While Ben Folds was here at The Queen Latifah Show performing his song “The Luckiest,” on the soundtrack for the upcoming film About Time, I jumped at the opportunity to chat with him. His band Ben Folds Five recently reunited after a decade apart. Announced on Ben Fold’s Twitter @BenFolds, they reunited for a brand new studio album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind last year and while touring the globe with their new album, they created a live album, simply called Live, which they released earlier this year. Ben and I spoke about Ben Folds Five, Ben’s creative process and what’s next for him.
When I got to Ben’s dressing room, he was sitting silently by himself in the corner of a large and otherwise empty room. I was surprised to find that it lacked the hustle and bustle normally happening backstage. We immediately dove into Ben Folds Five’s most recent release, Live. Ben explained that the decision to make a live album now, versus earlier in the band’s career, was simply based on technology and that recording on laptops makes the process of recording live performances much easier. “When you had to bring a massive studio to the gig, it wasn’t this feasible,” Ben explained, “This way we could pour through 20 performances of a song and find the best one rather than roll up a truck to one show.”
One of the songs that found its way onto Live was the song “Landed,” which Ben Folds released as a solo artist during Ben Folds Five’s hiatus. Ben explained that it was fun to hear the song with the band. “When a band stops, you wonder what a song would have sounded like if it been in the band.” Ben mused, “The odd fan who was very purist was like, ‘that’s not a Ben Folds Five song!’ I mean, it would have been if we had stuck together… I like the way they play it.”
As we began talking about the band’s 2012 studio release The Sound of the Live of the Mind, the band’s first album in over a decade, Ben explained that though it debuted higher on the Billboard chart than any of the band’s previous releases, that didn’t mean much in terms of record sales. “It’s just dying, the business,” Ben continued nonchalantly, “I don’t mind. There are other businesses and I still play music. But as far as selling records, it’s f**ked.” But Ben Folds Five was never in it for the money. They called it quits at their peak because they respected the music too much to make something they weren’t excited about. “We’re not going to make records because we wanted a pay check,” Ben asserted. “We grew up loving records and they’re very sacred and we wanted to make ones that we would be happy with forever. If you’re not happy going to the studio, it’s not likely people are going to be very happy listening to it.” He clarified, “There are depressive albums out there that are wonderful but on some level, even the depressive albums that are wonderful there’s some sense of joy in the making of the album.”
I took this opportunity to ask Ben about his songwriting – the characters he sings about in his songs (Uncle Walter, Michal Praytor, Jane…) and how they reflect his own experiences. “It’s just like a kid in kindergarten who’s sittin’ on the floor and draws a picture of a witch crying onto a dwarf or something under the sun and people are like ‘what’s that?’ I don’t know!” Ben reflected. “And then you realize the witch is the mommy or the teacher. That’s the way that the symbolism of songwriting works, even if you try to get away from it even being literal.” Ben continued that he imagines characters and tries not to analyze it too much, but that oftentimes later it resonates what or who the song was really about. “They all end up being a lot more personal that I realize,” he reveals. “You think you outsmart them…but people aren’t that creative. You spit things back out that you’ve seen in other shapes or forms. You rearrange the patterns or the letters you scramble them up. But you don’t scramble up something that didn’t go in. People who are good at rescrambling it in a way that resonates are artists. Everyone else makes up a really bad excuse for why they lost their homework.”
You may be suprised to hear what’s been turning on Ben’s record player recently. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Rockmonoanof, Prokofiev, Bartók, Shostakovich, Shoenberg, and almost nothing recorded in the last 50 years,” he laughs. “I’ve been listening to that because it’s blowing my mind.” Ben continued in his straightforward unpretentious way, “Sometimes I know what’s out. I don’t feel pressure anymore to look at some kind of list and tell people that I’m listening to something new that I’m not. I used to have to do that – every interview was like ‘name your top 10 new albums’ so I’d just poll a bunch of friends and have them write down a bunch of sh*t and then say it. And I hadn’t even heard half of it.”
Ben continues to have his hands in a million different projects, including judging for NBC’s The Sing Off, participating as an advocate in various music education organizations, serving on Nashville Symphony Board, and owning “Ben’s Studio,” formerly known as the historic RCA Studio A in Nashville and home to recordings from Elvis Presley to the Beach Boys. What’s next for this prolific musician?
“I’m working on a piano concerto right now,” Ben says nonchalantly. He’s booked up through 2015 with orchestra dates for the concerto. “I don’t know what’s after that…but then most people don’t have their life planned through 2015,” he laughs.