Spree Music with J. DiDomizio: Interview with Ben Folds
I became a fan of Ben Folds Five in high school, and ever since then, Folds’ music has found a place in my repertoire: on radio shows, on mix tapes, in my writing. Mixing the right amount of melancholy with appropriate amounts of pop-y sweetness, structured around beautiful harmonies with solid arrangements, Folds’ makes the kind of rock music I always dreamed I'd make myself. Plus there are times when he swears. Part of me—the nerdy, awkward part—appreciates the use of swearing in the face of such high craftsmanship and art. It speaks to the “dangerous” side of rock and roll that is oh-so necessary to be considered, in fact, rock and roll. As dangerous as suburban teens have a right to be, at least.
There’s another part of me that likes to see artists involve their fans, and to Folds that can mean anything from abusing a piano at a show, to making a 14,000 voice chorus, to playing with city orchestras, to releasing a University a capella album, and then making a television show featuring a capella groups. He’s an artist very much in tune with technology and with his audience, as evidenced in his insightful character-based lyrics that seamlessly flow through his catchy melodies.
After six full-length albums, numerous collaborations, and touring that has taken him across the planet--including to Buffalo several times--Ben Folds is releasing a new retrospective this month, covering the last twenty years of his career. The three-disc record will include songs from Ben Folds Five through his recent solo work, and everything in between. I had the opportunity to chat with him about the album and his new season of The Sing Off on NBC.
You’ve just begun the third season of The Sing Off, how do you like being a judge on the show?
I dig it; it's a lot of fun this year. You hear good music unencumbered by a lot of [the] considerations, I think, that weigh regular pop music down. It just has to be enjoyable and moving and doesn’t have to be hip or not hip, or anything really. It’s a really relaxing way to listen to music ... and it's also a pretty big challenge hearing and picking out voices, trying to summarize a general helpful critique that will also inform their possible journey on the show. I find it pretty challenging, but I dig it. I’m listening really hard.
Is that what keeps you coming back, the challenge of listening and the talent?
Yeah oh, absolutely. That’s a dose of medicine that popular music needs. Just people singing together. It's just really good, and it's also great for people to see how many great singers there are. I mean, if you just take a college—take Dartmouth Aires—they’re not all professional singers, but damn if there are more really good singers in that group that I would ever have thought would be at a school I went to. It lets us know that despite the sort of emphasis on people having record deals, and having the look and the message and media styling, and all this bullshit, that actually people sing well more naturally than they think they do. And it's also something you have to cultivate and hone. It's not a thing, it's not easy.
What got you interested in a cappella in the first place?
Realizing my music had found a home outside my records. I always wanted people to cover my music. I began as a songwriter with the ambition of writing songs for other people. As it turns out, there were hundreds and hundreds of a capella versions of my songs every year at universities. When I realized that, I just wanted to capture that, because this was something happening off the radar at the time. We made that record and sold it for a music education charity, and call it a wash, but I really wanted to have that.
I also thought it was really special, there was something really compelling about being in a singing group at a school. There were just so many of them. Not just seeing how many were covering my music but to see how many of them there are. It made me realize something was going on. I wanted to record those groups professionally/not professionally. I didn’t want to smooth them out, make them anything they weren’t. I wanted to capture what it felt like in the process, in the middle of those groups, what’s so socially compelling and musically fulfilling to sing in one of those groups. I wanted the experience to be captured in the way you do field recordings of tribes. Same thing. That was the aim with that record. That led to The Sing Off because it made it onto the radar of NBC and the producers.
Beyond a cappella you’ve connected with a diverse group of artists throughout your career, who all operate a little outside of the mainstream, from William Shatner, to “Weird Al” Yankovic, to Amanda Palmer and Nick Hornby. Do you choose your collaborators? Is there a process that goes into choosing who you work with?
No, it just happens. I’m just open to it, I’m open to it happening. And it will. You cross the paths of the people you’re supposed to, so all of them are sort of circumstantial each time. But there’s something I like to recognize in a collaboration. I like to know that they’re an artistic island, not really part of the scene. I like artistic island people.
Speaking of collaborators, "The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective" comes out this month, and there’s going to be some new material from Ben Folds Five included. How was it recording again with Darren Jesse and Robert Sledge?
It was good, it was really scattered and creative as they are sometimes. I had a lot of ideas I wanted to hear, but they weren’t the kind of ideas you put on a retrospective record. I don’t want to imply that they were greatly radical avant-garde, they just weren’t the kind of stuff you have on a retrospective, that’s all. We had all these ideas left over, so we’re going to go into the studio and play with those some more. So it went really well, it went really smoothly and pretty naturally.
Was it difficult picking the material to include on the retrospective? Was there a certain process you used to determine what went in?
There’s a real process in making the record, and it was really a lot of work. There were hundreds and hundreds of hours of tape. We started out with the general idea sort of what we wanted to do with the main disc, which was to sort of represent my career in each phase. I feel like every time you morph a little bit as an artist, you’re going to do something unique in that time. It may not be the most popular thing you’ve ever done, but I think it's important to make the record all encompassing. And of course there’s a lot of omissions, and we move to the second and third disc, and where we can find songs where there are really great versions of songs, and we sort of piece that together.
Occasionally we would find a version that we liked better than the studio version, so we took it off the first disc and put another song on. So the whole main disc thing had to morph and change along with the other two discs, cause I didn’t want to double up on the material. There’s one song—oddly enough a song we don’t even play live anymore-—called “Julianne” which is doubled up. That’s because there are two radically different versions and I just thought it would be interesting for fans to hear both. One of them came from our first record, which was vaulted. We recorded an entire record and scrapped it, and no one has ever heard it, it has never been released, never been leaked. It's the first time anyone will hear that stuff. And there’s also the beginnings of a record that we scrapped in 1999. Those went into a vault, never leaked, never released, never heard by anyone else. So we have all this material that’s never been heard. So I would say, it's very likely this release, as a major release, probably represents more unheard and unreleased material than I’ve seen before.
You do a lot of touring, for a while you were touring incessantly. You were recently in Indonesia for the first time. Are there any places you’d like to be that you haven’t been yet?
There’s loads of places. And I’m open to taking them on slowly, now. For a while I was trying to cut down on the countries I played, because I just didn’t have enough time to do it. But now, suddenly I’ll take a few on. I’d like to revisit indonesia and Korea, I’d like to visit Argentina, China, Brazil, Vietnam, Israel. A lot of places.
Joseph DiDomizio is a writer, filmmaker, and sometimes a musician. He has been writing about music, movies, books and pop-culture for several years. You can follow him on Twitter if you’d like.