Who is Ben Folds, exactly? Depends on who you ask. To some, he’s an alt-rock anti-hero of the 90’s, bashing away at a baby-grand piano in the era of down-tuned electric guitars. To some, he’s the snarky yet sensible gent behind some of the more touching ballads of the 2000’s. Some might just know him as that geeky guy who seems to live at the Sydney Opera House, with or without an orchestra in tow.
Anyway you cut it, as far as music culture is concerned, Folds has been part of the furniture for over two decades. From his days at the helm of the deceptively-named Ben Folds Five to his more mature moments as a solo artist, Folds has assembled one of the strongest followings an artist could ever ask for. His shows routinely sell out, his songs are known the world over in both the pop and classical music worlds and he’s responsible for some of the most idiosyncratic hit singles on record – from ‘Brick’ to ‘Rockin’ the Suburbs’ to ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and back again. You’ll find many that have been inspired by what Folds does as a musician and a songwriter, but none quite like him – often imitated, never duplicated.
In a few weeks, Folds will undertake a solo tour of Australia unlike anything he’s ever done. Including a performance at Melbourne’s Zoo Twilights, Folds’ entire setlist will be dictated by fans writing down song requests and aiming their planes at the stage with a hope of being picked out. No two setlists will ever be the same – and you might even get a song or two that the man himself hasn’t played in years, if you play your cards right.
Ahead of the tour, Folds spoke candidly and openly with Music Feeds about the nature of collaborating, getting distracted and 20 years of drowning slowly with ‘Brick’.
Music Feeds: Although you ostensibly work under your own name, a lot of the records you’ve made this decade have been, at least in part, a collaborative work. Lonely Avenue was made with Nick Hornby, The Sound of the Life of the Mind was your first Ben Folds Five record in over 10 years, So There was made with yMusic. In the past, you’ve worked with everyone from Amanda Palmer to William Shatner – what is it that makes a collaboration work for you?
Ben Folds: It’s interesting. Despite what my track record may say, I don’t think I’m as much of a collaborator as I might seem. I think the truth is that when you’re making records, no matter what you’re calling it on the front, there’s a lot of collaborating going on of so many kinds. Unless you’re a control freak, and you’re playing all the instruments and running around from one thing to another, engineering it yourself… there’s some sort of collaboration going on there. For me, a collaboration rides on knowing who’s doing what. I have to know who I’m letting into my space, and I have to be comfortable with that. It’s not because I’m a dick or anything like that – it’s just about knowing where it is that I’m free to work.
Take a record like Rockin’ the Suburbs, for instance. I played nearly every single instrument on that record, but I still had my producer with me, Ben [Grosse]. He was kind of like my helicopter. I had to rely on him because it was my first time making a record all on my own – there were moments where I honestly had no idea what I was doing. Honestly, if he was someone famous, the label might have even tried to put the record out under the name “Ben Folds and Ben Grosse”, “The Two Bens” or something! [laughs] Obviously, we didn’t end up calling it that. It was a different story when I made the record with Nick, however – which is funny, because all he did for that record was write the lyrics. It was much less of a collaboration – one all the same, but very different. All of Elton John’s lyrics are written by Bernie Taupin, everyone knows that – but they still say Elton John on the front, y’know what I mean? So I think that, a lot of the time, the perspective on what you’re doing depends on what you call it.
MF: So it’s something that will vary from project to project, even though some appear to be bigger than others?
BF: Right. Making records with Robert [Sledge, Ben Folds Five bassist] and Darren [Jesse, Ben Folds Five drummer], for instance. That’s definitely a bit more open of a collaboration. That’s the way we’ve always come to it, and it was no different for The Sound of the Life of the Mind. I trust them enough as artists and as songwriters to enter my space. For Lonely Avenue, Nick and I just did our thing. I worked with the lyrics as he gave them to me, and he didn’t have any say on a note of that record – and I was quite the dictator when it came to the music on that record. [laughs] It might be the bossiest record I’ve ever made, now that I think about it. I had this ensemble, and I had everything mapped out – it was like, “You do this, you do this, you do this. Got it? Alright, let’s do it.” Sometimes I’d even listen back to some of the takes, pull someone up and be like, “You didn’t do this the way I said!” That’s just how I ran things.
It’s all dependent on the context. On the complete opposite side, Regina Spektor came into the studio years ago. We made ‘You Don’t Know Me’ together. I wrote the song, but Regina sang it in her own way. Because she’s Regina – of course she did. If she draws outside of the lines, then I’m into it, y’know? “Reggie, that sounds great! Keep it up!” If it was somebody else, though, there’s a chance I might not even give them the time of day. Some people might think that’s not fair, but it’s Regina. I love her. I love how she works. If we worked together again and she took it into a different direction than I’d expected, then I’d be more inclined to go with it – just because I know how she works and I know her records are good. If Regina had a bad idea, I’d still move onto the next one. If someone else did, I might close off entirely. It’s about knowing who to trust in your space.
MF: What about So There? Working with yMusic definitely felt quite different to the kind of stuff you’d done in the past.
BF: That was an awesome collaboration. Again, though, it was different. The way we worked there was coming together on the arrangement for the songs. We weren’t really writing songs together, per se. In fact, nearly half of that record is taken up by a piano concerto, which they had nothing to do with. It’s funny when the label comes to me and says it’s been awhile since I put out a solo record. To me, in a way, they all feel like solo records.
MF: Are you looking ahead to another record at this point? After the tour with yMusic, you more or less went straight back into doing solo tours. Do you find yourself writing on the road, or do you have to remove yourself from that environment entirely in order to start working specifically on music?
BF: I think I’m always making something, one way or another. How productive or useful that is, really, is anyone’s guess. I have been really busy of late, though – most recently, I’ve been working with the National Symphony Orchestra. It’s partly creative and partly administrative. There’s a performance element to it, as well. It’s a whole new world for me in a lot of ways. It’s very creative, but it’s taking a lot of my time. I think I’m the kind of person that needs to know exactly what I’m doing at any given time. Otherwise, I just keep making shit.
I went to go get breakfast this morning, and I didn’t end up having time because I got distracted by this field of flowers where I was just taking all of these photos. I got these shots of a bee flying in and landing on one of the flowers – it made for this really beautiful sequence. It was awesome – but noone’s gonna give a shit about that! [laughs] To me, doing something like that is just the same as starting to work on a song – I’m just always making something. The trick is finishing – and that’s always harder than it looks.
I’m sure if you went through my phone and through my computer, you’d find hundreds of song starts and half-formed ideas in there. I really have to set aside time to make them into something concrete – and because my time is so scattered as it is, it’s hard to keep track. I’ll end up having this out-of-body moment after three years, just being like, “…the fuck am I doing? It’s time to make a record!” I think I’m at that point now – so I’ll probably get around to finishing a record sometime in 2018.
MF: In the meantime, you’re currently in the middle of the Paper Aeroplane tour, which will come to Australia in February. The premise of the show is that fans will write down song requests on paper, make it into a plane and aim for the stage. It’s a unique way of getting through requests – similar to the way Bruce Springsteen will pick out signs from the stage that have song titles on them. How did the concept originate?
BF: I remember heading to soundcheck for a solo show awhile ago, and I was thinking to myself about how people will yell out for songs. I’m fine with that, obviously – I think I’ve always been pretty informal that way. It’s impossible to hear all of them from the stage, though. It’s always the loudest motherfucker. For whatever reason, the idea struck me: Why not just launch aeroplanes? I tweeted it out, and that night I got everyone to launch theirs at the same time. It was a pretty spectacular thing to see, so I knew it would be something I’d have to come back to. Eventually, it formulated enough that we were able to make the concept the entire point of the tour. It’s given me a form and a theme to work with – and it’s definitely kept me on my toes.
MF: Have you ever had a request stump you so far? Certainly, there’d be a lot of obvious requests in there – stuff like ‘Brick’ and ‘Landed’ and songs like that – but have people thrown some curveballs in their aeroplanes?
BF: Yeah, a lot! I have a book in front of my piano that has the sheet music for about 50 songs from my catalogue that are a little more obscure, and since doing the tour I’ve found that there must be at least another dozen or so where that came from. One was so out of left-field, I’ve even forgotten the name of the song they requested – needless to say, it was not a hit [laughs]. I kind of faked my way through it, though – I think I did pretty well under the circumstances. For the most part, though, it’s been pretty good. I think the audience understands what it is I’m trying to do with the tour, and I think it’s kept pretty much everyone happy.
It’s really interesting that you mention ‘Brick’. We honestly have not gotten many requests for that across this whole tour. I’ve done this tour in the States for maybe six months, and I’ve done ‘Brick’ maybe three times so far. People always say “Oh, you must be sick of playing that song.” The reality is that is has barely come up – I don’t know why.
MF: It could just be expected at this point – for a lot of people, that song was their introduction to you back in the 90’s. It was your first major mainstream hit. It’s 20-years old and it’s still being talked about – that says a lot.
BF: At the same time, though, I honestly don’t even play it all that much these days. The curious thing about my shows these days is that I have parts of my crowd that is really familiar with one era of my music and no idea about the other. There are people that would respond really loudly to ‘Brick’ but not so much for, say, ‘Landed’ or ‘You Don’t Know Me’. Vice versa, too. The new audiences come in waves, generations come and go. I’m honestly happy to play ‘Brick’ now. I wasn’t for awhile, because it was our biggest radio hit for a time. These days, though, it feels like a bit of an underdog.
BF: Whatever and Ever Amen turned 20 in 2017. How do you reflect on playing songs from that era now – especially something like ‘Brick’, which was such a risky song to release as a single given the context in which it came out initially?
BF: For the most part, I think it’s held up pretty well. Those songs don’t feel particularly ‘throw-back’y to me, if that makes sense. It’s a good thing. What 20 years has shown me is that building a song can be a lot like architecture. Having the inspiration and the motivation is one thing, but a lot of it relies on the tightness and the construction. If you build it well, the work pays off. Things hold up. That’s what it feels like. You have writers that have their work described as ‘timeless’. I certainly wouldn’t attribute that title to myself, but I certainly aspire to do that. That would be something at the top of my list as a songwriter.
Noone stays the same for four or five years. That’s a long time ago, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Say the first thing you discovered of mine was ‘Underground’. If you were in college when ‘Underground’ came out, then you could have teenage kids by now. If you’re younger, maybe the first thing of mine you heard was ‘Landed’. That’s nearly ten years after ‘Underground’. They could be the offspring of someone who heard the first Ben Folds Five record. Or what if you were in college when ‘You Don’t Know Me’ came out? You would have been six when ‘Underground’ was released! It’s important to take all of that into consideration and into perspective.
MF: You’re definitely at a point where your audiences would be majorly cross-generational. You definitely have a career that has lead to a lot of different musical and generational intersections.
BF: I’ll look out at any given audience and I’ll see kids as young as six. They’re there with their parents. I’ll see teenagers. I’ll see folks in their 70s. It’s crazy. I never once thought that I’d be signing autographs for someone that’s 70 or someone that’s six. When you’re starting out, it’s all about that magic age group – the one where it’s all about mating. [laughs] It’s not Gen X, Gen Y, anything like that – if you’re at an age where you’re mating, you’re going out to rock shows. That’s who you’re playing for! When you’re starting out in bands, that’s all you see and that’s all you play to. As you get older, you see how much more is out there and how many more groups of people appreciate your music. The main thing is to ensure you don’t keep trying to play for the same audience. Unless, of course, you start mating again. [laughs]
Catch Ben Folds bringing his one-of-a-kind ‘Paper Aeroplane Tour’ across Australia this February as well at the Melbourne Zoo Twilights concert series.