Meet­ing of minds

Singer-song­writer Ben Folds goes down Lonely Av­enue with author Nick Hornby.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FASHION - By Crispin Kott

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.

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