Q&A with Ben Folds on his concerto 

Ben Folds on classical music, writing, table manners and anthropology

click to enlarge Ben Folds - NUVO FILE PHOTO
  • Ben Folds
  • NUVO file photo
Ben Folds is a man of many words, many collaborations, and many instruments. 

His newest album “So There” is a collaboration with NYC-based yMusic, creating a three-movement concerto. It was originally commissioned by the Nashville Symphony, the Minnesota Symphony and the Nashville Ballet.

We spoke with Folds about how the album came to be, his writing, table manners and anthropology. You know, the bread and butter of any conversation. 

NUVO: What was the personal story that developed for you while you were writing it?

Ben Folds: Well I mean I had to figure out how to write it. There’s a certain amount of artistic problem solving because it was a big undertaking … I think that after I took the journey where I ended up with it was kind of disregarding that and thinking about the expressive part of it. And kind of enjoying jets freedom of being an outsider in it. There’s a lot to say about how this gets done. It’s a long form where you are developing a melody or a lot of melodies for a long time. It’s different than pop music where we tend to find a winner and just repeat it for three minutes.

NUVO: How does that translate to your writing? When it’s more about the longevity.

Folds: I think in my world, in Ben’s world, most art is about some sort of storytelling. I don't know if that’s how everyone sees it but as a song writer that’s always the way I see it. There is an image or motif around it and that’s kind of what it is. You know half the thing in “classical” music and the story is how the melody is actually developed. That in itself is a story. With pop music you don't really get the chance to go that far. it’s about the development itself. It’s like it shot a blank and it developed to great heights. That’s what we recognize in it. Where you know maybe some more confident composers like Tchaikovsky for instance, his first piano concerto is a fucking hit song. It’s from the top, if you know it, it’s the one that goes like (sings a few measures). It’s a fucking hit. He treats it like a hit, like “yeah I know you want more of it but fuck you,” and he stops and he goes onto something else. That’s very pop music. That’s something I can kind of understand … It’s like he posted on a forum where a bunch of people were posting memes and he posted half a meme and people were like “wait, what’s wrong with this guy?” That communication you know …

I got to make this piece not in a vacuum. I got to make this in a very real world. Where I think a lot of composers are forced to make their pieces in a vacuum. In other words, I knew I was going to have a premier for the concerto that would be well attended and people would pay tickets to it. So that gives me a story right there. You are sitting in the audience and waiting for a rock guy to step up totally fucking fail, like most do, or surprise you. You know I think that’s exactly what the concerto ends up being about. That’s the story. Whether I was aware of it or not it was about writing for that gig. That gig turned into six, which turned into nine that were sold out. Within a month we sold, I don't know, 12,000 tickets to see this thing. That’s really exciting. But to me it was like “oh, that story’s over” but as it turns out I put it on the album and now out touring it means different things as I go along. But for me even though I wasn't conscious of it at the time …

As your sitting at the table as a working class kid, like I was, and insecure about what’s the fucking salad fork … where’s the glass go and stuff like that … In that case, I think the best guest is the one who is just honest. So if the guy is sitting there at your table is low class and doesn't know what to do, the best he does isn't try to act like everybody else, they will find that charming if he is just himself … In retrospect that’s where my instincts came from to write the piece. But then all this static and fog and stuff when you are writing something like that in terms of the orchestration … it’s such a long form thing that you are just in the weeds for months, just sorting out orchestration. I tried to get 15 seconds of orchestration done per day. No idea what kind of clearing I was going to come into. And in fact in the third movement, I actually did that and it was really fun. Boom! There was a harmonic clearing that just happened. Like woa, that’s cool, here we are on the moon and it’s growing flowers, this is good, I like it. That was kind of my trip.

NUVO: People around you anticipated that the concerto wouldn't be received well by the classical world, and so far few of the reviews have been extremely negative. Did you expect such a positive reaction? Do you think that the classical world is typically more critical than the rock world?

Folds: Well I think it’s complicated because I didn't really run into the middle of the classical world with this. We are selling tickets for this, a lot of them, to my audience. The orchestras are happy; they’re selling tickets they wouldn't normally sell, so classical music is getting a little bit of attention and a boost. And I think that would disincentives them to really rake me over the coals. If I came in and said I was the next John Adams that would be another thing. I didn't really think about potentially what a scary thing it was until I emailed Billy Joel about it about who had done a project of that magnitude … I was just curious what his experience was like. Do I put this out on the record? It’s nice to get advice rom a guy who does a lot more than you. I was surprised to hear that it was kind of like, “no you get your ass kicked for this.” I was like, “oh really, wow. I didn’t think about that.” I saw his album cover and he was really going right from the center of it though. And he has sold so many records as a pop artist. I guess he is more wide open to a certain kind of criticism … They don't tend to do that with my work as much.

NUVO: Did you have any specific aims in crossing over to the classical idiom? Does you feel that this work is rooted in his pop music identity or is this a significant departure artistically?

Folds: I think it’s me. I mean it’s pop music. It’s called a concerto because that’s what was commissioned. If I called it “love pop” or something like that it … maybe would be less vulnerable to criticism … if you call it a concerto you can hear the arms folding, sitting back in the chair saying “okay bitch let’s see what you've got.” That wasn't really my idea. I was commissioned to make that. But I think if you take the name out of it it’s a piece of music. It has three movements, but it doesn't necessarily adhere to all the things you would expect that it does. Someone could say I blew them off and someone else could say, he knows it and there is a reason. I don't know … I took it where I thought I should.

NUVO: Do you think this writing style is going to translate back over to your pop albums?

Folds: It could … I mean the last thing I did always affects the next thing in someway. There is a possibility of me just making a solo piano album for the next one. Butte difference between the way I might have done it before and now I might carefully compose some of the piano so it’s not the kind of piano music that needs lyrics. It won’t always be rolling chords, eight notes and octaves in the left hand like you expect a pop writer to do. But I can now imagine much more arrangements from the piano…

NUVO: You have mentioned how much of the concerto is derivative, and people have said they can hear your music and style in the first few measures, what elements did you feel were uniquely you?

Folds: I think I have melodic style. I think if you are really in touch with that you can go, “oh that’s probably that guy.” I think if you listen to the third Ben Folds Five record and delete the vocals you can hear a lot of the concerto style in my piano playing that’s been behind it and some of the illustration. Every record I have made has a lot of that instrumental music. If you were to string them all together you might come up with a piece, I don't know. And be like, “oh it’s a really immature version of the concerto.” But it’s a melodic thumb print, it’s a DNA. We all have our strengths. If you are the point where I can put my music out and people listen to it, it’s safe to say I am doing something right. But there are a lot of things I am probably not doing right as well…

NUVO: How has this classical work shaped you as a person? We have discussed as an artist. 

Folds: That’s an interesting question because you normally hear it the other way around. Usually it’s where am I and you do that. But I think it actually does work that way, like you are suggesting, sometimes too. I feel more sort of, I don't know the word’s not confident necessarily, but I feel more comfortable in my artistic skin at the moment. And I think that's the result of doing something that really took a lot. It might not seem that dramatic from the outside, but we all know as artists what it takes and what it doesn’t. And that record does … I am probably greedier now in all forms of life; oh I can get away with that, I can get away with that. If I can get away with this on a record, I can get away with this in a restaurant. So maybe a little bit like things are becoming more and more obvious to me — like that’s a choice, let’s do that. Like where I live and all these things. They are all affected by when I make things. When you are making a song or an arrangement you can make it far too complicated, too many considerations. It can be kind of hard to see, but you have one choice, there’s your path and you did it. So I think that can apply abstractly to your life. I am not really a beard person, but I didn't feel like shaving when the record was done … It wasn't an option to me before, and now I’m like, “eh, fine. Maybe I’ll do that.” Maybe those things are part of the whole scene.

NUVO: When you are writing songs, do you set aside time everyday to write?

Folds: No. Never. I should. (Laughs)

NUVO: What are you reading or listening to right now?

Folds: I am not really taking all that much in at the moment. I am not listening to anything. I was reading an anthropologist named Robin Fox and a little bit of, every once in awhile when I get on a plane I will dip into this book called Some, because I like that. But I don't have my ear to the world much right now. My schedule is just so overloaded with shit. I have a hard time turning it the other way. But when I do I get really interested. But at the moment, yeah, probably The Tribal Imagination by Robin Fox, anthropologist talking about incest and stuff like that. Not going to interest most people probably, but it should. It explains a lot — certainly everything from elections to business. It’s pretty interesting. I like seeing things through the eyes of anthropologists.

NUVO: Why do you enjoy that so much?

Folds: Well it takes into account the visible for us. I know about a hundred years of history before me, and I think Jesus was around and people lost their heads. And you have kind of a general idea of the drop in the bucket shit and then there was the thing that made people tick, for God knows how many millions of years this was building up as we evolved into humans. That kind of explains things more clearly than trying to draw, or make some kind of mixture out of the last 10 minutes. You can understand a little more that anatomically modern man is walking around … was created over a long period of time and hasn't adapted to what we call a novel environment yet. So we made our own environment. We are the only creatures that do that. Everyone else lives with what they got … But then we don't actually know how to navigate it. We just set up in a way we might make some money. 


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Emily Taylor

Emily Taylor

Emily is the arts editor at NUVO, where she covers everything from visual art to comedy. In fact she is probably at a theater production right now. Before joining the ranks here, she worked for Indianapolis Monthly and Gannett. You can find her thoughts about Indy scattered throughout the NUVO arts section and... more

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