An EXCLUSIVE interview
Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ben Folds has been releasing some of the most imaginative Pop records of the past few decades. Since the debut album with his trio, Ben Folds Five, in 1995, he has managed to release a series of albums that combine gorgeous melodies, whip-smart lyrics, inventive arrangements and a deep understanding of what makes Pop music work. Ben’s sound, while distinctive and unique, recalls Elton John and Billy Joel in their hit-making prime mixed with the wistful genius of Brian Wilson and the playfulness of late ‘60s/early ‘70s Paul McCartney. In hindsight, these comparisons make sense because all the above artists used the piano to help enhance their compositions. Many musicians can create lovely music, but songs fueled by a piano just seem to have more warmth and depth. And that is what Ben Folds is all about. All you need to do is listen to his 1997 hit “Brick” to realize that Ben Folds knows how to craft the perfect song. And trust me, there’s plenty more where that came from.
Two decades into his career, Ben is still challenging himself and his listeners. His 2015 album, So There, is not a radical departure from his past work, as it contains another batch of smart, melodic songs that will please his legion of fans. However, it is a giant step forward as well. The centerpiece of the album is the 21 minute concerto – in three movements – performed with the Nashville Symphony. Composed and orchestrated by Ben, it is a lovely and moving instrumental piece that showcases Ben’s talents on all levels. And it is far from pretentious. For those of you wanting to experience a little something closer to the Ben Folds you fell in love with, the album also features eight glorious Chamber Pop songs recorded with the yMusic Ensemble. Deliciously delightful, these first eight tracks feature some of the most beautiful melodies – and arrangements – that Ben has ever recorded. In fact, the album So There is one big ball of beautiful: a stunning release from an artist who never fails to please.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee chatted with Ben Folds the night after he appeared on the first episode of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to discuss his latest release and more…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: So There has just been released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction to it so far?
BEN FOLDS: Really good. I’m going to sound like my friend Shawn Stockman – “I feel like I did my thang!” (Laughs) If there are things that really bother me about something and I don’t like it, then I start seeing and noticing negativity on it. So when you ask me what the reaction has been, I think the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive because that’s how I feel about it. (Laughs) It feels good.
SPAZ: Did you find yourself writing differently for the Chamber Pop songs? Or did you take older songs you had written and re-work them for these arrangements?
BEN: A little bit of both. I did adapt to my surroundings a little bit. I write the way I write and the presentation tends to be the thing that shifts and moves around. The writing on this record is more relaxed in a way because I was quite confident that the presentation would be worth the price of admission. Sometimes, if you’re just writing, you can overbuild a song a little bit. All that means is that it takes longer to get the middle of it – that’s not really a bad thing. It just makes the song dense. My father was a carpenter and he would build houses with about eight times as much wood as he needed to. I feel like I do that with my songs sometimes.
SPAZ: Did you feel that you had to underplay or play differently and leave spaces for the other instruments?
BEN: I do that pretty much anyway. I don’t think I take up that much room with the piano generally. If you listen to my other records, you’ll notice the piano doesn’t take the front all that much. I think that is the same thing that I did on this – I pick my moments. I really love this group and I wanted to be in the group. I felt like I was trying to audition for the group! (Laughs) I would play, score and write well-placed piano lines that were interwoven with them. If you listen to So There, the piano is scored. The only way you can play that song is to print it out for everybody, including the piano part, and you can’t change a note!
SPAZ: Did you stumble across the yMusic Ensemble and then come up with the idea to record with them, or were you already searching for an ensemble when you found them?
BEN: I was looking for classical ensembles, small and large, to fill out the rest of the record – we only had the concerto. It’s 21 minutes and we needed to finish the record, but I didn’t want to throw a bunch of pop songs on this thing. We need to stay in the same headspace. I was getting ready to try out a lot of ensembles and a friend of mine knew yMusic and said, “You need to hear this!” When I heard it, they sounded like my best friends already. When I met them, they were! I didn’t consider any of the rest of them. I had a whole list of contact numbers, ideas, and pieces of music. I threw that all away because I realized that yMusic was it for me. I didn’t anticipate singing until I met them. When we met, I realized, “What I bring to this collaboration is I write stories and songs so why leave that out? Let’s enhance each other.” So, they just made the record for me the moment that they showed up.
SPAZ: Being a multi-instrumentalist, does that help to understand when writing for other instruments?
BEN: Absolutely. When you’re arranging, you need to know something about the other instruments. Orchestration is a whole new level. Arranging is what I’ve always done and orchestration is what I had to do for this record. That requires learning on the job sometimes. I could score an idea and hear it and find that it can’t really be played in a way that makes sense on a violin. I grew up playing with orchestras – that’s where I cut my teeth as a musician. But there are a lot of things I don’t know.
SPAZ: Do you feel that the Chamber Pop songs are more intimate for the listener?
BEN: This instrumentation happens to be pretty bizarre. There’s no bass anchoring things, which is pretty damn unusual and not just for Pop music – it’s pretty unusual in Classical Music as well. I think when you throw a sound at somebody that is not quite what they are used to, it is engaging. And if you can engage, then yes, it becomes intimate. It’s not really because they are quiet string instruments or I’m pouring my soul out or anything like that. My friends have been telling me that it’s my most personal record. I don’t hear it that way – although I think that’d be an awesome selling point. I just feel like it sounds different and so it engages you and you notice it.
SPAZ: It also has a lot of feeling and I think that is the connection and intimate part of the record.
BEN: I think you’re right about that. I tend to over intellectualize after the fact and distance myself a little bit. But you’re probably right.
SPAZ: What did you feel like when you sat down to record with the Nashville Symphony?
BEN: Scared. I’ve played with a lot of orchestras, but this is a difficult piece. You play it live and you can’t go in and fix things like you can with a rock record. It’s not even going to be in the exact same tempo each time, so there’s no guarantees that if you do two takes, you can edit. So, I was on complete adrenaline and trying to remind myself, “Take this very slowly because you have to express every note of this.” I felt really good about it. I came out of it and I didn’t fuck up!
SPAZ: You play so beautifully on the track. But was it hard not to overplay? You come from a rock background…
BEN: I scored the piano note for note. I wrote the piece and came back two months later and had to read it off the score to remind myself what’s on there. I’m not a great reader – I’m a good writer of music – but that’s all I had. When I was playing with the orchestra, I wasn’t going to change a note. A lot of classical pianists – especially composers at the time of Mozart – would improvise the cadenza but I didn’t do that. I composed the cadenza the way I wanted to hear it and I had no interest in changing it. When it comes to the orchestra, when you play more, that actually doesn’t make you heard. It’s about where you play, where you’re scored, where the part lands and what you’ve done with everybody else. Sometimes, I’d have the orchestra really kicking some ass and I’d realize that there was no piano player in the world that could get a melody over the top so I’d have to thin it out. I’d take out the lower brass and thin out the harmonies a little bit and then I could be heard.
SPAZ: Do you have plans to do any soundtrack work or write a musical? This album shows that you certainly have the chops to handle both.
BEN: I think the musicals world is something I was always capable of and God knows that I’ve done a lot of meetings and phone calls about them over the years. I haven’t yet accepted an offer to do a specific thing. I still don’t know why – it’s one of the mysteries of my brain. When it came to writing a concerto, I just did it. I’ve never been offered to score a movie so I don’t see that being very likely. There’s a lot more to scoring a movie – it’s a different occupation. I don’t think that John Adams has ever scored a movie and he’s one of our biggest composers. Either he hasn’t been approached or he doesn’t think that he can express himself as well that way.
SPAZ: Perhaps he scores movies every day but they are just movies in his mind…
BEN: You may have just nailed something when it comes to musicals. I feel like I have musicals in my head. I feel like all my albums are that. In a funny kind of way, that kind of pops a balloon for me – they really feel like a musical, so I’ve done it.
SPAZ: You’ve been in the spotlight for 20 years now – 2015 is the 20th Anniversary of the first Ben Folds Five album. Any plans to celebrate?
BEN: No, I don’t think so. I guess I should have thought about that. (Laughs)
Thanks to Ben Folds
Special thanks to Mike Kopp, Tommy Robinson, Scott Bergman, Joe Bucklew, Dave Garbarino and Nick Kominitsky.