Ben Folds is in many ways sort of a bridge between the first generation of singer-songwriters who bore the title from decades ago, by virtue of his innate knack for killer pop hooks, and contemporary music fans who value a quick wit as part of the big picture.
Folds, a celebrated lyricist, took time out of his busy schedule to chat about "Lonely Avenue," a collaboration with author Nick Hornby. This unusual album saw Folds write music around the e-mailed lyrics of Hornby. The result - which took 18 months from conception to completion - is terrific pop music, with the co-conspirators' fondness for cleverness very much at the fore.
Folds, a supremely gregarious interviewee, talked about how the album came together, what fans who come to the shows might expect to see and hear, and some of the other musical endeavors on his very full dance card.
Question | So, you and Nick Hornby kind of talked this project over during dinner, and it actually came to fruition. Is this the first time in the history of the world that two friends have talked over a scheme over dinner and it actually came through?
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Answer | It could be. We were a little bit under way by the time said dinner occurred, so we sort of knew we were going do this for a while. We had discussed doing it, but it was just a matter of nailing it shut and having some resolve to do it. It's so easy to say, "We're going to do it," and it never happens.
Q. | Was there a topic where you went to Nick ahead of time and said, "Don't give me anything about that"?
A. | No, there were no rules or real direction. I think I said one time that I would really enjoy hearing what you happen to be thinking about on that day or moment as opposed to broader topics. Not that we had too much of that, but he was nailing some biggies. But that's when he turned around with the song "Doc Pomus." It's a big topic, but more narrow.
Q. | Did you get any lyrics that surprised you?
A. | They all read like Nick Hornby books. He's got such a style, and that's why people identify with him, I suppose. He's just got such a thumbprint. Pretty much I would just open the lyrics and think, "Wow, this is cool. I've got a mini-Nick Hornby book before anybody. I'm cool!"
Q. | "Levi Johnston's Blues" doesn't really sound like it was written by an Englishman.
A. | He's good like that, isn't he?
Q. | He seems to have tapped into a very American redneck prototype. There are rednecks all over the world, but he really had a way with the lyric of that one.
A. | Luckily Levi wrote the chorus for us. That came from his MySpace page. That's what fascinated Nick, was the bravado of the MySpace page pitted against this guy who was basically scared out of his wits stuffed into a suit in front of everybody at the Republican National Convention.
Q. | Is there a single song on the album that really encapsulates what you were trying to do, or maybe accomplished what you tried to do more than any other?
A. | I don't think so. It takes me a while to know down the road what the classics might wind up being. I find it really easy to play the song "Picture Window" live. I can feel that it translates quickly even though it's not the simplest thing, it's fairly wordy, but we got it right in a way I think both of us are comfortable with.
Q. | Do you feel as though "Lonely Avenue" tells a complete story?
A. | If it does, I'm not aware of it. The two things I wanted to do was, one, make it a collection of songs and not a thematic record, but then I wanted it to flow as an album. Now, everyone says they want records to flow as an album, and a lot of people seem to be up in arms about the ability to download one song, or to pick one off a CD quickly. I'm not fussed about that, because I think that we don't always make albums.
Q. | You mentioned how technology has given people maybe a bit more power, and they're just downloading single tracks sometimes. How much of that have you personally taken advantage of?
A. | I think the best of both worlds eventually happens. I try to make records so they flow as albums, but I'm not too precious about it generally if they pick out their moments and download those. I'm the same way. Sometimes I really love a song, and I don't really connect with the rest of the record.
Q. | Now that you've put it all together, do you feel as though this is maybe something that you'll do again with Nick, or is this a one-off?
A. | It was such a natural way to work that I would imagine that we'll probably do it again. When it was finished, I didn't feel like we'd passed it. It almost felt like we'd just gotten warmed up. It's a good feeling, because sometimes you get to the finish line on a record, even good records, and you just go, "Thank Christ. I'll never be able to do this again." This time around, I couldn't wait for class to begin again.
Q. | How are you going to tour this record? Is Nick going to come out, warm the crowd up?
A. | Juggling? The only thing we managed to do together is the Pomplamoose song ("Things You Think"). We did that after the fact because we both like Pomplamoose. We might perform together on TV once or twice, and we might perform in bookstores. But for the most part, this album will end up reading sort of like one of my albums that happens to have Nick Hornby lyrics.