Meeting of minds
Singer-songwriter Ben Folds goes down Lonely Avenue with author Nick Hornby.
BEN Folds, in many ways, is 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 endeavours on his very full dance card. 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?
It could be. We were a little bit underway 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. I think the first time we sort of discussed it was years ago, sometime around the William Shatner record (2004’s Has Been), but you look up and five years are gone. We originally were going to make the record in three days, that was kind of the original idea. But, of course, that theory didn’t pan out. It took us 18 months with touring and Nick’s collecting awards and movies and all the things he had to do. Was there a topic where you went to Nick ahead of time and said, “Don’t give me anything about that”?
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. It’s something he does in his books all the time, and I just thought it might be a time to do that. Otherwise, no. There wasn’t any real direction of that sort. Did you get any lyrics that surprised you?
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!” He’ll nail an angle sometimes in some way you wouldn’t have thought about, but that’s something you expect from him, so that’s not a surprise. Did he ever tell you after you came back to him with music that maybe you could have done something differently, or maybe that he wasn’t pleased with something you’d done?
There are two songs that come to mind I think that he wasn’t expecting to come back the way they did, but for the most part I think he was thrilled. He would send me an email, and then the very next day, usually the next day, he got an mp3 with some portion of the song, sometimes almost all of it. Of course, there was a lot of recording to do, but he was getting a tape of what it was going to be. I think he was really pretty excited most of the time. But there were two songs, one was Saskia Hamilton, and I think at first he kind of felt it was noisy. He didn’t say that really, but I’m perceptive enough and I could tell it really wasn’t his cup of tea. And he didn’t quite understand why I took this sort of almost new wave approach on the song.
Later on, when he finally met Saskia Hamilton over e-mail, he was very excited because she used to play in a punk band, so suddenly it made sense, even though I didn’t know she’d played in a punk band. I got lucky.
Ben Folds (left) and Nick Hornby. Eventually, I think what happened, is the song became easier to listen to as I fleshed it out. And he listened to it, and so we kind of met in the middle, and I think he likes it now.
The other one was Practical Amanda. He expected an up-tempo song, which was sort of, he said, “ala Kate,” which is a song I’d written on a Ben Folds Five record. A lot of little jokes. And I took his jokey song and made it very serious, which sort of made the singer sound a little weaker and made it sad. And I think he was a little queasy about that at first, but he realised it was a good song. As Randy Newman says, “You’ve got to run over your grandmother for a good song.” 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?
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. We do a lot of thinking, the both of us, and it should make us happy that this song, despite the craft and the thinking, moves people and it works. And that’s what we set out to do. Do you feel as though LonelyAvenue tells a complete story?
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. Sometimes you make songs. This one I wanted to make an album.
When you read Nick’s books, you sit down and you read them. You don’t just pick a sentence out of the middle of a chapter. And I wanted to make the album work for him so that people would feel comfortable sitting down and listening to it like a vinyl record. And, you know, you take a break in the middle, go grab a beer and turn the record over and listen to side two. That’s what I wanted it to be, though not necessarily with a storyline, but a flow that would invite you to the end of the record. 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 oneoff?
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 God. I’ll never be able to do this again.” This time around, I couldn’t wait for class to begin again. – PopMatters.com/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. n Ben Folds and Nick Hornby’s LonelyAvenue is released by Warner Music Malaysia.