Ben Folds Does the Best Imitation of Himself: An Interview

Ben Folds
The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective
Sony Music

While I wait for Ben Folds’ publicist to connect me to the venerable singer-songwriter-TV personality, I wonder what Folds is up to in those few minutes of down time he has. Is he writing another of his trademark, sardonically pithy songs that manage to sucker-punch you while you laugh hysterically? (Check the line about the diapers in his gorgeous love ballad “Cologne” from Way to Normal.) Is he doing something relating to The Sing-Off, an NBC show devoted to a cappella singing troupes? Is he having another correspondence with Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity and About a Boy (among many others) about another collaborative album? Is he reuniting with the other two members of the Ben Folds Five (yes, that makes three members total)? Is he staying up all night with the likes of Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman to record a record in one night, entitled Nighty-Night, billed as being by 8×8? Or is he coaching William Shatner for an appearance on a follow-up to his Fear of Pop Vol. 1 album?

The answer is probably D) all of the above. Or building a rocket or curing cancer with a single teardrop or something like that.

Ben Folds has such a work ethic that it’s hard to believe that there’s anything he couldn’t do, musically or otherwise. Moreover, he has integrity that has allowed him to remain humble and candid throughout his career, whether it’s with his breakthrough 90s hit “Brick” or with university a cappella groups all across the nation covering his work. He takes pride in his work, of course, but never loses a sense of humor. And he often that fuses that humor with his hard work. For example, to ward off leaks of Way to Normal, he recorded a fake version of the album, including some real songs and some intentionally bad songs, which he leaked himself with a black skull on the cover. Not every musician would spend that much time trying to pull one over on the music industry and fans alike.

Not every musician is Ben Folds, who has been around a long time. He’s played solo, with his aforementioned trio The Ben Folds Five, and in The Bens, which is comprised of himself, Ben Kweller, and Ben Lee. He’s performed with orchestras and produced albums, including Amanda Palmer’s solo debut, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? He’s toured with Tori Amos, even serenading her with a “Happy Birthday” he pounded out on her trademark Bösendorfer in 2003.

Now, Legacy Recordings has taken a slice of all that action and crystallized it in the form of The Best Imitation of Myself: a Ben Folds Retrospective. The retrospective is available in several forms: one can purchase only the first disc — which is primarily a greatest hits disc — or one can purchase a whole three-disc set including a live album, rarities, demos, and three new songs recorded by the Ben Folds Five. There is also a vault of 55 songs unreleased songs available online to buyers.

When Folds finishes saving the world and answers the telephone, he is ready to share wisdom accrued from his impressive career (the first Ben Folds Five record was released in 1995). Folds has a realistic but still optimistic view of what’s happened to the music industry during his remarkable tenure:

“The music industry has just turned over. I suppose it’s a little like dropping a glass on the floor and the shards go everywhere. It’s like that. It’s blown up. It’s not a bad thing. I don’t equate the music industry with music or the quality of music. The music industry is the distribution of it. The irony of it is that we have a system that makes a smaller globe. It makes the global village happen. The real effect of it is music listeners are more splintered because there aren’t as many effective filters. Everyone is getting their music from all kinds of different sources. You can go to a million different online radio stations, have access to radio stations from anywhere in the world, so you don’t need record companies selling music. No one can keep up with everything. So the effect that it’s had is that I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t feel like they can keep up. It used to be there was a chosen number of acts. It’s more democratic but more splintered. I don’t think that’s a good or a bad thing. For me, I feel like I’ve surfed it pretty well.”

On the subject of the past and future merging, I am curious about the three new songs the trio penned for the retrospective. While they are definitely new, they don’t sound out of place among the old gems that made Folds and his bandmates famous:

“When you’re given the task of reuniting a band that hasn’t been together in 12 years in order to make extra tracks for a retrospective record, it made sense to stay in the mindset that a retrospective record is in context. It’s a retrospective record; they needed to be songs that say something to the past that look back. You don’t want three songs on there that are jarring and suddenly it’s just like the future. They wouldn’t have any context. And we did get together for the three days we were in the studio. We did quite a bit of hashing out seeds of ideas I had and so many of them sounded like a new album. It didn’t sound like a retrospective record. So our challenge was to make three songs that made sense [in] place on a retrospective record. Which we didn’t feel like we were shitting out B-sides or anything like that. They needed to be quality enough, and they also needed to be cognizant of the joke of trying to compete with the joke that they’re trying to compete with your very best material. You write and arrange and record song after song after song, and even after a three-disc set, I feel like I’ve only gotten a portion of those songs. There is an inherent sort of joke in there. But I personally think we did a sincerely good job of doing songs that had a ‘look back’ feel to them and are dignified on the record, give people an extra something for buying a record. And it led to our decision to go back into the studio and start to hash out some of the songs that I’d brought in, because that did feel like a new album.”

Given the wide berth of Folds’ body of work, selecting tracks from his repertoire must have been difficult, especially considering his numerous side projects. He found himself having to choose songs he thought represented his career the best, rather than songs that were necessarily the most popular or biggest fan favorites. One such inclusion is the song “Still”, originally from the Over the Hedge soundtrack.

“Sometimes, as an artist, you just go, ‘I know that song or that piece means something.’ It may not be the thing that you’re famous for. It was a selfish inclusion. It was me going, ‘I think there’s something to it.’ Even from a technical songwriter’s point of view, it’s very very simple. Would I submit it to a songwriters’ competition or something like that? I don’t think so. But there’s something about it that feels good and feels real and I remember the time in my life and how it felt, and there’s a lot of brilliant, simple moments that in the world we live in, are not going to be given a fair shake. But, yeah, people don’t sit at the concert and yell ‘PLAY STILL!’ They sit there and yell, ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit!'”

However, the inclusion of certain songs meant the exclusion of others. For example, no songs from Folds’ side project Fear of Pop, Vol. 1 (which features the aforementioned Shatner song) appear on Best Imitation. On that subject, Folds reflects:

Fear of Pop — I found that collections like that, or the collection of fake songs from Way to Normal, the William Shatner stuff … once I started to consider those, suddenly the meat and potatoes of my songwriting had to be left off the record. I had to narrow myself. That was a choice that I came upon after trying to sequence things in. It’s a process you’d see if you spend three months choosing and sequencing, and if you’d been in a room for three months sequencing, you’d understand, and you’d be, like, ‘Oh, I see, and that means this and this and this and this don’t get to go on the record. Well, that’s kind of weird. That doesn’t make sense.’ Those things can be addressed later. They are side projects. I would have loved to put some Shatner stuff on it, I would have loved to put some Fear of Pop on it, but the answer is just to make another Fear of Pop record. I’m a songwriter and I’m going to leave my example of this point in my career. That can get overlooked in a lot of ways; to me this was a lot about songwriting.

Folds also did not include one of his more recent, more remarkable collaborations: that with the world-famous fiction writer Nick Hornby. Folds and Hornby decided to work together on a record, and the result was the one-of-a kind Lonely Avenue, which is infused with as much playfulness (see the lightheartedness of “Saskia Hamilton”, a love song to the poet, Ms. Hamilton) as it has poignancy. Was it hard for Folds to let go of control of the lyrics? He cites what Sylvia Plath poetically referred to as the “courage of shutting up”:

“Not when you’ve got Nick Horny writing the lyrics! He’s just so good. His books are all over the world and they’re a part of a lot of people’s culture. They shine and resonate in seas of books. They just sparkle. When someone’s as good as he is, you can take it for granted. But when you start working with a guy like that, fuck! He’s just great. It’s like, ‘Wow, you’re serious about that! You’re good! It’s good!’ Like there were times when I knew he wasn’t experienced in how to cadence when a chorus would come or something like that, but it had nothing to do with the writing. It just had to do with the different between writing a book and writing a song, because there certainly are some. That’s the long answer. I don’t have a problem if Nick’s writing the lyrics. I needed to back out of lyrics for a little while. Sometimes I feel like it’s time for me to shut up. It was time for me to shut up.”

While Folds has maintained a dedicated fan base over the years, he has also made new fans since appearing as a judge on NBC’s talent show The Singing Bee, and venture which he says has taught him a lot about music:

“I’ve learned a lot from The Sing-Off. The first thing I’ve learned is how many talented singers there are in every walk of life. Part of the new world here — talking about the Internet and how many more acts are out there. And they sell fewer records but more people have access to obscure things, and the central services disappears where you have 40 singers recognized in the western world and those people have publicists and a stylist and videos and stuff. These people are going to move on to be scientists, science teachers, bankers, doctors, and stuff, and they’re out there singing better than professionals. They’re so good! Unbelievable. I don’t know how the show gets those kinds of singers. I think it’s something about how the show works together, and it’s not about being a diva, it’s not an ego-driven thing. But one after another, you’ll see groups sing two or three times in the show, and then all of a sudden, some guy that was in the back will just step up and be gorgeous, just sing his ass off. These are the kind of people that, if they were just in a singing competition, they’d be winning, but on our show they’re just standing in the back. What I’ve learned is there’s something about the ego and ambition, which have gone too far, and if you let people open up their mouth and sing, and they’re open to it and they’ve been dedicated to the art, you’ll just hear amazing things one after another.”

Despite all the goodies currently available for Ben Folds fans, old and new alike, perhaps the most exciting project of the year is still ahead for the ever-prolific Folds. While recording the three new songs with the Ben Folds Five for the retrospective, the band found they had a lot more to say, and they decided to say it on an upcoming record:

“We’re gonna record and make an album. And that’s a good thing. Anytime you have something to offer, that’s a good thing. We’re hitting a point where, if we don’t do it, we’re kind of being stingy if that makes sense. We’ve got something in us. We should do it. That should be out there. That’s our modus of operation here. Just be generous, get together, make this music, see what to do next. We don’t have to follow this up with a tour, we don’t have to make another album, we don’t have to do anything. All we have to do is be good, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

Knowing Folds, the band will far exceed the modest standard he sets for them to “be good.” And that will just be the start of things to come.

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