Joseph Arthur (Vocals, Guitar, Bass, Organ) / Ben Harper (Vocals, Guitar) /Dhani Harrison (Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards, Bass)

As I Call You Down

There’s a song called “With Whom You Belong” on Fistful of Mercy’s debut album that sums up the simple, but affecting sentiment behind As I Call You Down — a nine-song collaboration among musicians Joseph Arthur, Ben Harper, and Dhani Harrison. A stellar tune that plays out between heartily strummed acoustic guitars and exquisite three-part harmonies, “With Whom You Belong” is about friendship, and, fittingly, it closes out the album. “While we were making the record, we all became good friends,” Arthur says. “The album is the culmination of those relationships.”

Spend time around these three and their easy camaraderie is readily apparent. They banter like brothers and finish each other’s sentences. The album they’ve made together under the moniker Fistful of Mercy is shot through with that engaging chemistry. Deeply melodic and willfully groovy (thanks, in part, to world-class session drummer Jim Keltner), As I Call You Down shines with the aforementioned guitars, including some killer slide from Harper, and those undeniable harmonies. It’s the sound of three very experienced musicians, each used to running his own show, coming together and having a ball.

So how did Fistful of Mercy come to be? Arthur, a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and accomplished painter with a decade-long recording career, and the two-time Grammy Award-winning Harper had known each other for years, and had often discussed writing songs together. In January 2010, Harper joined Arthur onstage at Arthur’s show at The Troubadour in Los Angeles and the two decided to get something going. Meanwhile, Harper had befriended Harrison, whom he knew from a skate park the two both frequented. “Ben had no idea who I was when we were finally introduced properly,” Harrison says. “He recognized me as ‘that guy from the skate park.’ But I used to ditch school, get high, and listen to Ben Harper records when I was 17.”

Harper admits he hadn’t recognized Harrison at the skate park (“I wasn’t looking at his face, I was looking at the bottom of his board,” Harper says, “the guy’s a badass”), but had heard him interviewed on the radio when Harrison was promoting You Are Here, the 2008 debut album from his band thenewno2. “Dhani’s music was amazing, the interview was amazing, and something hit me,” Harper says. “It was a feeling you get when you hear something you know is going to represent something else in your life somewhere down the line.”

Harper and Arthur (who had never met Harrison at this point) booked studio time at The Carriage House in Los Angeles and Harper invited Harrison to come down. “I thought they had a record done and that maybe I’d turn up and play some acoustic guitar and do a bit of backing vocals,” Harrison says. “So I arrive the first day and met Joe, who’s sitting on the floor with five pedal boards, a sampler, and a sequencer, and I’ve got … a ukulele. I’m like ‘Shit, I thought this was an acoustic record? What are the songs? Maybe I should learn them before Ben gets here.’ And Joe says, ‘Oh, we haven’t written them yet.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean you haven’t written them yet? You’ve got an engineer [Sheldon Gomberg] sitting here ready to go, and you haven’t written anything yet?’ Then Ben walks in and says, ‘Right, let’s write this record.’”

“We had one line: ‘You love like I love,’” Harper says of the lyric that begins the album’s title track.

“That was it,” Harrison says. “We started there.”

The odyssey had begun: Three days, nine songs — three songs per day. Because of the time crunch, Harrison would give them each assignments and they’d each go off to their corners to write. “It was okay to reject people’s ideas,” Harper says.

“So our big man egos were kept in the back seat,” Arthur adds.

Harrison: “It was definitely an open forum—”

“—which is rare,” Harper finishes.

The first day yielded the album’s first trio of songs, the plaintive “In Vain Or True,” “I Don’t Want To Waste Your Time,” and “As I Call You Down.” The second day found them switching gears, kicking things off with the rollicking “Father’s Son,” which Harrison calls the album’s “jug-band jam track,” followed by “Fistful of Mercy” (which they chose as the band’s moniker after realizing that only a handful of bands named their group after a song), and the instrumental “30 Bones,” featuring violin by Jessy Greene, who plays with Arthur. On Day Three, the psychedelic “Restore Me” was recorded, along with the trippy “Things Go ‘Round,” and the emotionally resonant “With Whom You Belong.”

At the end of the initial sessions, nine songs had been sketched out with vocals, guitars, occasional bass, and bits of production on top. “We thought that was going to be the record,” Arthur said, “but Dhani was pushing for it to be more.”

“I’d never done anything like this before, and I thought that with a bit more effort, it could be this incredible, world-champion kind of record, rather than just an acoustic thing,” Harrison says. “It could be up there punching heavyweight.” That’s when the group hit on the idea to bring in Jim Keltner to play drums.

“He’s the god of the whole thing,” Arthur says of the veteran session musician, who has performed on albums by a seemingly endless list of artists such as George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, and The Rolling Stones. “Jim is the Dalai Lama of the drums, straight up,” Harper says. “He’s one of the most important living musicians, and he graced us with his connection to Dhani.”

“The night I called to ask him to do this, we spoke for three hours,” Harrison says. “We were both crying, and he said, ‘Not only do I love this record and would love to do this, but I have all these ideas.’ Sure enough, when he came in the next day and started playing, everything changed from the first hit of the drums. Joe said, ‘Now I’ve got to play the fucking bass.’ It opened up a whole world of possibilities.”

Those possibilities are fully realized on As I Call You Down, which will be released on October 5th on Harrison’s label Hot Records. The three musicians plan to tour together and are already incubating lyrics and ideas for a follow-up, though each has his own solo albums in the works.

“For me, the reason to make a record like this is to be on an album with Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur,” Harrison says. “That’s why I turned up, because I love their music, and to be involved is improving my musical repertoire. It was a no-brainer. Why would I want to be on this record? Why would I do this? Because they’re awesome, and I like that.”


[August 2010]