Ben Folds is a singer-songwriter, and in many ways is sort of a bridge between the first generation who bore the title from decades ago by virtue of his innate knack for killer pop hooks and contemporary music fans who value a quick wit as part of the big picture. Folds, a celebrated lyricist, took time out of his busy schedule to chat with PopMatters about Lonely Avenue, a collaboration between himself and author Nick Hornby. This unique album saw Folds write music around the e-mailed lyrics of Hornby. The end result — which took 18 months from conception to completion — is terrific pop music, with the co-conspirators’ fondness for cleverness very much at the fore.
Folds, a supremely gregarious interviewee, talked about how the album came together, what fans who come to the shows might expect to see and hear, and some of the other musical endeavors on his very full dance card.
I’ve had a number of listens to the album, and I’m really enjoying it.
Thank you. That’s always nicer than, “I’ve heard your album, and I enjoyed it.” It implies it’s never going to be heard again.
So, you and Nick Hornby kind of talked this project over during dinner and it actually came to fruition. Is this the first time in the history of the world that two friends have talked over a scheme over dinner and it actually came through?
It could be. We were a little bit underway by the time said dinner occurred, so we sort of knew we were going do this for a while. We had discussed doing it, but it was just a matter of nailing it shut and having some resolve to do it. It’s so easy to say, “We’re going to do it,” and it never happens. I think the first time we sort of discussed it was years ago, sometime around the William Shatner record [2004’s Has Been], but you look up and five years are gone. We originally were going to make the record in three days, that was kind of the original idea. But of course that theory didn’t pan out. It took us 18 months with touring and Nick’s collecting awards and movies and all the things he had to do.
Certainly you’ve had your fair share of accolades as well. Are the two of you going to pick up some awards for this album?
I always joke that I kind of stop the awards and break people’s winning streaks. We did this album to try to do something unique in our careers at a time where we could afford to not really be attached to the outcome, if that makes any sense. We would be very happy if anyone has anything nice to say about our record, but we had the luxury I think to, you know, let this one be what it was going to be.
Was there a topic where you went to Nick ahead of time and said, “Don’t give me anything about that”?
No, there were no rules or real direction. I think I said one time that I would really enjoy hearing what you happen to be thinking about on that day or moment as opposed to broader topics. Not that we had too much of that, but he was nailing some biggies. But that’s when he turned around with the song “Doc Pomus.” It’s a big topic, but more narrow. It’s something he does in his books all the time, and I just thought it might be a time to do that. Otherwise, no. There wasn’t any real direction of that sort.
Did you get any lyrics that surprised you?
They all read like Nick Hornby books. He’s got such a style, and that’s why people identify with him, I suppose. He’s just got such a thumbprint. Pretty much I would just open the lyrics and think, “Wow, this is cool. I’ve got a mini-Nick Hornby book before anybody. I’m cool!” He’ll nail an angle sometimes in some way you wouldn’t have thought about, but that’s something you expect from him, so that’s not a surprise.
Did he ever tell you after you came back to him with music that maybe you could have done something differently, or maybe that he wasn’t pleased with something you’d done?
There are two songs that come to mind I think that he wasn’t expecting to come back the way they did, but for the most part I think he was thrilled. He would send me an e-mail, and then the very next day, usually the next day, he got an mp3 with some portion of the song, sometimes almost all of it. Of course there was a lot of recording to do, but he was getting a tape of what it was going to be. I think he was really pretty excited most of the time. But there were two songs, one was “Saskia Hamilton,” and I think at first he kind felt was noisy. He didn’t say that really, but I’m perceptive enough and I could tell it really wasn’t his cup of tea. And he didn’t quite understand why I took this sort of almost new wave approach on the song. Later on when he finally met Saskia Hamilton over e-mail, he was very excited because she used to play in a punk band, so suddenly it made sense, even though I didn’t know she’d played in a punk band. I got lucky. Eventually, I think what happened, is the song became easier to listen to as I fleshed it out. And he listened to it, and so we kind of met in the middle, and I think he likes it now.
The other one was “Practical Amanda.” He expected an up-tempo song, which was sort of, he said, “ala ‘Kate,'” which is a song I’d written on a Ben Folds Five record. It was sort of, “Boy, she’s a great girl. She smokes pot, how cool is she?” Nice things to say, but a lot of little jokes. And I took his jokey song and made it very serious, which sort of made the singer sound a little weaker and made it sad. And I think he was a little queasy about that at first, but he realized it was a good song. As Randy Newman says, “You’ve got to run over your grandmother for a good song.”
“Levi Johnson’s Blues” doesn’t really sound like it was written by an Englishman.
He’s good like that, isn’t he?
He seems to have tapped into a very American redneck prototype. There are rednecks all over the world, but he really had a way with the lyric of that one.
Luckily Levi wrote the chorus for us. That came from his MySpace page. That’s what fascinated Nick was the bravado of the MySpace page pitted against this guy who was basically scared out of his wits stuffed into a tuxedo in front of everybody at the Republican National Convention. That’s growing up fast and very publicly, and that’s total Nick territory. He wasn’t going to watch the political part, he would have been more, “Wait a minute! Stop the tape! Who’s that kid back there?”
Is there a single song on the album that really encapsulates what you were trying to do, or maybe accomplished what you tried to do more than any other?
I don’t think so. It takes me a while to know down the road what the classics might wind up being. I find it really easy to play the song “Picture Window” live. I can feel that it translates quickly even though it’s not the simplest thing, it’s fairly wordy, but we got it right in a way I think both of us are comfortable with. For us to accomplish that at the same time as the backstory, the subtleties and harmonic changes. We do a lot of thinking, the both of us, and it should make us happy that this song, despite the craft and the thinking, moves people and it works. And that’s what we set out to do.
Do you feel as though Lonely Avenue tells a complete story?
If it does, I’m not aware of it. The two things I wanted to do was, one, make it a collection of songs and not a thematic record, but then I wanted it to flow as an album. Now, everyone says they want records to flow as an album, and a lot of people seem to be up in arms about the ability to download one song, or to pick one off a CD quickly. I’m not fussed about that, because I think that we don’t always make albums. Sometimes you make songs. This one I wanted to make an album, because I feel that you’re going to get … it’s respect, if nothing else. When you read Nick’s books, you sit down and you read them. You don’t just pick a sentence out of the middle of a chapter. And I wanted to make the album work for him so that people would feel comfortable sitting down and listening to it like a vinyl record. And, you know, you take a break in the middle, go grab a beer and turn the record over and listen to side two. That’s what I wanted it to be, though not necessarily with a storyline, but a flow that would invite you to the end of the record.
You mentioned how technology has given people maybe a bit more power, and they’re just downloading single tracks sometimes. How much of that have you personally taken advantage of?
I think the best of both worlds eventually happens. I try to make records so they flow as albums, but I’m not too precious about it generally if they pick out their moments and download those. I’m the same way. Sometimes I really love a song, and I don’t really connect with the rest of the record. Or maybe it takes me five or six years before I realize, “Side B is really good.” I listen to something just for the intro.
Was there anything that was left over for B-sides?
We have one B-side, which is called “The Christian Life.” For him it’s a vicar who is just sort of going through the motions these days. He figures it’s not such a bad idea, because he helps old ladies and dispenses cake. But he doesn’t sit around thinking of the afterlife anymore. He goes and watches the ballgame and gets on with his life. One of the lines is, “You don’t have to buy Bruce Willis as an alien.” Why do we have to buy the vicar? That’s what that one is about.
And then we have one other one that I really liked that we didn’t even record because time ran out. It’s called “The Sound of the Life of the Mind.” It’s just about someone’s imagination about the sounds inside their mind, and I really liked that one.
Now that you’ve put it all together, do you feel as though this is maybe something that you’ll do again with Nick, or is this a one-off?
It was such a natural way to work that I would imagine that we’ll probably do it again. When it was finished, I didn’t feel like we’d passed it. It almost felt like we’d just gotten warmed up. It’s a good feeling, because sometimes you get to the finish line on a record, even good records, and you just go, “Thank Christ. I’ll never be able to do this again.” This time around, I couldn’t wait for class to begin again.
Were you conscious of the Minutemen album when you put the cover together? Double Nickels on the Dime is such an iconic album cover, and I wondered if that was in your mind?
Wow, how about that? No, I’m not aware of that album cover. I’m aware of the Minutemen, and what’s the bass player’s name? He’s really funny.
Yeah, Mike Watt. Yeah, I’ve seen him out and about for years. Don’t know what he’s up to these days.
He plays with the Stooges.
How are you going to tour this record? Is Nick going to come out, warm the crowd up?
Juggling? The only thing we managed to do together is the Pomplamoose song (“Things You Think”). We did that after the fact because we both like Pomplamoose. We might perform together on TV once or twice, and we might perform in bookstores. But for the most part, this album will end up reading sort of like one of my albums that happens to have Nick Hornby lyrics. The songs speak really well like they are. Had we written them another way, and that was a possibility when we were discussing the record to begin with, it could have been anything. We were going to have Nick speaking and other singers, but it just ended up being what this is.
How much of the tour is going to be this album and how much will be some of your older songs?
I always kind of do anything. Sometimes I’ll frustrate everyone by not doing any old stuff for a couple of weeks, and then I’ll stop doing album tracks and do all oldies. It’s whatever is sort of inspiring. I would imagine we’ll stick on the record a lot, because I really dig the record and we haven’t performed it since we recorded it, so I’m likely to be excited about it while it’s new.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to change tracks a little bit to a couple of other things. Tell me how the Ben Folds Presents: University a Capella! album came out.
People had sent a few YouTube links to groups doing a cappella versions of my songs. And this goes back a long way. Occasionally we’ll get a cassette or CD or something from a cappella university groups covering my music. But it must have hit critical mass, because I’ve noticed a lot of it. In the “related music” category there’s even more. There are hundreds of them. Immediately I thought, “This has to be a record.” Some of this stuff is really moving. They’re the only people that have taken the time to cover my music besides Bette Midler and Yellowcard. So I thought, “This will be a charity record, and I’ll go out and record these groups, a la National Geographic field recordings from the ’70s.” It’s their natural habitat. We recorded them in their dorms, their cafeterias, wherever we happened to be able to capture them. I feel like it’s exciting to be in an era where kids are singing together so well with no one telling them to do it. They’re just doing it, and I just feel like that’s really cool. So I just went out as a documentarian, and as a songwriter of course I’m just happy they’re covering my music. And as someone who just wants to give back a bit, I wanted to give money to music education to help further that art form.
Was there a particular group where they really surprised you?
That could be said about all of them. There was one group who covered “The Luckiest”, and they had a singer who’d become a science teacher since they’d done the YouTube video, so they had to track him down. He’d moved to another city. But his voice was so Art Garfunkel angelic and ghosty that I thought we needed to have that guy back. Some of the discipline and the groove, like the group from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Spartones was almost like military, but really impressive. There was a group from St. Louis who did “Still Fighting It”, and I just thought that was really strong. We picked one group that had done a really produced and computerized version of the song “Magic.” I just thought this was something that could not be reproduced live, and I thought it was a good example of something you could do with technology and voices. Sorry to keep going on about this, but there was another group that did “Selfless, Cold and Composed”, the Sacramento State Jazz Singers, and that was just so amazingly re-harmonized. What makes me happy about this is that they’re everyday people who are going off to be science teachers and stockbrokers and whatever else they’re going to be, yet they’re so good. Some of the things they brought out of some of my songs that maybe some would find it cheesy, but it doesn’t strike me that way. To me it sounds like people singing and bringing something out of the song that I might not have thought of. I’m excited as a songwriter.
Has The Sing Off made you more recognizable on the street, and if so are people coming up to you and singing in your face and trying to get you to give them your opinion?
Nothing like that. TV, give it about three weeks and it’s out of sight, out of mind. That was the case with this. We did that show, and for about three weeks I was getting stopped everywhere. Three weeks later I’m back good as new.
You’re doing the show again, so it’ll happen again.
Yeah, it’ll happen again, but that’s okay. There’s a lot of people saying something I never thought I would hear: “Hey, you’re Ben Folds of The Sing Off!” I’m from The Sing Off like it’s a planet. It’s usually families, a little older, and they’ll ask if I make records myself.
How did that come about?
The producers of the show have been interested in a cappella for a while. It looked like it was time to do it, and they got it all together and were looking for experts.
Are you happy to be a part of this?
I’m very happy. I’m in a position where I feel like I’m not hung up about anything, and I don’t have as much to prove. Doing something like The Sing Off, going in and saying that’s not in tune, that’s in tune, I think it could have been better, I’m proud of you for trying, whatever I can do, it’s a good gig. Maybe ten years ago I might have been touchier about it. My knee-jerk reaction was, this is a reality kind of TV show and I should say no, but then I thought about it and thought, “Why not?” And I’ve had such a great time doing it. And the second season has been great. We started working on it, and I think it’s really good TV now.
What’s coming in the future?
Almost anything that happens at the moment, I’m sort of going with it. I spent last night and this morning in the studio with this kid Ethan Bortnick, who could be described as a prodigy on the piano. I felt compelled to see how his head operates, and I wanted to show him some maybe irresponsible things to do on the piano. And he had a blast. By the end he was playing the inside of the piano, muting the strings, and playing the microphone with a shaker. He’s so good; he’ll just sit there and play 200 classical pieces in a row by memory.