Before our phone interview with Ben Folds even begins, the piano-pop star — whose humor has been well documented in his music for the past two decades — is already giving us some pretty valuable blackmail material. “A call-recording app, huh?” he says after the “record” signal sounds. “That’s like something people probably use in divorces and stuff for, like, child custody. In fact, you might sell some things if I were to say stuff like [cue very Southern accent], ‘Bitch, I told ya, I’m takin’ the kids and goin’ ‘cross state lines. You cain’t stop me. I’m drunk. Fuck it!’ That might be helpful.”
Folds will cross state lines as soon as he embarks on a tour with classical sextet yMusic in support of last month’s release, So There, a superb collection of chamber-pop songs and piano concertos. But today, he’s just driving around, cracking jokes. “I’m passing a Jenny Craig next to an Edible Arrangements,” he says, giving us the play-by-play. “Oh man, it’s awesome. It’s a Jenny Craig that’s right between a pizza kitchen and an Edible Arrangements. They just have to put blinders on and walk straight in to Jenny Craig’s and get their little food packet.”
Clearly, it’s a good day to get inside the head of the man who once hilariously covered Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and rose to fame in the mid-’90s with Ben Folds Five and their goofy brand of alt rock. From the early days of the band’s Whatever and Ever Amen — with its demands like, “Give me my money back, you bitch … and don’t forget to give me back my black T-shirt” (“Song for the Dumped”) — to his solo career (See this year’s exceptionally silly “F10-D-A” off So There), Folds has found endless creativity and a lot of success in, for the most part, keeping it lighthearted.
For example, if you’ve ever been to one of his shows, you’ll know he’s also known to perform interactively with the audience and compose songs on the spot. In fact, he says he has a few from some Charleston shows he’s performed in years past. And sometimes these songs make it to a studio album, like So There‘s “Phone in a Pool.”
“We record all the songs I make up when I’m playing gigs, and my sound man is kind enough to compile them for me and just send them to me,” Folds explains. “So I’ve got hundreds from every year, and sometimes when I’m thinking about making an album, I’ll just pore through them because I think they’re just spontaneous, unguarded, neat little melodies.”
Folds really did throw his phone in a pool, by the way — that part’s not made up. “[That song] makes me think of when I threw my phone in a pool, and Ke$ha jumped in and got it out with all her clothes on,” he says.
Yep, that Ke$ha, who Folds has openly and unapologetically admired for several years. From the time Folds covered Ke$ha’s “Sleazy” in 2010 to his collaborations with everyone from Weird Al to William Shatner, Folds has never shied away from shocking his fans. And recently, with “I’m Not the Man,” he almost had the chance to associate himself with Al Pacino, too.
“It was written as an attempt to land a song for Al Pacino to sing in this movie [Danny Collins] they made him sing in,” Folds says of the track, which didn’t make it into the film after all. The premise sees an aging rocker rethinking his life after receiving a letter from the late John Lennon. “And it was supposed to be this watershed moment where he realized he’d grown up and he didn’t need to keep repeating his younger self, and I thought that I could relate to that.”
Folds’ career is full of not only ambitious efforts but spontaneous ones, too, like the time he and author Nick Hornby set out to write and record a full album (Lonely Avenue) in three days. Or when he and Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, and Damian Kulash wrote and recorded eight songs in eight hours. Folds says that, many times, projects like those are dreamed up only days beforehand. And that’s what makes them so inspiring.
“Sometimes those things happen like that,” Folds says. “I’m always open to it because it reminds me that a three-and-a-half-minute song can take three-and-a-half minutes to write. And that is very helpful when you’re writing, when you know it doesn’t have to be a big fucking masterpiece.”