Roy Harper, new album ahead, discovers youth – and vice versa
After decades as a critically acclaimed but fringe figure in music, British singer-songwriter Roy Harper is suddenly finding himself in demand. Aged 72 and some 50 years into his career, Harper has been “discovered” by the young – drawn by his complex, intelligent lyrics and his persona as poetic outsider.
Where once he was embraced by the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin – he sang “Have A Cigar” for the former and had “Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” written about him by the latter – he now counts new-folkies like Fleet Foxes, Joanna Newsom and Jonathan Wilson as ardent fans. Newsom, a 31-year old Californian harpist and singer, went as far as to persuade him to appear with her at the Royal Albert Hall in 2007 and to play his most popular album, “Stormcock”, in its entirety.
Harper is now about to release his first collection of new songs in over a decade, the perhaps aptly named “Man and Myth”.
“I thought I had retired,” Harper told me recently, saying he had been happily working away building a garden in his Irish home and cataloguing his life’s work. “I was in one world, but the next world had found me, so I had to respond to it. That meant gathering my wits and going forward with a new record.”
He is also back on the road with concerts lined up in London, Bristol and Manchester in October.
Harper – who is celebrated in part for his refusal to seek commercial fame as his ’60s and ’70s contemporaries did – expresses little surprise that a new young audience, much of it on America’s West Coast, has found him. “Every generation searches for something to inspire them. It is just the same as I would have been as a younger person looking at those older people like Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis,” he said. “For some reason or another that’s the kind of modus operandi that exists between young and old.”
Indeed, there is a part of Harper – shoulder-length white hair and all – that thinks of himself as part of that young generation, a group he sees as coalescing culturally until it breaks off into nuclear units to have children.
“They have statements to make when they are all together… That’s the phase that interests me. That’s the phase that can make a shift in human culture. I do think of myself as being a member of the youth culture, although my looks would belie that. I am 18 until I look in the mirror – and then the horrible truth dawns.”
The new album, to be released in late September, is classic Harper, full of poetic musings such as: “The punters gather at prime time/On the flat screens of their dreams/To vote for dumb celebrity/And witter into gathering storms of universal screams”.
It will be his 23rd studio album, added to around as many compilation and live releases. He was also on a generation-defining sampler called “The Rock Machine Turns You On” in 1968, along with the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and The Byrds.
Harper says there is a certain maturity to his songs these days that comes with age, but that basically not much has changed since he was a child. There is a consistency of vision, he says, and all he does is add to it as an artist might add to a big canvas.
“(The vision) is based on what I think of as my own primitive criteria. I am pretty much the same person as I was at six. I have just added to that,” he said.
(This is an edited version of an article I wrote for my regular employer, Reuters)