Why Peter Harper spent most of his life trying not to follow brother Ben’s musical path
You’d think Peter Harper would have taken up music early. He comes from a musical family, he spent much of his childhood in an instrument shop, and his brother is Grammy-award-winning rock star Ben Harper. But Harper’s a bit of a prodigal son when it comes to music.
“For a large majority of my life, I tried not to play,” he says. “Everybody in my family played, and as a young person I took for granted what I was surrounded by—how unbelievably special it was.”
Every day after school, Harper would walk to his grandparents’ shop, the Folk Music Center and Museum, in Claremont, California. There he was exposed to all kinds of instruments and a wide range of musicians, from world-renowned artists to local hobbyists. Being part of such an open, welcoming space gave Harper unique insights into humans and the beauty of diversity.
“You have to understand that, to this day, I don’t understand how normal people grew up,” he says. “The Folk Music Center is a unique phenomenon with instruments from every continent. You get all kinds of people, from the best of the best musicians to the worst of the worst, and you have to deal with all of them.”
The value of his experience is something Harper wouldn’t come to recognize until much later. “I am exceedingly tolerant of all sorts of quirky things,” he says with a laugh.
Despite being steeped in such a musical environment, Harper managed to steer clear of doing much playing. He tinkered with the guitar in his late teens and early 20s, but it always felt clunky to him. He preferred the visual arts. He went on to get a master’s in fine arts from NYU and become a bronze sculptor.
It wasn’t until he picked up the ukulele that things fell into place for him musically. He loved the sound, and immediately started writing songs.
“The ukulele is such a great instrument,” he says. “I couldn’t get it to do anything other than sound really pleasant.”
From there, one of the shop employees suggested he try playing the tenor guitar, a four-string instrument that blends qualities of the banjo, ukulele and guitar. Harper quickly fell in love with the instrument. He was able to get out of it everything he could hear on the ukulele but couldn’t create. By then, he was 34, and realizing he had a lot of catching up to do.
Harper then spent hundreds of hours playing guitar, and wrote dozens of songs. Eventually, he wanted to share his music with a wider audience so he went to work putting together an album.
“It just didn’t feel right to not put the songs out,” he says. “For a long time it didn’t feel right to put them out, but something shifted. The way I had perceived [playing music] before wasn’t the way I perceived it anymore.”
The songs on Harper’s self-titled debut are stripped down and inviting, driven by his warm vocals, thoughtful observations, and solid guitar work—complete with alternate tunings on his ever-present tenor guitar.
When it came to recording, Harper made his way through the process on his own. Despite having a brother well-versed in the art, Harper found a lot of joy in figuring things out for himself.
“One of the things I’ve noticed over the last 20 years,” he says, “is that pretty much everybody asks Ben for everything. I try not to ask him for anything—I try to just let him do his thing. There’s just so much that he has to do—a lot of really big stuff on his plate, the last thing he needs to worry about is me.”
When the two brothers are together—there’s also a third Harper brother, Joel—they usually just hang out, have some laughs, or play backgammon. They’ll occasionally play each other songs, but generally, they just enjoy each other’s company. But Harper is always pleased to meet new people who are already Ben Harper fans.
“I love when someone says ‘I’m a big fan of your brother,’” he says, “and I thought I’d just come and see you.”
Peter Harper will perform at 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 5 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $10. 603-2294.