From composing concertos to advocating for the arts, Ben Folds passion for all things music goes far beyond his pop star status.
He’s best-known as the hip and quirky piano-playing rock musician—both with the eponymous Ben Folds Five as well as a variety of solo projects. But the creative genius that is Ben Folds goes far deeper than the garden variety pop star. He’s made forays into television as a judge on “The Sing-Off” and snagged a recent guest spot on NBC’s “Community.” Meanwhile, Folds serves on the Artist Committee of Americans for the Arts and is an avid photographer who’s as active behind the lens as he is behind the keyboard (check out his work at benfoldsphotography.com). His most recent accomplishment of note? An as-yet-unnamed piano concerto—a year in the making—that he’ll be playing along with orchestral versions of a bevy of his most popular songs with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra when he comes through town on April 12-13. ALIVE chatted with Folds as he and his manager negotiated LA traffic en route to the annual NAMM Show on subjects ranging from his upcoming tour to his passionate advocacy for the arts to his interest in all things a capella.
ALIVE: What can fans expect from the shows you’ll be playing at Powell Hall this month?
Ben Folds: We’ve done about 40 songs of mine, charted as if the orchestra were the rock band. There’s no bass, guitar, drums, stuff like that. In a way, I think people like these symphony shows a lot more because I make sure it’s more of a “best-of” set. St. Louis is a really good symphony orchestra. I’ve played with them before and they’re one of my favorites.
ALIVE: You’re also going to be performing your new piano concerto at some point in the set, right?
BF: Right, it’s a concerto I’ve composed over the past year. It’s about 20 minutes long or so— it’s a big undertaking. It’ll make it into a record eventually.
ALIVE: Will it be a live record?
BF: No, I think we’re going to properly record this. I need to tour it a little bit first. I’ll probably record some smaller chamber ensemble type stuff. It might resemble pop music a lot more than chamber music. The instrumentation might be a percussion ensemble with cello and piano, or string quartet and piano.
ALIVE: You’re known for your sense of humor on record and during your live shows, and the occasional salty language. In the symphony context, do you find yourself reigning that in?
BF: We’re human beings playing music for human beings. It’s not any different than any other type of concert. I’ve got no time for snobs. Maybe I won’t say “fuck” a thousand times—maybe I’ll cut it down to twice. Being respectful is one thing, but not being a human being is another. I think the symphony orchestra gains something anytime someone can see it that way. From the legends, Mozart thought it was ridiculous that people didn’t clap between movements. One thing I like to do at these shows is a quick moment of reminding people about the current atrophy of the institution in regard to lack of funding, and why it’s good to go to the symphony. I think some of the players are surprised, ’cause rock guys aren’t supposed to come in like that. I feel really strongly about keeping the symphony institution alive. I’ve been doing [orchestral touring] for about 10 years; it represents about a third of the touring I do. I have about $250,000 worth of charts—that’s how much these things have cost to write and cultivate. I’m not parttiming this.
ALIVE: You re-formed Ben Folds Five several years ago for a record and a tour. Any plans to do anything with them soon?
BF: Not at the moment. We made an album and spent a year touring on it and made the live album to capture that tour on top of it. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do, but at some point we’ll probably do it again.
ALIVE: Your dedication to symphony orchestras seems similar to the support of a capella music you show on “The Sing-Off.”
BF: My interest in a capella definitely has a lot to do with my interest in symphony orchestras. They come from a very similar place. They’re both large groups of people, and people aren’t used to seeing that in concert. The idea these days is large groups of people can’t work together, like Congress. Pop music is very ego-, star-, diva-driven and neither orchestral music nor a capella music have that quality to them usually.
ALIVE: You’ve done a lot of musical collaborations in the past with people like William Shatner and Sarah Bareilles. Is there anyone you’d really like to work with in the future?
BF: I don’t really seek out who I’m going to collaborate with; it’s usually more circumstantialÛ_ I kind of like to walk into them. I damn near collaborated with a country artist not long ago, just because I ran into him in a hallway. If you happen to jump on the same lily pad, I think there’s a reason and you just go with it.
ALIVE: You own the old RCA Studio A in Nashville. Do you actively produce records there?
BF: I did [William] Shatner’s record there, and Amanda Palmer’s and Sarah Bareilles’ EP. And I’ve made my own records there. When I bought it in 2002, I started off by making three EPs right off the bat for myself, basically to pay for it. When I started off, it was more of a storage spaceÛÓit was a real sty, full of recording and touring gear. Every time I’d move from one house to another, which is a fairly routine operation, I’d have all my furniture in there. Then a few years ago, I decided that it was a shame that one of the last standing great rooms in Nashville wasn’t being used. It’s an orchestral roomÛÓit’s massive and one of the best large rooms in the world. Chet Atkins designed the space, and Neil Diamond, The Monkeys and Dolly Parton all recorded there, among others.
ALIVE: What’s your role with Americans for the Arts?
BF: I participate in a lot of the panels they do. If you’re going to change something, you have to think about how you’re going to do it, talk about it and see what’s possible with a lot of different people. For example, our last one was about returning veterans. After 10 years of these wars, there are a lot of men and women coming back who are injured and who need help. The Surgeon General was there, and people from VA hospitals, and then a whole range of musicians who might be willing to help in that area. I also advocate for the arts in DC sometimes and do that dreadful walk down the hall to talk to the politicians. It feels futile, but you have to do it.
ALIVE: So far, what has been your greatest career moment?
BF: You know what I say to that every timeÛÓand I’m embarrassed to say it because my manager’s sitting next to meÛÓbut the first thing that pops into mind is that I have an organization and I have people around what I do who are cool and smart and innovative and honest. If you’re in any business, achieving that is a big deal, and that’s what affects your day-to-day. That’s why I can spend time on Americans for the Arts, and do photography and be on a television show and write a concerto and go on a rock tour.
Photo credit: Joshua Black Wilkins