STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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His piano-based, guitar-less alternative rock music with Ben Folds Five (which is actually a trio) showed strong jazz potential.
Ben Folds’ concert performances with various orchestras over the past 11 years suggested that maybe he had some classical composer chops in him. The 2015 album “So There,” recorded with backing by the lauded New York classical sextet yMusic, featured both a three-movement concerto for piano and orchestra and eight songs of Folds’ goofball brand of pop that alternates between introspection, melancholy and sarcastic humor (For example, one of the songs is called “Phone in a Pool”).
When asked if the new song “Not a Fan” was inspired by real-life relationship conflict, he said in a phone interview that it was inspired by a couple that came to see him at a signing event. “The guy says: ‘I’m not a fan, but my girlfriend would like (something signed).’ You can see the potential tension there. There’s this jealousy — jealousy of things the (other) person likes,” Folds said.
In taking the six-member yMusic on tour with him, Folds said that he’s found it necessary to downsize from his standard grand piano. “I use a smaller piano to highlight what’s amazing about the group. My emphasis is on the ease of the connection (with yMusic),” he said.
Going on the road with the ensemble also presented the challenge of arranging his songs from the ‘90s for them. Ben Folds Five numbers he’s having the most fun performing live right now are “Erase Me” from the 2012 reunion album “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” and “Steven’s Last Night in Town” from the platinum-selling “Whatever and Ever Amen.” The latter, said Folds, “becomes an epic, often 10-minute song.”
At the time of the interview, Folds had returned from dates in Europe, which were memorable, he said, because of the audiences in Amsterdam. He described it as rediscovering what it’s like to make it big in a country you’ve never been to. “We turned 3,000 people around very fast,” he commented.
It was every bit as exciting as 20 years ago, when he was a second stage act during the Lollapalooza Tour. “That was fun. Lollapalooza was right for us,” Folds said. “The Ramones were on (the main stage) the last 15 minutes of our set. You’d hear: ‘1-2-3-4!’ (Johnny Ramone’s trademark, rapid fire count-in that linked almost every single song together when that band played live).”
A more recent career highlight for Folds came when he appeared on Daryl Hall’s “Live from Daryl’s House.” “I got to play in a way that is outside what I’m precisely known for. Daryl Hall, man, what a (expletive) great musician he is,” said Folds, adding that he found it charming that Hall wasn’t super-familiar with his music and therefore took subtle artistic liberties while performing Folds’ songs, such as “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” during that episode.
Among Folds’ many other collaborations, as a producer, pianist, songwriter or arranger: Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, Sara Bareilles, Weird Al Yankovic and … William Shatner? Folds was heavily involved with the actor’s 2004 spoken word recording “Has Been.” “He’s not literally musical, but there’s musicality in his delivery. ‘Let’s do … a very exciting number’,” Folds said, imitating Shatner’s oft-parodied staccato speaking mannerisms. “There’s an instinct inside the madness for sure. With Bill, when you move him at all it stops working.”
Folds was also a judge on NBC’s competitive a cappella show “The Sing-Off.” Unlike the dramatic tension depicted in “Glee” and the “Picture Perfect” movies, a cappella singing teams are actually “freakishly well-behaved,” according to Folds. “The Sing-Off” ultimately got canceled, he theorized, because “it totally bucks the reality show formula.”