By Lindsey Lowe Osborne
I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth repeating (I hope. If not, sorry.) There’s a phenomenon that happens for me with music—I go through phases. I don’t think this is atypical, right? You fall in love with a band, an album, a song, and you wear ’em out until, as my Nana would say, the cows come home. Then, you quietly move on. Years later, you’ll hear that song, number seven off of that album, and suddenly you’re right back in your college dorm room or in the city you lived in three cities ago. I have hundreds of songs that take me to hundreds of places, and it’s one of the reasons I would buy music a coffee every now and then if I could.
But there’s another category for me, a category of transcendental music. It’s unable to take me back to any certain place or time because it was there in high school and in college and after that and now, too. It exists for the same reason your favorite pair of sweatpants and your mom’s hugs do: to welcome you home. This category is much smaller but nonetheless full of beloved songs and albums and musicians who feel like friends. It’s the stuff I return to again and again. And one of these friends of mine is Ben Folds.
My favorite Ben Folds song is kind of un-Ben Foldsy: “The Luckiest.” If you haven’t heard it and you want to shatter your heart into a million lovely pieces, you should listen to it. When I hear it, I want to demand that Ben explain himself. How could he come up with a thing that captures something we’re all trying to capture as perfectly as it does? “I don’t know. It always seemed like I was a musician. I understood it like a language and I was drawn to it,” he says. “I’m lucky it’s my living and sometimes making it a career prompts the same question myself. The answer in those rare times is: ‘I’m qualified for nothing else.’ Generally, though, it’s not a choice. It’s just what I am and do.”
Perhaps one of the things that makes Ben Folds transcendental is that his music is “Ben Foldsy” and “un-Ben Foldsy” and everything in between. His canon is remarkably diverse, ranging from soft and slow (“The Luckiest”) to whimsical (“Gracie”) to alternative rock (“You Don’t Know Me”) to A Cappella (Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!). His newest album, this year’s So There, is a collaboration with yMusic, a celebrated New York City-based chamber ensemble. The album includes pop songs written, arranged, and recorded by Folds and yMusic, alongside the debut recording of Folds’s critically acclaimed “Concerto For Piano and Orchestra,” which was produced and recorded by legendary rock engineer Elliot Scheiner. “Every so often it occurs to me how much freedom I have,” Folds says. “In this case, it was, ‘Oh. I can write pop songs for what’s in essence a small orchestra.’”
I asked Folds how he feels his music has evolved over the past nearly three decades, including through his time as a member of the band Ben Folds Five (the band existed from 1995 to 2000 and then resurrected in 2011.) “I can’t be sure how it’s evolved. But I suspect that my writing, rather the style of my writing, is my thumbprint and it’s changed very little. It’s abstract and I like to keep it that way, like interpretive dance. Play how you feel. Generally, I can make it musical before my obtuse self can understand it,” he explains. “I feel like the presentation communicates something akin to what I want to wear that day. With the new album, So There, I found working with these guys [yMusic] inspired me and pushed me even more than I expected. That was a first. Or the most notable moment of true collaboration I’ve had recording.”
Folds has been playing music since the late ’80s, when he and a friend won Duke University’s Battle of the Bands. From there, he played with a couple of different bands, attended the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, and got a publishing deal in Nashville. He also began to act in theater groups in NYC, which he really enjoyed. But in 1995, Ben Folds Five released their eponymous debut album, followed by Whatever and Ever Amen in 1997 and Naked Baby Photos in 1998. After the group broke up, Folds went on to release a number of solo albums, the first of which was Rockin’ the Suburbs in 2001. In 2012, after the band reunited, they released the The Sound of the Life of the Mind. “I’m proud that I’ve surrounded myself with exceptional people,” Folds says. “That has been a true accomplishment.”
Folds is known for his peculiar lyrics, which are often drawn from his own life (“Still Fighting It,” is a tribute to his son, Louis; “Gracie” is for his daughter, Gracie; and “Brick” is based on his experience with his high-school girlfriend getting an abortion.) In “Phone in a Pool,” Folds sings, “What’s been good for the music / hasn’t always been good for the life.” “Detachment. Immersion. Technique. Schedule. Those are the most challenging aspects of being a musician,” he says. “What has surprised me most is travel. How it would get old when I promised myself I would never be jaded about travel.”
Ben Folds is coming to the Alabama Theatre on Nov. 11, and trust me—one day, you want to be able to tell your kids that you saw Ben Folds. As he says, “Make time for these things even when it seems like there is none. Life is short.”
11/19: St. Paul & the Broken Bones @ the Alabama Theatre. For fans of this city.
11/23: Shakey Graves @ WorkPlay. For fans of Lord Huron, Dawes, and Houndmouth.
12/9: The Wind and the Wave @ Saturn. For fans of Johnnyswim, Ezra Vine, and Emily Reid.