The story goes like this: Ben Folds and Nick Hornby were having dinner one night and they decided to make an album together. Simple enough, right? Hornby, perhaps best know for penning High Fidelity, would write the lyrics, and Folds, known for fronting his Five before going solo, would write the music. The album will be released later this year, and will feature string arrangements by Paul Buckmaster (David Bowie, Elton John, Leonard Cohen).
Folds took some time during his recent solo tour to talk to Paste about the album and who he’d like to work with next.
Paste: What was the relationship like between you and Nick Hornby? In my mind, I’m thinking of an Elton John, Bernie Taupin thing where he faxes you the lyrics and you make up the song.
Ben Folds: In essence, that’s what it was. But, I welcomed Nick’s perspective and argued against it. He sent the lyrics, and the idea was I would just write to it, but there were definitely times when he might think he heard it a little differently, I might think I needed more lyrics out of him, or wanted to cut something, and then we’d have a very friendly tug of war to try to figure it out and try to make sure it worked for both of us.
Paste: Was that all by phone? Did you meet?
Folds: Phone, e-mail. We never got a chance to be in the same place except for the first night we decided to do it, and I was over at his house for dinner. We played around on his piano a little bit. Often, I was writing on a bass guitar—a short-scale children’s bass guitar—at my computer. That way, it was kind of like, “Here’s the lyrics. Here’s the melody that’s coming to mind. Let me just find the bass line.” And keep things literally minimalist, meaning one line per voice.
Paste: Were you in the studio acting as producer, or did you have someone helping you with it?
Folds: I was the producer, and we kept an uncomfortable amount of space in the recordings as we tracked them. We would track very live, but then we would leave assloads of space, and the reason I did that is because I love Paul Buckmaster’s arrangements, but he’s very busy. He normally gets tossed onto a very full track, and I just thought this could be really powerful if we left an uncomfortable amount of space.
Paste: You mean space with the instrumentation?
Folds: Yeah, just bars of not much going on, but keeping the energy, you know? Make sure it’s not dying. But then, people would hear it as it was being worked on and always weren’t so sure why it was so minimal. Now, I think it’s just right. Paul just went Hiawatha on that shit [laughs].
Paste: What you’re saying reminds me of things John Lennon said after he made Plastic Ono Band. He talked about that album being brutally simple, and how sometimes just a piano has so many tones and overtones in it that that’s all you need.
Folds: Yeah, that seems to have been almost his lifelong artistic goal—to just sometimes painfully simplify and simplify. I can understand that. What becomes the challenge, then, is keeping it standing upright with energy, because obviously you can go, “Hey, I need some energy,” and just go nuts. In fact, I would say the production of some of these songs is kind of similar to some of those John Lennon songs. As a kid, sometimes I didn’t like that. You know, there are songs on some of his studio albums that are just like, [sings a few notes], just nothing going on, and you kind of want some candy [laughs]. That’s what we did when we practiced. The other thing I think that does is it forces the singer to carry it. It’s got to be carried that way. At the end of the day, though, since I had an extremely involved string arranger on this record, then at that point it doesn’t have that kind of minimalist thing. But, as far as the rhythm section goes, yeah, that was some discipline.
Paste: That’s interesting, because I think you tend to be more of a lush piano player. You play a lot of pretty, well-voiced chords, even in a hard rocking song. Were you consciously trying to pull some of that back?
Folds: Well, when you play a pretty chord, if you know anything at all about piano, you know you can play all of the notes in the chord, or you can drop most of them except for the one note, like a seventh or something, that made it pretty. And you can voice then the third into some other voice somewhere, even the top of a bass guitar or a cello. This one was a little more minimalist literally in that there’s more single-line stuff going on musically. The reason for that was that I was working with Nick Hornby’s lyrics, and I had to find a way to make his words speak without distraction. Because, you could read them and they were great. So, the last thing the fuck I wanted to do was to put on the record and to realize that I would rather read them, you know? He probably sells more books than I do records, so we don’t want to take the thing that’s great about him and not enhance it.
Paste: So, the simpler melodic lines and instrumentation highlight the lyrics more. They become the centerpiece.
Folds:Yeah, kind of like with a public address system; if the drums are loud enough without the system, then you only use the system to turn the singer up. That’s kind of the way I was doing it with his lyrics. If the lyric was loud enough by itself, then it just didn’t need help. Then, I had to be real selfless about it and go, “Well, I could look at this as Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, and I could make sure that my music is going to get some attention,” or I could just go, “This really needs to tell a story.” And, if someone wants to say, “God, that song made me cry, but man the music was stupid. It was so simple, it was just boring,” great. That’s awesome. If they cried, or they laughed or they were moved by the lyrics, even if it’s thankless sometimes, I did what I thought it took. Other times, it required a lot of music, so sometimes I found myself going back to music school and doing things that I haven’t felt the need to do in a long time, which were very intense musically, contrapuntally, voice leading bunch of shit [laughs]. So, I kind of ran the gamut between being as simple as I’ve ever been, and sometimes having to go [Russian composer, Dmitri] Shostakovich on some of them.
Paste: I spoke to you after you made Way to Normal, and you told me that the genesis of that album was live performance. Was this one the same way?
Folds: No, because it wasn’t important to insist the feeling of a live show. You know, if you were to buy—not that this sounds at all like a late-’50s, early-’60s recording—but if you were to buy a Buddy Holly record, that’s what it sounded like live, and that’s what it sounds like on the record, because it’s the same arrangement and the same way of looking at it. That’s the way the live band worked for the Nick Hornby record. For instance, the drummer was playing with one stick and no cymbals sometimes. And then the percussionist was playing two bass drums and all kinds of shit. We did what it took to turn the whole thing into a toy. The chorus of this one song called “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” the percussionist just takes off with it. It’s insane sounding. It’s like two bass drums and marching snares just squashed to living fuck left and right, and that becomes the sound of it. The drummer’s just sitting there, Sam’s [Smith] just sitting there playing bass drum and hi hat.
Paste: Did you notice any thematic elements in the lyrics?
Folds: Well, Nick could probably say the best, but the way it felt to me was that Nick has themes in his books, and those themes were also to be found in his lyrics. I found certain things to be true consistently. His way of portraying and seeing through the eyes of kids was always a certain way, a certain view. The folly of the male psyche, how honest his characters are with you and with themselves about how fucked up they are, was present. But, they don’t really tie in. Some of them could have been songs that could accompany his book, Juliet Naked, I thought. And he’s a big fan of pop history, so a lot of times he likes to write about that. So, there’s a song called “Doc Pomus.” You know, who would think to write about a songwriter from the ’60s?
Paste: I’ve read interviews with you where you talk about how the lyrics are the hardest part for you to write. So, it’s interesting that you gave the lyrics up to someone else on this album. What was that like for you?
Folds: It’s like the Elton thing a little bit, except since I’ve spent my career and life poring over my own lyrics, I probably have a little different way of looking at how the music is affecting them. I think there’s a real strength in the way that Elton can just almost disassociate himself from the lyrics. I’m more likely to look at them and really think about where was this character that day? What does this feel like from this point of view, and what do I want to emphasize? Sometimes there are two opposing points of view represented in a song, like one that’s called “Claire’s 9th.” I felt there are two sides of the story. One side could be overemphasized if it was too dramatic, and the other side could be overemphasized if it was too funny. I work on that stuff. It was my mission to make sure his words spoke, and not always the way he wanted them to speak. Sometimes writers write things they didn’t intend—almost Freudian slips. I wanted to make sure I was on that, because here’s something I can do for him. I can kind of show him where I thought he was coming from when he said it.
Paste: Do you think that having your mind free by not having to worry about writing lyrics changed the way you wrote the music?
Folds: It made it a lot easier. It also kind of forced me to use all of that extra energy and brain space just on music, so this is a more musically inventive album, even if it’s subtle. I think it’s a more musically inventive album that what I’ve done, because that was my whole gig. I mean, if I couldn’t get the music right, then I’m fired.
Paste: You’ve done something similar to this with the William Shatner album. Obviously that was a different project, but it seems you have the ability to play the supporting role.
Folds: That’s what I always intended to do with my career. I always wanted to write things that other people would sing, and it never worked out. I would write something and show someone how to sing it that was a better singer, and it didn’t sound right. But, what I really enjoy doing with people like William Shatner, it’s like, he’s got songs in him. He’s interesting. We can make this into songs. Let’s see what it takes. Get his life story, get him talking, get him writing some stuff and find it. And the same with Nick. There are songs in his words. I find it really satisfying and much more interesting, because as musical artists, we do sort of tend to run out of story, and then it becomes all about the music. But, you take someone like William Shatner, or take anyone with a story. I’d like to go make a record with Jesse James. Let’s make a record, because these people have an interesting life, an interesting way of looking at it and are compelling. Nick has written his same themes like we all do, but since they haven’t really been expressed in music, then he gets a chance to say the same things again, do it in a different kind of verse, and then it’s fresh.
Paste: And it forces your music to come from a different place, too.
Folds: Exactly. I’m connected enough musically to where, if I can perceive it, if I feel a feeling out of someone’s words at all, immediately music comes to mind that sort of came from it. I was calling myself a lyric whisperer. It was a matter of really communicating with [Nick], and then ideas come out of your head that are not normal for me. They’re not out of my stockpile. My vocabulary is huge. My stockpile is not huge because I tend to use the same vocabulary. Like, you and I would be talking, and I’d say, “You know, you know, you know, like,” you know? That’s going to come out. If you had to sit down and talk to Boutros Boutros-Ghali or something, you’re going to stop that shit [laughs]. You’re not going to sit at the U.N. and say, “You know, you know, you know, like.” So, it mixes it up. I mean, I took more of a front seat than I even wanted to with the Nick one, because it essentially sounds like one of my records. Maybe the next one I do, if I do another one with a poet, or a lyricist or a novelist, they’ll also be a musical artist that we’re actually writing for and producing. That would be fun.