Still Rockin’ the Suburbs
Although known primarily for his distinctive brand of piano-driven “punk rock for sissies,” Ben Folds keeps finding new ways to surprise
by Bill Donahue

Since he began imposing his will on American pop culture in the late 1990s, Ben Folds has proven himself to be anything but one-dimensional. His work as a singer, songwriter and producer has included collaborations with everyone from William Shatner and “Weird Al” Yankovic to Nick Hornby and the Nashville Symphony. He even spent four seasons as a judge on NBC’s a cappella competition, “The Sing-Off.”

Folds’ fame, however, stems mostly from the songs bearing his name. He once described his wide-ranging style of piano-driven rock—standout hits include “Brick,” “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” “Still Fighting It” and “You Don’t Know Me”—as “punk rock for sissies.” Trying to pigeonhole his body of work into one neat, little category would be futile, and this diversity has served him well. His catalog of incredibly catchy, musically complex songs has earned him multiplatinum bragging rights, both as a solo performer and as a member of his breakout band, Ben Folds Five.

He continues to find new walls to climb. In fact, he is eager for the release of a forthcoming album that will be a notable departure from his other works. The album will include his critically acclaimed “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” as well as several pop songs he arranged and recorded in collaboration with yMusic, a New York-based sextet with whom he is currently touring the globe. (The tour includes two stops in Philadelphia—May 11 at the Theatre of the Living Arts and May 12 at World Café Live.) The album will be released digitally later this spring and on vinyl in the summer.

The Nashville resident took a few minutes away from the studio to talk about the current tour, as well as his evolution as a songwriter, what he and Stephen King have in common, and the gift of still liking what he does for a living.

Your last solo album, “Way to Normal,” felt deeply personal, almost like an exercise in healing. Are most of your songs rooted in things that have happened to you or to people in your life, or is there a fair amount of storytelling—meaning fiction—in your songs?
There are both elements—the fiction and the autobiography. In the end, I follow images, phrases, chords that I am interested in. If you’ve spent time in a hospital yourself, or with a friend of family member, you start seeing the world that way, for instance. I find you see what you feel you may become, don’t want to become, see around you, what you’ve gone through. I mean, I guess that’s elementary, but often interest can be quite abstract and bizarre. Why does Stephen King write about what he writes about? You couldn’t find much autobiography in that, but he’s interested. It’s probably tied to something, but that’s art. Who knows?

How does your approach to songwriting—lyrically as opposed to musically—compare with your approach when you were in your 20s or 30s?
I think it’s very similar. Firstly, the limitation of the real estate afforded by a song yields a lot different result than if you have chapters of blank space. Those sounds that roll off a singer’s tongue are also limited. So I find that I have always fought a bit against the lexicon of pop music. There are rock words and pop words. Why not words from an auto manual or even everyday life? Awkward words give me license to be less formal. Or at least that sounds right to me at the moment. Sometimes, as when I was 20, I’m just filling space with stuff that sounds good and trusting that my subconscious has a good reason for it. Mainly, though, I’ve always wanted lyrics to sound informal and real. The “what” I write about has shifted somewhat, and slowly. I wrote a lot about being imperfect. I guess I still do. That’s not really recommended in order to sell lots of records, or to be cool, but you got to do what you feel, and what you can do with a straight face.

What can you share about the new record in terms of theme, style, release date, etc.?

Ha! Release date—don’t know. Themes—hard to say. I’m trying to be as simple as possible at this moment, lyrically. That’s probably because the record is fairly complex musically sometimes.  There’s a theme of “it is what it is,” of the prison of not being able to forgive, or rather the choice of breaking out of that, seems to have crept in. A little bit of loss-of-ego theme still left over from “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” [the most recent album from Ben Folds Five] I’m detecting. But I’m never quite clear on what I’ve done until I get on with the next record a few years later.  

What should people expect from your upcoming shows in Philly, besides a very active, very engaged performer and his piano?
yMusic, my brilliant collaborators on this new album, and I will be forging ahead into the great unknown. We will rehearse next week and find the hell out! But things were so inspired in the studio and went so quickly and easily that I have to think it will all be juuuuust fine.

Aside from the release of the new record, what’s next for you?
I can see little else at this moment, as I’ve been in the mix for a week straight, from the “Piano Concerto” sessions, which comprises half the album—a three-movement, 25-minute piece—to the seven songs on the album with yMusic. I’ll need a few days to remember how to live. What a haze of intense concentration. Sounds good, though; you caught me on that day that I still like what I’ve done.  

Photograph by Allan Amato