ROCKIN’ THE RECITAL HALL
Ben Folds talks with Chris Familton about the current collaborative project he has termed ‘chamber rock’ and his personal and professional connection to Australia.
In composition and performance the piano is one of the few instruments that works effectively and consistently across the spectrum of musical genres, from blues to jazz, rock to classical. In the indie-rock world one of the artists it is indelibly linked to is Ben Folds.
In recent years Folds has been progressively widening his musical palette to include classical composition and his latest project came about when he’d written a piano concerto but “hadn’t thought what I was going to do with it so I thought I should flesh it out with some other pieces of music that I had in mind.” Initially his idea was to work with a number of different chamber groups but when he met with the sextet yMusic, “I didn’t want to work with anyone else. They’re an incredible group of musicians who create different sounds. They’re like a sports car with incredible acceleration that hugs the road versus an orchestra which is like a big cruise ship. This suddenly felt like a rock band and I wanted to write lyrics so it quickly headed off in that direction.”
The end result was last year’s album So There which finds both parties on equal creative footing and Folds retaining the energy and musical irreverence that has always been a hallmark of his songs. “I think that’s just what comes out. I was aware of not wanting to be too terribly formal just because there’s a classical group beneath me. I didn’t want to compromise my voice, that didn’t interest me,” Folds stresses. “When I’m in the studio it has to really be something that will hold my interest. As soon as I go down a road trying something, blending one kind of music with another kind, I can suddenly get so tired of that so quickly and don’t want to keep making that kind of music. It comes down to – if it is exciting me then we keep moving forward. I think that’s always been my way of operating.”
Many of Folds’ fans share a willingness to follow him through his different projects, filling seats in recital halls when he performs with yMusic and mixing with the classical crowd when he joins an orchestra. That desire to find a balance between his audience, musical styles and performance formats is one that fascinates him.
“It’s a unique rock show and you can also look at it as a unique classical show. There’s a place where classical and pop crossover music meets that has never really been interesting to me. This is a lot less formal and feels a lot more honest than a classical crossover gig. They have the tendency to get a little pretentious and I believe that if you’re expressing yourself, don’t do it in a suit and tie like that. Just kick it in the arse.”
Folds is bring yMusic down to Australia for a run of shows and though he currently calls Nashville home he has strong connections to this country, marrying and starting a family in Adelaide, collaborating with a number of Australian artists and enjoying early musical success here. “I think Australia and I were on the same page when I began. I think they really understood. Triple j really got Underground (1995) which didn’t really take off in the United States but it did in Australia,” Folds recalls. “The moment I landed there I loved the place. People were funny, the air felt good and it’s always been part of my life every since. I’d still live there if I could but I can’t, I have too much work to do over here but one day I’d love too. Depending on how our election goes over here I might be there earlier. I hope Australia remembers me and has pity on me,” laughs Folds.
From the outside, Folds appears to have a comprehensive and possibly compulsive creative life. Recording, touring, appearing as a judge on a TV talent show, photography and until recently, running the legendary Studio A in Nashville. Is there time for non-musical pursuits?
“I don’t have much downtime for anything. As we talk I’m throwing clothes into a bag before we head out on tour, which is kind of the way I do things. It’s been suggested that if I take time off and have a life I’d have more to write about but I like living day to day, running around and being in different places and coming across different influences. When I stop it is just bad, like a fish out of water. I just have to keep going.”
With that in mind Folds is already looking ahead to the next tour and the next recording project as he continues to chase his muse. “I’m going to be starting an interesting solo tour with a lot of toys on stage after the yMusic stuff. We finish touring that in Australia and then I’ll move into the solo touring and begin writing a solo piano record after all that.”