Art Talk with Ben Folds

By Rebecca Sutton
Ben Folds performing onstage with orchestra

Ben Folds performing live with the Brooklyn-based orchestra yMusic. Photo by Audra Napolitano  

In pop music, where love songs and familiar chords are gold standards, Ben Folds has always been an outlier. Pairing unexpected chord progressions with lyrics that favor particularities over universals, Folds has been a consistent, distinctive presence in music for the past two-plus decades. He first made a name for himself with his trio Ben Folds Five, so named because Folds said it sounded better than Ben Folds Three. After four albums and a number of hit singles, the group dismantled in 2000. Folds has gone on to make six solo records, flexing and testing his virtuosic piano skills and knack for arrangement throughout. He has collaborated with artists such as William Shatner, Regina Spektor, and the authors Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman, and was a judge on the television competition The Sing-Off. His latest project is So There, which blurs the line between classical and rock. The album features eight chamber rock songs with the Brooklyn-based orchestra yMusic, as well as Folds’s “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” performed by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. We sat down with Folds when he was in Washington with yMusic, and talked with him about making a living, his photography practice, and why at the end of the day, everyone’s a hack.

NEA: I know you started out performing with orchestras in school. What brought you back?

BEN FOLDS: I don’t really feel like it’s something I left and came back to. It’s one continuous trip, man. I feel like it was available to me as my career went along, and I’ve taken advantage of it.

NEA: I think for a lot of fans, your orchestral music does feel like a departure. Is there a tension there between exploring different art forms and having artistic freedom and dealing with fans’ or critics’ expectations of what kind of musician you are or should be?

FOLDS: There’s one way of looking at making records which I embrace, which is you shed a lot of fans every time you do it. Some of them will go out loudly, and do some really awesome advertising for you. “You used to be great. Now you suck.” Then they go away, and I don’t think about it anymore.

If you’re not doing that a little bit, I would tend to think maybe you’re doing it wrong. Not that you want to be bringing more negativity—I think it’s terrible—but I do think that it doesn’t make sense that everyone who you started with could possibly, perfectly, exactly grow with your taste and direction. You’re going to pick up people who didn’t like what was done before.

The music business is a complicated place. It’s never been the same in any two decades, and I’m straddling my third. So it means something completely different to be in the business now than it did when I started. I could say, “Well, I started off selling millions of records and now I’m not.” But then, no one sells millions of records anymore, and there are entirely new opportunities for someone now as a musician that weren’t open to me when I began. I couldn’t have talked an orchestra into playing my music in the 90s. Now the world is different and my experience with it is different. It’s all relative.

NEA: Something I find very consistent with your music is that each song is like a short story with characters and an arc. Where do those stories come from?

FOLDS: I see songwriting as story-implying, or at least character-implying. I think what draws me to it is the lack of real estate. You don’t have a lot of time and space to do this. It’s the manipulation of that to imply a story, and then maybe someone [the listener] puts their own story on it. I don’t think that’s really changed for me since I discovered songwriting.

NEA: Can you talk about your creative process and how you pair those stories with sound?

FOLDS: I’m hooked up that way—sounds and notes and music. That’s sort of at the front of my communication brain. That’s my metaphor brain, I guess. So that comes first before I even know what it’s about. That’s my interpretive dance: I start out with lots of melody and music and notes, and I have to figure out what it means. It doesn’t really mean what it sounds like it means; when you put lyrics to music, I don’t think that you’re spelling out what the music means literally, because the words are abstract as well. Then the tension between words and music gives it a whole different thing. So you know, a happy melody that goes “I killed your mother” is just twisted. It means a whole lot of things, and you can sit and write about that guy—what kind of freak he is.

NEA: Do you enjoy that process of creating dissonance between lyric and melody?

FOLDS: I do like that. It gives you another dimension. In a way, while I’m [writing songs], it seems like a bit of a burden. It’s almost like, “Well, I make records with singing-notes so I guess I got to do this again.” But then once I get through the process, I realize that it unlocks even more of it for me. But I like that I’ve done it; I don’t enjoy the process getting there. I think it’s a pain in the ass.

NEA: Do you get stuck?

FOLDS: Well, yeah. I stay stuck.

NEA: How do you get unstuck?

FOLDS: Sometimes it’s putting it away. Sometimes it’s a lot of repetition. A lot of times it’s really backwards for me—the song that is. You know, a bunch of people get married to this one song called, “The Luckiest.” The very last thing that I put into the song were those two words—“the luckiest.” I just had no idea what it would be, and I really was just going to make myself stay in this little studio all night until I decided what I was. [The song’s refrain is “I am, I am, I am the luckiest.”] What are you? Because I knew it was on the tip of my brain. I could feel it. “Oh. That’s it. The luckiest. Oh.”

NEA: You’re also an accomplished photographer. Do you view your photography similarly in terms of storytelling, or do you have a different approach?

FOLDS: I try to, but I don’t think that I’m connected quite as much in that way. The thing is, I still have too much reverence in photography for how you’re supposed to do it. With music, I’m sorry—it just doesn’t occur to me. I’m not interested. I have something that I know I need to hear and the effect that I want to get. I don’t feel cocky about it, like it’s going to be great. It’s not that. It’s just that that’s the way I hear it. If it’s not very good, I’m not going to try and improve it because any improving of what should be is very un-Zen.

But with photography, it’s like, “Oh, I could really improve it if I did that. Oh, it looks like [Henri] Cartier-Bresson used to do it this way. Maybe I should do that.” I never do that with music.

NEA: So it seems like you approach photography more with a critical eye rather than an emotional response.

FOLDS: Well, it’s still an emotional response. It’s just I’m more aware of the artistic pitfalls that lurk in photography. Where in music, no one told me I wasn’t supposed to do something. Or if they did, it just didn’t sink in. So then I’m allowed all these tiny breaking of rules constantly. Which doesn’t end up with something that’s broken rules largely or on purpose—that’s never been my point. But I always knew when I was growing up, that I would tend toward slightly inappropriate. If it was supposed to be this voicing, I’ll take it that way. Not on purpose, but just because I see it that way. I’m aware that, “You’re not supposed to do it that way,” or that someone looks at you strangely if you pop three eighth notes out of nowhere. Where’d that come from? But that’s the way stories are. It’s like someone coughed in the apartment upstairs. That’s life.

NEA: Do your photography and your music influence one another, or do you keep them in separate spaces?

FOLDS: [Photography] only serves to make me appreciate my musical ignorance of rules. It’s not that I’m ignorant. I did a lot of studying of music—I know what you’re supposed to do. It just doesn’t occur to me that I’m on the ledge. After, maybe it’ll be pointed out in the studio. You know, I’ll cram a couple words into something. An example that I can think of is a song called, “Annie Waits.” It has a line that goes, “Maybe he’s been seriously hurt.” It doesn’t really fit into that bar. As soon as I did it, my producer couldn’t help but say what they all say when you do stuff like that is: “Maybe if you took that word ‘seriously’ out you could get that line out.” But that’s the way I hear it. If it was photography, and someone said that, and I would go, “Oh, you’re so right. Exactly, there was too much contrast. Yeah, you’re right. Okay.”

NEA: Do you work differently when you’re collaborating with musicians or orchestras or other artists whether versus when you’re doing your own solo work?

FOLDS: Well, it’s less lonely. But when you’re making music, there is almost always someone else involved. If it’s got my name on it, someone’s recording it—they’re still in the room. There’s still a certain level of communication and collaboration. I still listen just as little to what they say.

But if I collaborate with someone who’s made records that I love, I can’t help it. I’ll tend to give them a pass on a really shitty idea until I hear that it’s not, because I know that what they do leads somewhere good. With a musician who didn’t have records under their belt, I’m like, “No, no, no, I don’t like that. Let’s do something else. Let’s do this.” But if it’s someone who’s been making records, the reason I’m here is to collaborate. I like the results that they get, and so let’s see how they’re going to get the shitty idea to something good. I’m waiting.

And usually, it does work out because everyone’s a hack. We’re all hacks just trying to figure it out. I love this quote—I guess it’s something editors say: “You never learn to a write a book. You only learn to write the book you’re on.” By the time you finish it, you’re an expert making the record you just made.

NEA: Last question. I was surprised to read that you’ve thought about quitting music before. Why, and then what made you stay?

FOLDS: Well, I’m not qualified to do anything else. Coming from a working-class upbringing, making a living is definitely nothing to sneeze at. I feel like this is my job. When I’m not terribly inspired, my latent artist guy, or art student that never got to really be is like, “I can’t be bothered to show up. I don’t want to do it.” Then my muscle memory goes, “This is your job. It’s the way you’re useful.”

I think that the two have really done well together because it forces that inner arty wuss to produce something even if it’s not time. I get really frustrated that way. I don’t like being on the clock. I hate it. But that’s [what it takes to be] professional. The professional has to do it on cue, and the amateur doesn’t. There are plenty of amateurs that are probably a lot better and a lot more talented than the professionals, but they don’t know how to do it on cue. They can’t say, “Oh, take the clock, be inspired.” But with someone like me, well, it’s eight o’clock, and I have to do it. I might not feel like doing it, but I have to do it anyway. You find a method of bringing the two together.