It sounds at first like a warm-up exercise. Ben Folds, from his piano, calls out a series of musical notes as he plays them. The first one, an F, receives a tentative response from a trumpet, then a violin. Folds changes notes — an A this time — and a clarinet and flute join in.
The classical instrumentation, provided here by the New York-based chamber ensemble yMusic, might seem an awkward match for Folds given that he’s built his 20-year career on catchy, piano-driven pop rock. But as the warm-up evolves, relaxing into a rolling piano melody that could easily fit anywhere in Folds’ discography, it becomes clear that he hasn’t stepped nearly as far out of his comfort zone as you might expect. Even his trademark puckish sense of humor remains intact as the notes he’s dictating to the musicians amount to a single, ribald pun: “F10-D-A with a big fat D.”
“F10-D-A” is a two-minute musical interlude that comes along relatively late in the tracklisting of So There, Folds’ latest studio album. It’s the penultimate of the eight yMusic-accompanied chamber pop songs that make up the record’s first half; the second half is a 21-minute, three-movement concerto composed by Folds and performed with the Nashville Symphony. It’s the most ambitious record of Folds’ career to date, and its lofty aspirations might feel a little pretentious if it wasn’t for the playful mood embodied by “F10-D-A,” which seems designed to assure listeners of one thing: this isn’t Ben Folds going classical. It’s classical going Ben Folds.
“Not Simple Business”
“I feel like I push myself on every record,” Folds says. “I always come out of it going, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s just pushed me,’ you know?” He’s speaking on the phone while en route to a prior engagement; it’s a brief window into one of the few free moments he’ll have for a while. (“I’ll try not to pontificate too much,” he offers as a timesaver.) A few days later, he’ll perform his concerto in Miami with the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra; two days after that, he’ll resume his tour with yMusic, which will bring him to the Alabama Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 11.
Folds’ intense schedule matches the effort that went into So There, an album that he says made him grow both as a musician and a composer. He’s talking, in particular, about that concerto, which was the first part of the album to be completed. “Composing a 21-minute, three-movement piano concerto for an 83-piece orchestra is not simple business,” he deadpans.
One of the difficulties in constructing the piece was in bringing his own piano ability up to shape; he admitted to The San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this year that he’d had to rigorously practice performing the concerto because he “had written something that was beyond what [he] could do at that moment.”
But the greater challenge, he says, was making sure that the concerto retained his distinctive musical identity. “The thing that I learned in that process was the art of making damn sure I was expressing myself and being myself, doing the things that I would want,” he says. “The reason that I write music in the first place is not to prove anything. You write music to tell a story, to get something out of your system, to sum a feeling up. It can be more difficult when the instrumentation is that dense. You can start to just do things for the sake of, ‘Well, I’ve got an orchestra, I can probably do that. So at the end of the day — literally, at the end of every day, I would go, ‘I’ve just crawled 10 miles through dense forest. Where the [expletive] am I? Am I still telling a story?’ And often I would be telling a story that I didn’t even realize was in my head.”
“There’s a very forest-for-the-trees thing that can happen when you’re working so micro, with such an incredible amount of detail,” he continues. “I kind of dug it. You pan out, and you see that you’ve been sketching this massive face, and this face isn’t exactly what you thought it might be. I like that. I think that, if there’s anything to be learned from that, and the thing that I was working toward, was making sure I was being me. That’s really your job — to be you.”
“Fights I Didn’t Mean to Pick”
Folds, 49, has never had much of an issue with being himself. His discography, from his 1995 debut as the frontman of Ben Folds Five onward, is united by the stubborn force of his personality. There’s a wounded quality to his songwriting that can manifest either as painful earnestness or bitter cynicism; when Ben Folds Five’s 1997 album Whatever and Ever Amen makes the breakneck tonal shift from the tear-jerking abortion ballad “Brick” to the petty break-up bruiser “Song for the Dumped,” for example, Folds grounds the vastly different emotional stakes in the same sense of frustration and hurt.
That balance between cynicism and earnestness has shifted as Folds has aged; his 2001 solo debut Rockin’ the Suburbs skewed mostly melancholy (with the exception of its hit title track), while 2008’s Way to Normal turned an acerbic eye toward the perceived shallowness of suburban culture.
2010’s Lonely Avenue, which featured lyrics penned by English novelist Nick Hornby, is the exception; Folds says that it was “easy” to work without the emotional vulnerability of singing his own lyrics. “I’m a little shy when everyone’s hearing a song unveiled for the first time,” he says. “It’s usually a really tough moment for me. But for that one, it was just like, ‘[Expletive] it. Let’s pick the lyrics up and start singing them. They’re not mine.’”
Folds often offsets the brutal honesty of his music with profane, sometimes sophomoric humor. There’s “F10-D-A,” for example, or his 2006 cover of Dr. Dre’s “B****** Ain’t S***,” which ironically transplants the misogynistic posturing of the original into a heartbroken piano track. That wry undercurrent, Folds says, has led to many dismissing his music outright.
“I’m always getting into fights I didn’t mean to pick,” he says, “and humor’s risky business in music. I’ve always been branded a novelty, where it’s like, if you’re clowning, you can’t be serious. But I feel like any joke you make is just part of life. Sometimes, it’s to deter from the fact that you’re bumming.”
Humor, he says, allows him to tackle darker material and more serious emotions. “I look toward comedians for a lot of deep [expletive],” he adds. “They have to be honest, and they have a place on stage that is a safe space for being incredibly, dangerously honest if they’ll do it. Like, South Park is serious to me. I know that [the show’s writers] probably wouldn’t even want to acknowledge that, but it’s pretty heavy.”
“Now We’re a Band”
When Folds finished work on his concerto, he began searching for ways to integrate the music into a full-length LP. “We recorded it, and then I was like, ‘Well, damn, that’s 21 minutes of music. I’ve got to finish my album,’” he says.
yMusic, a six-piece chamber ensemble from New York who had previously collaborated with indie heavyweights such as the Dirty Projectors, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver, caught Folds’ attention. “I’d listened to their new album [2014’s Balance Problems], and was completely blown away,” he says. “By chance, the trumpet player was in town when I texted him to tell him how great the record was, so we just walked over and met for coffee. Now we’re a band.”
As the group began writing what would become So There’s first half, they focused on applying the philosophy of classical composition to the construction of rock songs. “It was all written out, it was all composed, arranged, orchestrated and then performed like a rock band,” Folds says. “Percussion was added to it — a few light drums — because after it was all said and done, it was sounding a little too chamber-groupy for me. It just needed a little bit more. So sometimes we added percussion, but there’s no bass or anything.”
It’s that type of scoring, he says, that sets So There apart. “When you make a record and you go, ‘Well, I’m going to incorporate an orchestra or strings,’ you generally have the bass. You’ve got the bed laid. The rock group’s working already, and you’re adding ornamentation. But in this case, the symphony orchestra and the chamber group are not ornamentation. They are the rock band.”
Despite that significant difference in the album’s rhythm section, Folds sees a continuity between So There and some of his much earlier material, such as the 1999 Ben Folds Five record The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.
“The thing about the Reinhold record, and a lot of the Ben Folds Five stuff, was that it was fairly well-arranged,” he says. “Even within the piano, bass and drums, there’s a certain kind of arrangement that was a little more thought-out and classical than some might have realized. [So There has] similar kinds of motifs and similar ways of building the composition. I didn’t realize that until after the fact.”
“I think the reason that it occurs to me to point that out,” he adds, “is because of my fear that someone looks at this as a complete digression of some kind, a detour or pet project, when actually it’s very much where my head’s been at for a long time.”
“A Loosening of Formality”
So There won’t be a one-off, either. Folds’ website notes that a follow-up collaboration with yMusic is already planned, “this time with an ear towards delving further into the group’s myriad rhythmic and percussive possibilities.” The website also notes his plans to pursue classical composition for a different group of musicians — university orchestra and wind ensembles — promising a piece that “is naughty as hell.” “I want them to feel like they’re breaking the law,” Folds says.
If there’s anything Folds hopes his forays into classical music can yield, it’s a renewed sense of interest in the genre — and, equally, a renewed sense of fun. That, he says, is the reasoning behind songs like “F10-D-A.”
“We all thought it was fun,” he says. “These guys [yMusic] are serious classical musicians, so that [song] is liberating. If you really want to get faux-deep about that, you’d say, what this means is a loosening of the formality that has really been in classical music since probably the mid-19th century, when we went [away] from, ‘You can applaud, or you’re supposed to applaud in the middle of pieces if, you know, the flute player does something amazing.’ Mozart loved it when people would clap between movements. Now, you have to shut the [expletive] up. It’s serious business. There’s no cussing. It’s all these rules. They tell you the rules before you go on and play. So maybe, in a way, that’s what [“F10-D-A”] means. Maybe it’s a little bit like, ‘You know, we’re allowed to do this, and these are human beings playing the instruments.”
He pauses, perhaps worried that he’s wandered into another fight he didn’t mean to pick.
“I think that’s applying a little too much importance to it,” he says. “But that could be in defense to somebody who’s just going to like, shrug it off as, ‘Well, this just goes to show why this guy’s an [expletive].’ There you go.”
Ben Folds and yMusic will perform at the Alabama Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 11. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $30 to $60. For more information, visit alabamatheatre.com.