Timing is perfect for Ellen Harper’s latest musical release
Delayed gratification isn’t for everyone: teenagers, for instance. But every now and then, if one is patient, waiting pays.
Such is the case with singer-songwriter Ellen Harper’s latest release, “Light Has a Life of its Own.” Ms. Harper’s sophomore effort delves eloquently into the various stages of love and desire, or lack thereof, as well as the music industry, and even a plea for decent music at her own funeral. And it’s been a long time coming; Some its nine songs have been gestating for a lifetime.
The mother of three grown sons, Joel, Ben and Peter, Ms. Harper has been a musician since she could hold a guitar. She wrote her first song as a teen, but love and marriage intervened, and like a lot of young parents, she set aside her artistic ambitions after becoming a mother.
But unlike many songwriters who put their craft on hold to raise a family, Ms. Harper had the desire and the means to jump back into the circus when her kids were grown. Her debut, “Family Home,” a collaboration with her son Ben Harper, was released in 2014. Four years later, she’s now firmly at the helm as “Light’s” producer and sole songwriter.
The new record is almost exclusively an acoustic affair. It leans heavily into folk and country, which is apropos for Ms. Harper, who manages the family business at the Folk Music Center in Claremont. “Light” is marked most memorably by Ms. Harper’s delicate, conversational vocal delivery. She wraps phrases like, “But the course of love never runs smooth, that’s the lesson we learned, a hard lesson to earn” around sumptuous, understated instrumentation from a band that includes many of the Claremont area’s top musicians.
The opening track, “Boy Meets Girl,” sets up a doomed romance and quickly gets to the area Ms. Harper explores so effectively: the middle of love.
“I try not to be judgmental,” she said. “I just wanted to say, ‘Here’s what happens. No matter how romantic a relationship starts off, it kind of goes here.’ Without a judgment.”
Pop music holds an endless storehouse of songs about love’s bloom, and maybe even more about its demise. But the middle of a relationship, where small things add up and tip the scales one way or another, is investigated much less frequently.
“You just can’t help seeing what happens in relationships over time,” she said. “Is this just what happens when you grow up and you look at love? I don’t know.”
“Hearts on the Line” might be the record’s most ambitious tune. Musically, it recalls Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings with its spare tenderness. It traces the difficult path Ms. Harper, a white woman, embarked on in the 1960s, when she fell in love with and married an African American man.
“That’s a love song,” she said. “It’s funny, I wrote that because my kids saw their parents’ marriage just blow up and go bad. They have these memories that aren’t so great of their dad. I was just trying to say, ‘There was a time when this was really good.’”
When the couple met, interracial marriage was still illegal in 15 states. Luckily, they lived in California, where they could marry. But that’s not to say there wasn’t equally entrenched racism here.
“It was still against the unwritten law, for instance, to buy a house in Claremont, because of the covenants,” Ms. Harper said.
As evidenced in a 1928 deed for a home in Claremont’s Palmer Canyon, courtesy of Claremont Heritage’s Special Collections, “The grantees further covenant for themselves, their heirs or assigns, that they will not sell, lease, or convey the above premises or any part thereof, to, and will not permit the above premises, or any part thereof, to be occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race.”
“It wasn’t always this easy is what I’m saying,” she said. “And it may be getting harder again. I don’t know where we’re going.”
She was born in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1947. Her parents, Charles and Dorothy Chase, were music teachers, musicians and instrument collectors. When she was 10, the family settled in Claremont.
“I was sort of raised with it,” Ms. Harper said. “I picked up the guitar and started playing.” In those days she and many others performed in the back yard of the former First Street location of the Folk Music Center (now Petisco’s).
When she was 16, she opened for a hotshot bluegrass band at San Marino folk venue The Cat’s Pajamas. At the time, in the early 1960s, folk music was dominated by men playing fast and competitive acoustic music.
“That’s just all there was,” Ms. Harper said. “I was self-conscious as all heck, getting up there in my little dress with my little guitar and singing folk songs. I don’t know if it was a relief for people or not, like, ‘Phew, the banjo stopped!’ But that’s how I got started.”
The musical thread that began with her parents continued on to her. She passed it to her three sons, all musicians, and it’s now made its way on down to her grandchildren. We hear the echoes of Ms. Harper’s past throughout “Light Has a Life of its Own.” They reveal details of a young mother’s previously undocumented inner life and take their place now alongside her family’s considerable musical legacy.
The official all media release date for “Light Has a Life of its Own” is late June, but advance copies are available now at Rhino Records and the Folk Music Center.
Ms. Harper will appear Saturday, May 19 at the Claremont Folk Music Festival at 12:30 p.m. on the Studio Art Theater stage at Sontag Greek Theater, 300 E. Bonita Ave. Tickets are available at the Folk Music Center or at brownpapertickets.com.