammies, Ben is pretty well used to the attention. Ellen, however, a multi-instrumentalist who spends much of her time behind the counter of Claremont’s legendary Folk Music Center, tends to keep a lower-profile. Her cover is blown now, but she is philosophical.

“Being in Rolling Stone is not gonna get me a fresh coffee at Some Crust,” Ellen joked in a recent interview with the COURIER. “However, it would be great if the record and songs get the attention I feel they deserve. Rhino sure has a cool display. Thanks Rhino!

“That’s the beauty of Claremont. Everyone is well known for whatever it is they do, so it’s a level playing field,” she continued. “I have seen Ben walk around the Village and people just wave and say hello to him and keep right on going, as if he graduated from Claremont High School in 2007, not 1987. Unfazed. That’s kind of what this record is about, I suppose. Having somewhere like Claremont in your life.”

However far Ben may roam, he is deeply rooted in Claremont. His grandparents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, founded The Folk Music Center in the late 1950s. Their daughter Ellen grew up surrounded by a wealth of instruments and learned to play many, from guitar to ukulele to piano, with skill.

She was a single mother and so her kids, which include author Joel Harper and sculptor Peter Harper—both apt musicians themselves—grew up at the local music hub. Ben says his mother was always a musical inspiration.

“I spent my entire youth rifling through my mom’s record collection, scarring and scratching the vinyl for life,” he joked. “She never said I couldn’t. Whenever she would start working on her own music, playing her guitar and singing, I was singing right along with her…and loudly.

“She never even one time told me I couldn’t, never once said stop,” he continued. “She even let me and my pal Yo draw a giant WHO concert right on my bedroom wall! So thanks, Ma.”

With music as a shared passion, it was inevitable that Ellen and Ben would collaborate on an album. It took a while, though.

“For me, the process was in the making for 17 years at least. As Ben said, ‘We had a lifetime of production for this album,’” Ellen said. “When we did decide the time was right, it flowed smoothly and quickly. The album was recorded in 12 days. When I walked into the studio, Ben was at the piano playing ‘Born to Love You.’ I sat down on the piano bench and we were in the vocal booth in less than an hour.”

“The process was completely unforced,” Ben agreed. “After the first few songs were down, the record took a hold of a sound and character.”

Ben told Rolling Stone he set out to produce Childhood Home “like early Elvis,” with all of the instruments unplugged and unamplified. 

“I wouldn’t say this record is lo-fi. It’s sparse, and there’s a big difference between those two,” Ellen said. “The value in this is that the songs, the lyrics and the vocals, are at the forefront and all of the instrumentation is in support of this—the musicians keeping out of the way as much as adding their part. It’s quite a dance.”

Ellen has, for years, been integral in planning The Claremont Folk Festival. But though she’s out of town, not to worry. The show, set for Saturday, May 31 at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, will go on. Local talent buyer Robin Young, Claremonters Brian D’Ambrosia Donner and Cindy Eiland have been on the job, making sure this year’s festival goes off without a hitch.

Ben and Ellen will be showcasing their new material at the event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets, which cost $40 to $125, can be purchased on the Folk Music Center website (www.folkmusiccenter.com/folk-festival).

Other performers scheduled to take the stage at the folk music extravaganza include Very Special Musical Guests, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones, The Gonzalo Bergara Quartet, The Coals, The Chapin Sisters and The Ooks of Hazzard. Also making a joyful noise will be the performers Blue Highway, Steve James, Rich Shea, Ross Altman, Peter Harper, Phoebe Bridgers and Old Brown Shoe.

Peter Harper is focusing increasingly on his music, singing and playing original music on the 4-string tenor guitar. Like his mother and brothers, Joe Harper has been similarly sponge-like, soaking up musical acumen from his creative childhood environment.

With this in mind, the COURIER asked whether there would ever be an album with musical input from the entire Harper brood.

“I wonder what it would sound like?” Ellen pondered.

Ben noted that the Harper family has grown with the addition of a number of grandkids.

“Maybe it would have to be a choir,” he said. “Big Band? Folkestra.”

Whatever you call it, it is certain that the Harpers will continue making music that comes from the heart and from the home.

“The Claremont Folk Music Festival along with the Folk Music Center are still thriving and serving the community,” Ben noted. “Without Dot and Charles, none of this is possible. Not this interview, not the record mom and I made, not the festival, not the music store and not Claremont having such a rich cultural heritage. So thank you, Dorothy and Charles Chase. Without both of you, it’s just a ton of silence.”

—Sarah Torribio


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