Premiering below is the video for the Ben Folds song "A Working Day," the kick-off track from his album Lonely Avenue. Co-written with novelist Nick Hornby, "A Working Day" is a commentary on popularity and hipness that skewers its topic while calling out the internet, blogs, and other social media in the process.
"We had done an a cappella version of 'A Working Day,' which tied together audiences of two thousand people apiece in seven different cities," explains Folds. "It's like a fifteen thousand person choir. We tied that all in with computer editing, so that all those people are singing together and it was all videotaped. So, we're releasing a video today of our fifteen thousand people choir across the Midwest."
Below the video is an interview with Folds that took place early Tuesday that discusses his tour, his album Lonely Avenue, and his approaches to creativity that include the "8in8" experiment and participating as a judge on The Sing-Off.
A Conversation with Ben Folds
Mike Ragogna: Hey Ben, how are you doing?
Ben Folds: I'm good, I'm good. How are you doing?
MR: I'm good, honored that you took some time to talk with me.
BF: Oh yeah, no worries.
MR: Let's talk about Lonely Avenue, your collaboration with novelist, Nick Hornby. A while back, I debuted one of your singles in HuffPost, "The Levi Johnston Blues." Actually, let's start there. What are your thoughts about the Sarah Palin, Bristol Palin, Levi Johnston drama?
BF: Well, Nick and I have a lot in common, and one of those things we have in common is that we don't care about that. I think what we were interested in is the sudden coming of age that often happens in your teenage years, where you're old enough. When I was that age, I was old enough to register for the draft but wasn't old enough to drink. You're old enough to go to college but you're not really old enough to call your own shots. This is an extreme circumstance, where you've got a kid who happens to have a pregnant girlfriend, but oops, his girlfriend is the daughter of the potential Vice President of the United States, so everybody has something to say about exactly what his future is going to hold. It was more about his being just caught in this moment that is so dramatic.
Nick likes to find a moment that everyone can relate to, but find that one that's so extreme that it resonates. Everyone, when you're a teenager and you're growing up, you do feel like your life is dramatic enough to be on a TV screen, but we know that it's not. So, this is the dramatic moment you couldn't live in your own life, and that's really what we were thinking. I don't think that either of us really were that concerned with those people. Even the celebrity of it--it's not that interesting, and it's not that characteristic of Nick. He had been watching the Republican National Convention, and he saw this one boy on stage that he didn't know anything about. He was just looking at him and going, "Wow, what's this kid's story?" So, he started looking into it.
MR: Of course, we know Nick Hornby for having written About A Boy, High Fidelity and a few other novels. How did you both get together and come up with the idea for an album?
BF: Well, he'd been coming to see my shows in London since probably one of our very first gigs there. At the same time, I think, I was reading High Fidelity, which would have been about '96. I don't recall exactly where we met, but I think we met backstage at the Barbican Theatre, in London. We've just known each other now for a while, and we figured we'd eventually do something like this. I mean, I pushed the issue because I wanted to do an album where I didn't have to think about the lyrics, really, and Nick is the only person I can think of that I would trust with that role.
MR: The topics are pretty fluid. With each song, there are different approaches and stories. Lonely Avenue almost seems like a collection of short stories.
BF: Yeah, Nick's not short on ideas and concepts for stories. The thing I was saying about finding the moment that resonates? He just seems to see those all the time, that's just the way he thinks. He'll find the angle that makes sense, and that's what he does over and over again. For the album, he just kept making the lyrics out, it was great. He must have done thirty or thirty-five sets of lyrics.
MR: How did the collaboration work? Did you do it over the internet?
BF: It wasn't very high-tech. He would send me finished lyrics in an email, and then I would bring the email up, read the lyrics, and start making music.
MR: Nice. I'll throw out there that "Picture Window" is one of my favorite things I think I've ever heard. Did you end up finding any of these songs particularly touching to you?
BF: I think that one works for me too. We did the piano, vocal, and string sections all live in the studio, which is very scary because you're paying quite a bit of money and you have to get it right in a couple takes. One of the viola players' daughter was in the hospital at that time, and she was having a hard time getting through the song because she was going through all that too. I think we've all been through the hospital thing, and also the way that fits against having a picture window or false hope--really it's a great song. I think "Practical Amanda" is one that really works for me too. I think that's particularly touching, the myth of the sort of creative partner in a relationship, while the other one is just supposed to be running around cleaning the floors. Yet it's still a love story, and I think that's really touching because it's real.
MR: Beautiful. Somewhat recently you did you did that "8in8" concept, right?
BF: Yeah. Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, OK Go's Damien Kulash and I were all to do a panel for Berklee School of Music and Harvard School of Music, and we were just going to talk about the internet and how it's affected music. We all talked about it a little bit, and decided that, actually, the internet had not affected music at all. It had changed the distribution of music. But if we were going to sit there and do another talk about how the internet has affected music and how important we are for having been on the internet, I was going to bore us to tears. So, we decided instead to put a webcam in the studio and give ourselves eight hours to write and record eight songs. Then, we figured, that would be the internet having an affect on music. We put the webcam in there, we set up, and then we would go to our Twitter accounts and talk to people. They would have things they'd said, ideas for songs or thoughts on things, and we would give those to Neil Gaiman. Neil would write some lyrics, and then the three of us would go off to the corner--several corners if necessary--and write these songs. We managed to do "6in12," rather than "8in8." I had done something similar before. I had done what we called a "fake album," where we did an album in twelve hours. It was supposed to have been more songs, but it was six too. I think six songs in twelve hours, written from scratch to the final mix, is about as fast as you can go.
MR: What a terrific experiment, being able to test and show how the internet actually affects music.
BF: Yeah, it's affecting the music at that point, and it's enabling a speed of creativity and distribution that connects you to an audience as if you're playing a live show. In that way, it does bring the recorded medium and being live closer together. Every once in a while, someone will ask, "Why bother with that? It's an intellectual experiment, and really just a banal exercise." It's really not. For a musician, it's another excuse to create, it's another circumstance to make music, and that's what we're doing all the time. We actually got a couple of good songs out of that.
MR: Amazing, you also discovered another link between the recorded and live approaches. Speaking of performing live, you're going on tour again to support Lonely Avenue, right?
BF: Yeah, well, it's to support everything, really. I'm just out there playing a tour.
MR: And you'll be appearing with Dave Matthews on part of the tour?
BF: We're playing the Dave Matthews Festival in Chicago.
MR: And you'll also be at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco?
BF: That's correct.
MR: When you perform live these days, do you do the full repertoire? Do you do stuff even going back to the Ben Folds Five?
BF: I do, yeah. I mean, not as much old, old stuff, but it does exist in the set. Maybe this is wrong, but I feel like I craft my songs carefully enough that I still find that fifteen years after having written one, it still works for me--I'm not cringing. The reason I stop playing songs is usually because I get sick of them, and then they find themselves back into the set list at some point.
MR: One other thing I wanted to bring up is that you were a judge on the television show The Sing-Off. Do you have any thoughts on your judging?
BF: Well, I don't think of it as judging so much as sort of giving them feedback. This is a little bit different kind of a show because there's no rhythm section, no band, no tapes, and there's no safety net at all. There's nothing that's on stage that is just there to support--it's all what's being judged. With the a cappella groups, every voice is like one string on a guitar, one note on the piano, or one cymbal, and you don't have the luxury of falling back on anything. What we're critiquing is the entire picture, so it can be a little more musically technical. When someone's been put to that sort of a test on live television--because I know what it feels like, and I think it's extremely nerve racking--you're pretty hyper-aware that something went right or something went wrong, so it's a really good time to have someone who has gone through it before say, "You know, something went wrong in the pre-chorus, right? Well, you might not know it, but the problem is your bass singer was going flat, which means your lead singer didn't have good footing.." Whatever you perceived happen, they find it really helpful, as I would, to have a musician that's done it. So, that's my critique of my critiquing. I just tried to give them the helicopter view of what just happened.
MR: Right. And you're going to be doing that in the Fall again, right?
BF: Yeah, I am, I enjoy it. I will do it as long as I have time and the show is relevant.
MR: What's nice about the show is that--at least with the majority of the groups that I saw--virtually all of those groups' pitches and performances were spot on without pitch correction. Like you said, it's raw, and all the talent is right in your face.
BF: Yeah, and there's a high element of risk, as a result. Frankly, I've never seen another singing show, but I get it--I know what's going on. You're not worried that the rhythm section or the drummer is going to lose it on American Idol. There's that sense that you're going to be carried through by something professional. These groups on The Sing-Off just have to stand up there and do it, and if your E string is out on your guitar, which means that one of your baritone singers is out, that's bad--you're toast. I think that element of risk brings you closer to the groups because you can empathize with where they're at, at that moment. I also think it's really interesting for people to see large groups of people working together. It's called harmony and it's something that we don't see in airports or on CSPAN--you just don't see that these days on television. So, I think it's really nice to see people really working together. Even the groups themselves are, strangely, not competitive. I think it's possibly because of their genre, because they're so used to having to work together in big groups and make it all work. There are tears on the show when people get kicked off and they're usually shed by the groups that are still on.
MR: Yeah, I always thought that was kind of sweet.
BF: So, I don't know, I think it's a unique show, it's got its niche, and that's all you can really ask for. I like being involved in things that have a niche...you feel useful, and it's not too damn big. I think that's great.
MR: That describes Ben Folds' music, doesn't it?
BF: Well, I would hope so.
MR: You've already taken so many different creative approaches over the course of your career, what advice would you have for new artists?
BF: Same advice that I think would have been true as long as there have been artists at all--you put your craft and your art first, you learn as much as you can, and you keep striving to be better. I'm never comfortable with people in the studio or people that I work with who think that everything that they do is great...it always bothers me. I think we all ought to be trying to get better and that's really the main thrust of it. I mean, all the stuff about the internet and how you're going to get discovered, that's going to change by the moment. I just think you do what you do. Music is to be shared--it's generous--so, get out there and play shows, play gigs, and get your music out there. If it's going to happen, it will happen, and if it's not going to happen, then that's okay too.
MR: Beautiful. So, was your experience with Nick so incredible that you're tempted to do Lonely Avenue 2?
BF: Well, I think we're tempted to write a musical piece together. As soon as we finished that project, we both started to get really busy. I've been working on a retrospective CD that is a three CD set, plus fifty-five songs that go along with it on the internet. So, it's like a one hundred-ten song collection.
MR: And you have enough of a catalog that you can handle that, don't you.
BF: It's pretty interesting. I never thought of myself as having been prolific, I didn't think of myself as someone who had a lot behind them. But man, when you start to put that together... Everybody that's working on the record still has a whole list of songs that we want but we don't have room for. It's kind of bizarre because I didn't know I'd written so much. But I've been working really hard on that, and Nick's been writing loads of stuff.
MR: Well, this has been great, Ben. I really appreciate you spending some time with me today. All the best for the tour, all the best with what's coming up in the future, and please let's do this again, sir.
BF: Alright, I will do that, man.
1. A Working Day
2. Picture Window
3. Levi Johnston's Blues
4. Doc Pomus
5. Your Dogs
6. Practical Amanda
7. Claire's Ninth
9. From Above
10. Saskia Hamilton
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney