Ben Folds is a musician that has followed his heart since day one. From the meteoric rise of Ben Folds Five and beyond, he has made an indelible impression on many forms of music out there today. If there’s one thing I’ve gleaned from speaking with him, it’s that he is one of the small group of open-minded chance takers, experimenting with all available outlets on his journey of creation. From a capella to symphonic manipulation, Folds has a handle on what it takes to break the mold, be successful and still continue following his true passions in music. His latest collaboration with writer and novelist Nick Hornby is rich and filled with life’s great texture. Lonely Avenue is the name of the disk and Ben graciously took a few minutes to discuss it here.
Lonely Avenue with Nick Hornby reminds me of the Sinatra team up with Rod McKuen on 1969’s A Man Alone. Was this record an intentional move of putting two different types of writers together for that contrast or something that just happened off the cuff?
I think probably more off the cuff—there aren’t many people I would entrust with writing lyrics for a song; they’re important to me and Nick is one of my favorite authors, so it was a real natural thing from a process point of view to have done this. And I could have guessed that he was going to bring interesting things to song lyrics that would be quite different from your average lyricist.
Was it difficult to work within the parameters of each other’s style without being tempted to tweak or change things?
No, I think that if Nick and I get an A plus on anything, it’s the process. Regardless of how good the songs came out, and I think they came out really well; we didn’t step on each other’s toes, we didn’t argue and we completely trusted each other, and our respective departments. We both understand that while Nick is not a musician, when he gives me a lyric and there are inherent cadences and rhythms inside it, he has contributed to the music. He has set forth parameters that have been influential in music. And likewise, when I take something that he’s written and put it in a musical context, I’m really shaping the way someone’s going to take in his words.
It’s interesting to note that while Lonely Avenue is available on CD, it was recorded for vinyl. Do you think demand is increasing or are records something that you grew up with and felt passionate about?
I was so into records from the age of two years old. I used to listen to records eight hours a day. So when my record player broke one day… I ran around it counter-clockwise singing the songs. (Laughs) I’ve always loved records; there is something about them. I associate them with what a real song is. It must be on a piece of vinyl or plastic. There is resurgence but quite honestly the music business is so depressed that you can’t really say that there’s any kind of viable market in selling them. I’m just thrilled that its come back enough that people will try to press it and distribute it. I don’t know how long it will last but as long as it does I’ll put my eggs in the basket of making it sound good on vinyl because that means something to me.
I’ve read that Saskia Hamilton was flattered about the song bearing her name. What about Levi Johnston (Bristol Palin’s baby daddy) and his Levi Johnston Blues? Ever get a reaction from him?
We don’t know about Levi, I mean, you know, he’s in the machine. And there’s no telling how far buried into that machine he is. I don’t know if he’s heard it or not, and if he has, I don’t really know what he’s allowed to think about it. But I would want him to know that he was used as a symbol of growing up, and damned fast.
We don’t know him personally and there’s very little about the song that’s specifically about him. None of it is a reflection on his personality, but even the fucking redneck stuff… those were his words on his MySpace page. And that is there because that’s what 15, 16-year-old bravado does. If I had a MySpace page when I was 15 I would have written the same thing; ‘I’m a fucking redneck, don’t fuck with me’ and all that stuff.
How did you get involved in NBC’s a cappella competition The Sing-Off?
Well, they got in touch with me, because I was showing some interest in getting
a capella music out there and I had made a record called, University A Capella with university groups covering my music. One of the producers that sung a capella when he was in college had noticed that almost all of the university a capella groups had my music in their repertoire. So, I don’t consider myself to be an expert, but I am a record producer and I have sung and arranged vocals, so for the show, I look at it as that I’ve been in the hot seat before and I want to help these singers get better through my experience. Even if someone gets kicked off the first night I want him or her to leave feeling that they got some good feedback, some encouragement and were inspired by seeing the other acts, you know? Go home and work on it and not feel bad about it, that’s why I’m there.
I’ve always been a Shatner fan, how did you end up producing his 2004 release, Has Been?
I had worked with Bill one time before and we got along well; he was doing a spoken word thing and I also did a Priceline commercial with him at one point. I think that we got along because he loves music—and he eats directors alive—and I was giving him direction and we were somehow just getting on great. He was taking what I was dishing out really well (laughs). And I really respect him, probably as you do, I respect what he means, and his talent.
I only wanted the best for him. So when he called me for advice on his record that he was about to do I think my advice was that I wanted him to tell the story with dignity. I was afraid that they were going to manipulate him into being a clown and I didn’t want that to happen. Yes, he’s gonna be funny no matter what he does, he can’t help it. And in the studio I fought really hard to keep the takes from being comical. I didn’t want him to be a character of himself.
The whole time I would be thinking to myself, “Holy shit, I’m working with the guy who played Captain Kirk!”
Yeah, well, he’s that guy. Funny though how it works, because I’ve met many famous people, but some people I just can’t come to grips with it and I act like a fucking fool the whole time! But with Shatner, for some reason, we just seemed like old buddies when we started working and have always sort of had that rapport.
You’ve done some interesting things like conducting members of your audience as they played their cell phone ring tones, and writing songs about social network site Chatroulette. Do fans give the prankster side of Ben folds enough slack to run amuck these days?
Well, honestly the word prankster doesn’t fit at all. People love new and interesting surprises. And if you could set up a surprise, then as long as it’s not at someone’s expense then to me that’s just generous. I think people take themselves too seriously, at least musicians do. They’re very afraid of their persona not being exactly what they manipulate that to be. But my fans give me plenty of room to do these things and create surprises. As far as the music world in general, I catch a lot of crap for it. I think that the songs get judged by some fairly shallow sorts who like to put on their “musical critic caps” when listening to what I do.
I think those people overlook the art and craft of songwriting simply because they’re hung up on the fact that they feel like someone’s wrote a “novelty” song. If they were around in Mozart’s day they would have really had a hard time with that guy! He was just running around with fart jokes all the time and now we know, in retrospect, people are finally out of his ass a few hundred years after he’s died. (Laughs) I don’t compare myself to Mozart at all, but I just think when you’ve broken a mold a bit and you have a sense of humor, you’re going to catch some flak. My fans are cool with it. But the world in general, and the music world in particular are very uptight and narrow-minded. Critics might need to loosen up a bit.
Ben Folds will bring his Lonely Avenue Tour to the Beacon Theatre in NYC on Dec. 14. Lonely Avenue, features 11 songs with lyrics written by Nick Hornby and four stories also by Nick Hornby. For more information head over to benfolds.com.