Ben Folds

On Nick Hornby, freaking out a poet, and ethnographic studies of a cappella kids

For well over a decade, Ben Folds has been holding it down for the little guy, plainly pounding out lightly produced songs about average folks and their earthly problems. Even in his new gig judging a cappella groups on NBC’s The Sing-Off, one could say he’s standing up for the little guy—the little guy who’s trying to get famous via national TV, but still. On his new album, Lonely Avenue, Folds keeps the message alive with help from like-minded bestselling author and music buff Nick Hornby. Before coming to town for a July 13 show at Ogden Theatre, Folds spoke to The A.V. Club about old-school musicianship, the ethnography of young people, and feeling sorry for the sad, lonely, music industry.

The A.V. Club: You said in the video introduction for Lonely Avenue that having Nick Hornby write the lyrics helped you to “focus on being a musician.” Did you spend more time with the music than you normally do? Are you one of those perfectionists?

Ben Folds: Well, no, not a perfectionist like people might think. For two songs on the record, “Doc Pomus” and “Claire’s Ninth,” I sat with those lyrics, wrote the music, and recorded them all in one day, done with overdubs and everything. That’s pretty quick. And it was all done on tape, so there’s not the usual computer safety net there. That might sound pretentious to people, but in reality, I couldn’t have done it any faster. For me it comes down to preparation—I guess people call that “practice.” Then when you get to the studio, you try it, see if it feels right, and if it’s, “No, that doesn’t feel right,” we go grab a coffee and come back. That’s the way I fret. I don’t really think like, “Oh, that sixteenth note’s out of place.” You know, there comes a point when you practice enough that you don’t have to fret about the things that people would think you’d fret about. I’d rather go get the coffee.

AVC: So you’re not throwing music stands across the studio?

BF: I’ve seen people use all kinds of weird tools to get the results: intimidating and scaring people, pitting people against each other, or saying, “It sounds great, it sounds great, go on home,” and then sitting and messing with it on the computer all week. My idea is to play with the people who you know want to get it right. Then it’s fun and easy to record, and you can get down to details, like taking out cymbals so the verse doesn’t dwarf the chorus, something like that.

AVC: On the song “Saskia Hamilton,” you said this song had “more of a song-like quality” than many others on the record. What did that mean, in terms of working with Hornby’s lyrics?

BF: The way I see it, there’s only one melody for any song. Or, I should say, when I get the lyrics, I could make a lot of melodies—different, unrelated melodies—but there’s only one that really pulls the song out. My job is to be some sort of music/lyric psychic, to figure out that that’s the right song to not fight the lyric. It’s all connected. Looking at these lyrics, I saw how many times the words “Saskia Hamilton” were on the page, and how immature that character must be that he’s in love with a poet for her name, not for her poetry. It took on a boyish, thuggish tone. Nick came back and said, “Saskia Hamilton is a poet, and you’ve made this really brash, fast, harsh song!” And I pointed out that it wasn’t about Saskia Hamilton, it was about the kid. He came back and said, “Oh, you’re right.” It’s hard to explain. Some of Nick’s lyrics are really short-story-like, not very much like lyrics at all, so they require fairly static accompaniment from the piano, and allow the phrasing and vocals to speed up and slow down in its cadence. You know, it’s the same way you read a book to a child, like, “And the wicked witch took the girl and flushed her dowwwwn the toilet all at once and she went out into the ocean!” You can do that when you keep the chords static, and play with the cadence of the singing.

AVC: How does Saskia Hamilton feel about that song?

BF: I think she’s flattered that we did it. She seemed to like it. I think it scared her a little bit when she came to hear it. [Laughs.] I mean, she’s a pretty understated, academic, clean, peaceful person, and I was there and beating the fucking shit out of the piano, screaming her name over and over again. [...] She was a really good sport. We had a good laugh over it.

AVC: As far as rock-star images go, you’ve never really had the crazy, dirty, drug-doing—

BF: Yes, I prefer clean drugs.

AVC: That’s very mature of you. What’s your relationship with your image? Do you wish you were more hardcore, like the narrator in Ben Folds Five’s “Underground?”

BF: No, probably because I’m not that good at dress-up, putting forth a decided image. I just pretty much do what I do. In many ways, I’ve chosen to be plain, almost too plain, too self-effacing. Like, if I record a vocal and I don’t like the way it sounds, I would have them turn it up and take the reverb off it to make it as plain as possible. That was always my instinct, to never look like I was covering something up. Our records are very “plain Jane,” barely compressed, no vibrato in the singing, all the consonants are very pronounced. Like R’s. A rock singer goes [singing], “She was my lovahhhhh!” Right? I put the “R” right in there: “Lov-er.” There’s probably a wave of guys who did that, in my generation, who probably came from the same psychology. But I never felt like putting on sunglasses and hats and leather jackets and stuff in order to put across an image that was supposed to be something I wasn’t.

AVC: So in high school, were you more of the band geek or the notebook-full-of-love-poetry guy?

BF: Maybe a little of both? A closeted version of both, with an exterior that didn’t have time for any of it because I was either working or doing stuff from the mysterious “My Own Thing” file. [Laughs.] But I wrote things that I think wouldn’t surprise anyone if they listened to “Practical Amanda” on this record, or maybe “Brick” [from BFF’s Whatever And Ever Amen] or something more serious. But I kept it to myself. As far as the band geek thing goes, they didn’t really seem like good musicians to me; I always wanted to play with older people who were really good. I didn’t really enjoy being at band-campy things, because they were there for the social part of it and the marching and stuff. I was more into music.

AVC: Based on that, it sounds like a cappella wouldn’t be your thing, yet you put out University A Cappella!, a compilation of college groups covering your songs.

BF: I had this notion when I was young that I would write songs and people would cover them. That even if I were a musical artist, I’d hear other people singing them—the Stevie Wonders of the day, the Dionne Warwicks. It didn’t happen. Bette Midler covered one of my songs, and a couple of groups in foreign territories, but I never became a really covered writer, which I was sort of surprised about. Then I thought, well, maybe—not that my music is that complicated—but maybe my music is a little too much for a rock band to just sit down and work with. It turns out my music is covered all the time by a cappella groups and universities. And I realized that a lot of them are really good, like seriously thought-out, creative, innovative arrangements, so I took an interest.

I also saw it as sort of an opportunity to do something else I’ve always wanted to do, which was field recordings. When I was a kid I was really into National Geographic and field recordings they did from the Caribbean and West Africa. I liked the feeling of capturing people in their environment. So that’s what I felt like I was doing at these universities: capturing natives in their environment. In some ways it’s like an ethnographic study of late 20th century/early 21st century youths of America getting together and singing in groups in their environments. And I have an interest because they’re doing my music. And we gave the money to the charity Save The Music. That project would have kept going, except NBC took notice, and now I’ve become an [a cappella] expert for television.

AVC: How do you feel when you see these young people, for whom singing is their whole lives, growing up in a world and industry where Auto-Tune has become the norm?

BF: There has been an almost unfair bar set for tuning and pitch tolerance. If you listen to a record from the 1960s, the piano is a little out of tune, the bass is a little out of tune, so the singer has this wide range of acceptable pitch. People today are used to hearing everything perfectly in tune—which isn’t even really perfectly in tune, it’s called even-tempered tuning. But people are so attuned to that theory, because that’s what the computer says. The challenge of the TV show is these groups have to be good enough to surmount that. It’s a sign of the times.

AVC: You were recently up for something called the People’s Choice Fave Web Celeb award. Is stuff like that gratifying?

BF: I guess what that means is that my presence on the Internet is equal to or greater than my presence in the mainstream of pop culture. If I were invisible in the mainstream, I wouldn’t be up for it, because I wouldn’t be considered celebrity, so it’s a little of both. I feel fairly fluent in the way that I’m represented in both worlds. A lot of times that’s just luck, because I have an audience that’s ahead of most people in the realm of computers. When Whatever came out, I was signing just as many burned CDs as store-bought CDs. In 2001, that was early to be that far ahead. My friend Josh Groban’s audience is mostly people who still don’t know how to download. His audience still buys CDs, which is cool.

AVC: You never felt like burning CDs was stealing?

BF: Yeah, I’ve always been fine with it; I let people know that right up front. I feel bad for record companies now. No matter what kind of karma they had coming to them, I still feel bad about how they have to scrap to make a living, and how many of my friends have been laid off. [...] It’s not a pretty place. But having said that, I also know how much I made from royalties from record sales alone. It’s not very much. Most artists would be surprised at how much money they make from selling records. So the question becomes “Hundreds of thousands of people will listen to your music, but they’ll be stealing it from your record company,” and you say, “Well, what does that mean to me?” Nothing. Really, nothing. That aspect of my business didn’t make that much, so I don’t care. Metallica said that they care, and maybe they were making more off of record sales, I don’t know. But all those artists who signed those petitions to stop people from stealing their music, well, maybe they should have checked to see how much they were making from royalties first. But it doesn’t bother me, I’d rather have the hundreds of thousands of people hear my music. [Laughs.] To me, having a record company is the way you look famous and important, to let people know that you’re sanctioned by “the man,” and when you go play gigs, it’s like “as seen on TV,” that kind of thing. But I know that stealing music has been bad for people, I’m not going to say I’m happy for it, but it’s not a bad thing for music. It’s a bad thing for the music industry. And those two things are different.