Ben Folds is not your typical rock star.
In scheduling our recent phone interview to discuss his current tour, I was a bit surprised when he agreed to chat just after 9:00 in the morning—justified or not, professional musicians are stereotyped as people who like to sleep late.
Then again, few things Folds does are typical.
The man probably needs to get up with the sun to make hay on his constant and diverse stream of projects—in addition to releasing albums, Folds has composed music for film and television, collaborated with Nick Hornby, Regina Spektor, William Shatner and “Weird Al” Yankovic, and even served as a judge on NBC’s The Sing-Off.
His latest album So There, released in September 2015, takes a sharp turn away from Folds’ familiar sound. Backed by innovative classical ensemble yMusic, the album features a full concerto for piano and orchestra, as well as eight other tunes Folds describes as “chamber pop.”
Folds and yMusic are now on the road in support of So There, performing cuts from that record as well as favorites from Folds’ entire career.
During our chat, Folds described how he dove head-first into to the classical genre, some future projects he’d like to tackle, and what it’s like to create songs spontaneously onstage.
Writing your “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” must have been a daunting project. You spent most of 2013 working on it.
The daunting part of it is, if I’m in my head too much, that tends to stop me cold, and it’s easier to get in your head writing this kind of music. I thought, ‘am I another rock and roll musician trying to look important somehow by making a long-form piece of music?’ I would beat myself up. And then, of course, you stop writing. But since I had a commission and a contract, I had to finish it. (Laughs) That was a blessing.
Were you surprised by how people have embraced So There?
I don’t know how much more successful I could have expected to be with a piece of music like this. It’s really done well. It charted for a long time on the classical charts, and I haven’t gotten terribly beaten up about it by critics. I’ve performed the piece certainly more than I expected. When a new composer has a long-form piece, they may expect to see it played three or four times in a year, not 25 or 30 times. I expected to get beat up a lot more by the classical types, but that didn’t actually happen. I wasn’t marginalized and laughed off the stage. That emboldens me that the next time I go into it, I can envision all kinds of freedom.
I think one of the reasons people embraced the album is because the authenticity shows through. There are other pop and rock artists that attempt to incorporate classical influences, but they usually just take their own sound and slap some strings on top of it. You went all in.
I think what’s really difficult not to do—and I feel rock and roll musicians get beat up for this—is to become affected. If someone becomes famous for something that they do, they have command over that. Then it comes to writing a classical piece, and they start to imitate Chopin, or they imitate whomever, and they suddenly lose their own voice. I think my audience recognizes that they can hear all my melodies in the piece, so it does have my voice in it.
The concerto to me, as I play it, now seems like it has a story of some kind. And that story seems to be, “rock composer writes a piano concerto.” I know it sounds really basic, but a lot of artists have had the same story. I think Queen’s career was that story. With A Night at the Opera or “Bohemian Rhapsody”—when you think about the operatic style that was inside them, it was like rock musicians dressed as classical musicians. Electric Light Orchestra had pieces like that. Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend” is essentially a piano concerto that begins an album, and it affects the gestures of classical music. And for me to make a piano concerto, it was going to be referential, but it had to be referential in a way that was me.
So, do you feel you’re going to continue in this vein, and write another concerto, or “chamber pop” album?
I always have so many things that I want to do. Right now, I’m listening to all these spontaneous pieces from my shows, that I call “Rock This Bitch.” I make up a song every night, and it’s always prompted by the audience. On tour with yMusic, sometimes we make up two or three. Every night, yMusic and I fell into a really interesting style of spontaneously making these songs, and there’s something about that I want to pursue. You don’t normally hear a small chamber group playing off-base like that. Even our record was all scripted. It was all written out. It’s not like we’re “1-2-3, let’s jam!” (Laughs) You typically don’t do that with violins and ten trumpets.
But we’ve been listening to all these live recordings because we’re going to put together a live record, and those [unscripted] pieces are particularly interesting. Another thing I would like to do is compose classical music for universities, so that college kids have original pieces composed just for them by contemporary artists. But all of these projects take so much time.
Speaking of other projects, here in New York City, the musical Hamilton is all the rage right now, and it was recently announced that you’re involved with the mixtape that Lin-Manuel Miranda is doing for the show. How did you first get involved with that?
I sang with Regina Spektor, and we recorded it about four months ago. It was mostly her project that she got me in on. She just called me and asked if I would come down to the studio and help her record the song. She sings it beautifully, she’s so good. But I finally saw Hamilton, and I don’t need to say it’s great. Everyone knows that. From the moment the curtain comes up, you know it’s great.
Getting back to your spontaneous live pieces, how do they typically come together?
There’s no rule of thumb to it. If the crowd yells out “Rock This Bitch,” I have to do it. I’ve done it at every show since 2002. [When the crowd yells], I just have to start. I look down at the piano and my fingers start going. The songs are all roughly three-and-a-half minutes long; they have a chorus, verse, bridge. Also, because the nature of orchestration is generally to build, during the first verse the band isn’t really sure they should all play. Then as they get confident, they bring it in, and that also gives you a rise in your orchestration or arrangement, in a natural way. I think it’s a really interesting study in creativity, because you never would build songs that way if you were in private. You’d stop playing after a few seconds. But live, I’m held to it.
I’m thinking of going into the studio with it, but don’t know how to capture the inventiveness and spontaneity. It’s not spontaneous when you’re doing it in the studio. There’s nothing to hold you to it. Maybe there’s a component you need, like maybe it’s being webcast live at that time, so you know you have to build it a certain way. There’s something in that, because I’ve never heard an ensemble improvising in that way. It would be an interesting record, like we’ve never heard before.
That’s the whole thing about art—right when you think you understand it, something changes. It’s like turning the lights on, and the roaches scamper and you can’t quite get them. How elusive the creative process is makes it all the more interesting.
Ben Folds will perform with yMusic at the Beacon Theatre in New York City on May 4, and The Fillmore in Philadelphia on May 6. For more information, go to benfolds.com.