"I think most of the gold was mined out of [rock music] probably in the '60s -- and then I think since then you're just mining for dust now."
"I've never won an award," teases Ben Folds. Right now, he is on stage at Chicago's Riviera Theater, and he is lightly ribbing violinist Nadia Sirota, who won a Peabody Award for her podcast "Meet The Composer". Folds claims to have never won an industry gong, so continues his made-up-on-the-spot song to the delight of the packed crowd. Swearing helps.
Sirota is a member of yMusic, a chamber ensemble who have been heralded in multiple publications for bridging the world of classical music and contemporary pop together, perhaps no better exemplified than their spirited playing of a song Folds rewrites every night called "Rock This Bitch". At various stops on his tour promoting So There, the collaborative album he did with yMusic, he changes the lyrics to fit the city he's at and whatever mood he's in, sometimes singing about how he has a fever but has never canceled a show, other times just talking about how he wants to rock out. Certainly, Folds' jokes and wry humor help welcome the audience in to his chamber-pop world, immediately dissuading the notion some attendees may have that this would be a "regular" Ben Folds concert featuring piano-pounding classics like "Rockin' the Suburbs" or "Song for the Dumped". Some of those songs are still here, mind you, but repurposed with new tempos and lush arrangements to give them an air of the new and unexpected. Again, swearing helps.
Yet true fans of Folds know that the man who composed dorm room classics like "Brick" and "Army" has changed a lot over the years, and in fact it may be his 2008, pop-heavy solo effort Way to Normal that holds the key to everything. Featuring his last major radio hit in the form of the Regina Spektor duet "You Don't Know Me", the album's success appeared freeing to Folds, who followed that set up with an album of university a cappella groups covering his discography, a collaborative disc with writer Nick Hornby, and, yes, a chamber orchestra set with yMusic. Would he agree that Way to Normal is perhaps more pivotal to his career than initially thought?
"I think that's probably true," he tells PopMatters in his backstage dressing room at the Riviera. "I feel like I try to do that with all the records, but certainly -- I think that making a pop record was sort of the intent to succeed with it. It's what you're supposed to do with a pop record: [make it] so that people will like it. It can get really tiresome because it's so narrow, you know? There are a lot of unspoken rules, and I don't think that makes it a less artistic thing -- it's just a more narrow artform. It takes a lot of patience.
"What I just did with yMusic," he continues, "[a] song was charted and arranged in a few hours, recorded in less time than that, and it didn't have to sound like anything. That's what I think rock and roll should be. But rock and roll has become something with a lot of rules about it: it needs to be perfectly in time and in tune, and the computers are used a whole lot. Like I say: I don't think that necessarily makes it bad, but I think most of the gold was mined out of the artform probably in the '60s, and then you'd find chunks here and there, whether it was Queen or Nirvana, and then I think since then you're just mining for dust now."
Although Folds flirted with being a rock star again with 2012's The Sound of the Life of the Mind (his first album to reach the Billboard Top Ten), his work on So There is perhaps more indicative of where his mind is these days, at times optimistic ("Capable of Anything"), at times goofy (the gloriously sophomoric "F10-D-A"), and at times somber and contemplative ("I'm Not the Man"). "That was an assignment for an Al Pacino movie where he was singing," he says of "I'm Not the Man". "I didn't get the song: Ryan Adams did. I was interested in what it was I was asked to do. Sometimes when you step into someone else's life or description, you can kind of sink in a little more."
The response to So There has been encouraging, evidenced by the fact that the 2500-seat Riveria is nearly at capacity by the time Folds and yMusic take the stage. Yet as someone who has been both artist and critic, having been one of the highlights of the judging panel of a capella competition show The Sing Off, one must wonder if Folds thinks there's a lack of appreciation for genuine technical understanding of music, best exemplified by that 2014 Ted Gioia piece for The Daily Beast where he bemoaned that most music criticism had devolved into mere lifestyle reporting, noting in particular an episode of American Idol where Harry Connick Jr. got criticized for using the word "pentatonic" in giving his feedback to a singer. Having been on both sides of the issue, would Folds agree that there is a current "dumbing down" of music appreciation in the current culture?
"I think it's actually the opposite," he retorts. "I think we've dumbed it down really hard for awhile, and I think that there's a reaction against it now, and I think that the newer generations are seeing it a little bit different. I think the dumbing down was a real strategy of, I don't know, the baby boomers of my age. It was a strategy to sell things and get things across. On The Sing Off, they were giving me these notes. The first three episodes were filmed and edited and aired together in sequences, so we had no feedback from the audience yet. The assumption was that every time I said 'arpeggio' or was very musically specific, I got a spank for it. 'cos this is not the work where I'd cut this stuff out. 'Here's your notes, please talk about the relationship between the two singers 'cos they just broke up, this guy's got a surrogate mother, this person grew up in a poorer neighborhood.' What they call 'package notes.'
"I always forgot to say them," he continues. "I mean I wasn't being a dick. I'd get it and I'd say 'I'm gonna say it, I'm gonna say it, I'm gonna say it.' And then they'd sing their thing and I'd go 'Oh fuck, the bass player is flat and the tenor's not gonna know so he's gonna sound sharp so we gotta figure this out.' And then my time is up. Then they'd move to the next one and they're like 'You really need to stop ignoring our package.' So three days go by and I'm like 'I'm about to lose my fucking job.' And then it aired. And when it aired, overwhelming the response was the more technical I was about music, the more people responded. In fact, I got my only ever #1 on Google search, just because people were like 'Oh, that guy is talking about music!' I've never seen American Idol, I didn't know they didn't talk about music. It didn't occur to me."
Yet even with that in mind, sometimes it is indeed the market that speaks in the loudest tones -- the loudest, most confusing tones. When asked about the success of The Sing Off's season three champions Pentatonix, Folds lights up: "Oh, I'm so happy about that. Well it's vindicated too 'cos that was a show that was always on the verge of being taken off the air, and one of the reasons was because we weren't producing a hit. Soon as we produced it, they still took it off the air, so whatever."
Throughout our conversation, Folds veers from the kind of things fans say when they go up to ask him for a picture ("I really do like meeting people who listen to the music and people say 'Hey, I got married to this song' or 'Yeah, this got me through a divorce'") to what music he's currently listening to now ("I came to at least a period of appreciation of a lot of dead composers; [laughs] a lot of dead Germans."). Especially when spurred on by a character song like "I'm Not the Man", some reflection is certainly in order. When asked about summing up his biggest regret and proudest accomplishment in his own life, he's rather candid: "I can't really even recall specifics. I'm not good at favorites and biggest and best. But even one performance of a song or even five minutes is kind of full of hitting the bumpers on either side, you know? 'You're going the wrong way buh-boom! you need to steer back in the middle. Buh-boom! You're on the right way!' Keepin' it in the road is about your intuition, and I think that when I slip is when I think I'm not following my intuition. That manifests itself in little bits and pieces of songs, bits of arrangements, bits of performances, bits of decisions and stuff -- but I never stay there for long, 'cos I felt bad about it anyways, so I recoil. Then you can only do something right for so long because you get a pat on the back for what you're doing but ultimately it's the world around you that changes so you can't keep doing the same thing. The interesting thing is figuring out what you're interested in yet as a musician."
So, pray tell, what are you currently interested in, Mr. Folds? "Well that's the hard part!" he exclaims. "I'm interested in a couple of things and we'll see what pans out. One is a solo piano record but not the normal sort of solo piano record you might think. Yes, kind of a pop 'singing songs' thing, but very possibly even single-note, very arranged almost two-part invention accompaniment, as opposed to like [a] 'Piano Man' accompaniment. I did a record that's just a piano live, and it has a rock thing to it. And this I'm thinking -- it's hard to describe. I hear it, but it's very much arranged. Like if I arrange two hands to be cello and viola and made them to piano instead."
Looking back on it all, sure, maybe he hasn't won any awards. Yet just a few weeks after our interview, Folds was on stage at the Billboard Music Awards to back embattled singer Ke$ha as she thoughtfully went through a rendition of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" to much acclaim. His passion for music still pours into everything he does, making some fans wonder if he's indeed the luckiest, or maybe, just maybe, he is indeed capable of anything.