Australian blues musician Harper’s newest album isn’t a Harper album in the strict sense.
Called “Bare Bones,” it’s a collaborative album with fellow Detroit-based bluesman Motor City Josh. What also makes the album unusual is it finds the two artists stepping away from their accustomed plugged in, full band sound on an album that features just Peter Harper’s harmonica playing, Josh Ford’s acoustic guitar and vocals from each artist.
Harper likes the way the album came out.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Harper said of the project during a recent phone interview. “I grew up listening to blues, and I guess over time I’ve changed slightly in my style of writing. But it’s always there, that bluesy kind of feel. So it was nice to get right back to the beginning again.”
For Harper, blues came into his life not long after, at age 11, he moved with his parents from their native of England, to Perth, Australia. In that Western city down under, the budding musician discovered a thriving scene for blues, folk and other forms of roots music.
Harper (who uses only his last name professionally) was still in his mid-teens when he first started playing music professionally. From the start, he focused on writing original music, and he found a receptive audience down under, releasing six albums before his 2005 album, “Down to the Rhythm,” became his first album to be released in the United States.
By that time, Harper had established his presence in the states, He first came over to tour in 1996 and returned multiple times in the years that followed. After landing his first U.S. deal with Blind Pig Records he moved to Ann Arbor, Mich.
Along the way, Harper’s songwriting expanded well beyond its original blues direction. His three albums on Blind Pig – “Down to the Rhythm,” “Day by Day” (2007) and “Stand Together” (2010) – had songs that touched on edgy rock, classic soul, funk and rhythm and blues and even Southern-tinged acoustic rock.
The diversity was a product of Harper’s desire to find his own sound and branch beyond the structures and styles common in blues and other forms of roots music.
But an unforeseen chance to collaborate with Ford at a fundraiser for a food bank in Flint, Mich., in December 2012 sent Harper back for an initial encounter with his early blues roots.
“They (organizers of the fund-raiser) were expecting us to bring our whole bands, but we couldn’t get that together,” Harper said.
So Ford suggested the two team up for an acoustic set instead – an idea Harper immediately seconded.
“We did that and we really liked each other’s playing,” Harper said. “It was funny, after that we went ‘Well, we should do something together.’”
The stripped back guitar-harmonic-vocal approach to the album works wonderfully because Harper and Ford wrote songs with strong melodies, solid playing (Harper’s harmonica is especially impressive) and lyrics that have something to say – whether it’s a good humored tune like “Pot Hole BBQ” (about the quality of Detroit’s potholes) or more serious commentary as in “Hydrogenated Food” or “Just Too Big to Fail.”
Harper and Ford did some touring earlier this year, but Harper is now out doing a headlining show.
Ostensibly, Harper and his band are touring behind his most recent album, a 2012 concert disc, “Live at The Blues Hall of Fame.”
“I’ve always wanted to do a live one. People were always asking for a live CD,” Harper said. “Unfortunately, at the time I was signed to Blind Pig Records, and they didn’t want to do one. They wanted to keep the studio ones going. So when I finished my deal with them – and I love them, by the way; we were not parting as enemies. I really respect Blind Pig. I think they’ve been awesome for me. So as soon as I finished my contract with them, I just went out, and it timed perfectly because we had the hall of fame thing. I thought that’s a great place to be able to record something really special. And that was a great way to have a live CD, just the fact that it was a special time in my career. So it worked out perfect.”
As the title of the live album suggests, Harper recently was inducted into the Canadian Blues Hall of Fame. He enjoys a strong following in Canada, and Florida has also become a touring stronghold for Harper. He said he makes sure that he has something new to offer in his live show - even if he has played a certain city recently.
“I like to change my shows,” Harper said. “I don’t want to be one of those bands that you see, and then 10 years later, you’re still saying and playing the same things. So I always like to keep it fresh. And I think it’s good for the players, too. You can get too comfortable with stuff, and then it looks like you’re just going through the motions. So it’s always good to change things up. And at the moment, I’m trying to write a new CD. So there will be new songs as well coming in. I usually road test them and see how the audience reacts before I’ll stick them on an album. So it’s nice to do that as well.”