(Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Ben Folds on his new album, upcoming tour and his relationship with the college scene

Ben Folds will be visiting the Sunshine State on this next leg of his tour. Folds has not performed in Florida for a few years so many fans are excited to see that he will be coming back. His first Florida concert will be Wednesday, April 20 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg followed by concerts in Melbourne and Jacksonville, FL. I recently had the chance to talk with Folds on the phone and asked him a variety of questions having to do with his latest album “So There,” his piano concerto, his photography and what he thinks about being a continuous favorite with the college students.


How has all the touring been going for you lately?

I tour, take a few weeks off, then tour, take a few weeks off. It feels like one continuous tour interrupted by a few weeks off. But right now we have yet to begin this year’s tour so I have had a bit of time away from it. We start up sometime mid-April. I don’t do Florida as often so it’s good. I’ve recently done a few more shows there so that’s cool.

How did this new album, “So There”, come about?

Well, I was commissioned to write a piano concerto. So once I finished that I thought that would be the end of it but the shows went really well and it seemed like maybe I needed to finish an album on that theme. A piano concerto is a long piece but that’s not long enough for an album so if I want to do an album I need to make the rest of the album more in this vein so that it fits. I met yMusic who is the chamber sextet on the record and the people I am touring with and just love working with them. So we just knocked out an album pretty quickly.

How did you end up writing a piano concerto?

I was at dinner with the head of the Nashville Ballet and we were talking about things that could be done with music and movement and I think it was his suggestion “why don’t you write a long form piece like a concerto and we will get a commission for it” and I said yes. It’s a lot of work and it keeps me from doing other things so it was a pretty serious commitment to jump into that thinking I would do that and play a few shows and a few shows turned into six shows in Nashville. We must have played for over 10,000 people, just the concerto. Three of the shows were ballet and three of the shows were just orchestra (Nashville Symphony).

What was it like seeing the ballet perform to your concerto?

I was concentrating so hard actually performing what I wrote, which was a little bit over my head at the time, that I would see a leg fly by every once in a while. I couldn’t really watch it. I might be able to watch it a little bit now because I’ve now performed the thing so many times that I’m getting more relaxed about looking up. But, ya know, you have to nail those things so I don’t get to look around.





Do you have a favorite movement?

No, but I took a slightly different approach and process on each movement. I don’t really have a method but I’ve written enough so I can usually see what kind of process I might be getting myself into with an idea in order to see it through. With this I didn’t have a process or a technique or anything so I was sort of inventing that so each movement had a different process. The one that would have been most true to the way that I think of song writing would’ve been the second movement; probably most resembles what I do when I write a song. The third movement would have been more like, I don’t want to say a jam session because it wasn’t that haphazard, but it was based on a lot of blind improve let’s see where it goes. You hear a lot of novelist write that way. Stephen King likes to say he has no idea where a novel is going when he embarks on the first chapter that would have been true for me with that movement. The first movement was a very generous sort of dumping of melodic ideas. This was more about tying in a lot of ideas. So where I had enough ideas to have written six pieces I didn’t develop necessarily I tied them together which I thought was cool. The second one was tougher but more like what I normally do.

Do you have a favorite song on “So There”?

I never really have favorite songs or favorite anythings. I wish I did and be able to say but I just don’t.

Is there a message you hope people to take away from this album?

I think all I can really want out of a record is for someone to relate to it or to be moved if that’s necessary or entertained or to step inside it. Just for it to be effective. I might mean one thing and they may get a completely different thing out of it and that’s fine. I don’t have a particular mission or that sort when I make a record. It’s more like, “this is what I am hearing this is what I wake up in the morning pulsing through my head I need to get that out there.”

What song are you sick of playing?

I think I would be sick of playing any of them if it weren’t for the audience. When you can feel that it is being absorbed it makes me feel like I just wrote it. Once I’ve toured a song a few times I don’t really know why I would sit down in my living room and play it. But when you are sharing it with an audience you can feel things in it. Sometimes you discover things. It could even be something like people laughing at a section and wow that is kind of funny. Or you can hear people sniffle really that part was the moving part that’s crazy. You just never know. I’m pretty equally happy to play any of them.

Do you have a favorite venue?

No, not really. It’s all about that particular night and the people assembled and that moment. I can’t think of any place. I always like playing the UK. They sort of get it. There is a level of danger there because I don’t play there as often so it also puts me back in time a bit. As I go across the States over and over we have a particular dialogue going and then when I go to the UK it’s like “Oh that’s right they weren’t at the dinner table for those things,” so I find that kind of interesting and fun. And actually it may be that way a little bit in Florida because Florida and the South in general up until this year it had been awhile since I played much.

Dotan is opening for you when you come to Tampa. What can you tell us about him?

He’s got a great voice, great engaging song writer. The Europeans have a little different way of looking at these things. People really loved him. We had him on some of the touring last year in the States. We had him back because it just went so well. He’s very much an overqualified opening act. I think everyone will dig it.


Collage of photos from when I saw Ben Folds perform with Missy Higgins at Ohio University in October 2008. Photos by Rachel S. O'Hara

Collage of photos from when I saw Ben Folds perform with Missy Higgins at Ohio University in October 2008. Photos by Rachel S. O’Hara


Most of your fans were introduced to you while in their college days. Why do you think it is that throughout the years you continue to resonate with college students?

I think one is, possibly, is that college era is kind of the height of your musical listening powers. It’s really when you are paying attention the most. Still a youthful energy, but then there is a wisdom that has come about by then. A grasp of irony. And I think that things that are slightly off the path, like my music, are well understood and appreciated by college students. They’re working their brains anyway, they’re academics. I think it all kind of works. I’m happy that as I’ve gone so long in my career that continues to be true. We never particularly thought, “Wow lets aim this stuff at college kids,” it’s just sort of where I was understood. It’s why I like the UK. I’m understood in the UK and I feel understood at universities.  They get it. They know when I’m joking, when I’m not joking. And it’s really been interesting to see college age kids’ change over the years. They’re a different breed now. And I still play for college age kids. And I love that. I myself never graduated college so I guess I’m doomed to keep repeating it until I get my B.A. one day.

So you are going to be on a “Hamilton” remix album. What can you tell us about that project?

Oh yeah, Regina Spektor and I, we did that. I guess both of us just must not have said anything to anybody and it just came out in the press release. It’s recorded, in the can.  I thought it was great. I sing a little, mostly Regina. Yeah, it’s great. Beautiful song.  It’s not one of the rap songs, which are amazing. The show is so inspiring. It’s just the best. I don’t know when it is coming out but the song has been done and she just really sings her butt off. It sounds so cool.

You closed a chapter with Music Row on April 1st. Where will you go to record now?

I don’t know. I took all my stuff and put it in storage. So maybe I’ll record in the storage pod. That would actually probably work. Dave (Cobb) has taken over the studio and is happy for me to come record there so I’ll probably be in there anyway. It’s not like I’ll never walk back in the building. It makes me reflect on, “Wow that was nearly 15 years in that studio.” Pretty crazy. I’m just happy the building is still there. I had to, at some point, come to grips with the fact that it was going to be demolished just a couple years ago. I’m glad it lives and I’d done all I could really there. I ran a reasonable business but I am a touring, recording artist and the studio needed more attention than that.

Your kids are 16 now. What do your kids think about your music?

I don’t know I’d have to ask them. They understand I’m good at it. They have music that they listen to. I don’t think you’d run around listening to your father’s music but I don’t get the sense that it embarrasses them or anything like that. But my music doesn’t really get played much around here. It’s not like I’m playing my shit in the house, at least when they’re here, I spare them. If I have to listen to takes, I’m listening to live takes right now of last year’s tour, because we are putting together a live record of it. I’m not going to play it while the kids are around. I don’t want to subject them to it.

So you’re coming out with a live album?

It’s everything we are playing on tour, yeah, the best of what we’ve played on this tour. Some of it is this album, but a lot of it is older stuff and all kind of stuff. It was six months of touring or something like that and we’ve gone through it all now so you can imagine I don’t want my kids having to listen to the same song over and over again. “Oh, that one messed up! Oh, messed up there too.” We’ve almost got it together. It’s going to be a 10-inch record. It’s just a fun record to put together. Those are harder though because there is a lot of stuff that can go on it. Sonically it sounds pretty damn good.  NOV.

Tell me a bit about Ben Folds Photography and what got you into photography?

It’s just a hobby. I never really have a particular project. The first time I had anything that resembled a project was when my kids were born because I realized I can either make way too many throwaway photographs, like the over documenting dad photos, or I can actually make something artistic that they can live with, they’ll like an image that will last. I spend a lot of time in the dark room. That has always been my preferred way of work. I can afford to do this because I am a hobbyist and I don’t have to turn the material around in the time that is expected these days. So as a result I’ve learned all the techniques really imaginable in the dark room. I’ve tried them all. Most photographers haven’t. Most photographers don’t know most of that stuff because they can’t afford too because they are busy working. Every old man I’ve talked to, especially photojournalists, I would pick up printing tips from. For me as a hobbyist it’s very nerd oriented.

Do you have anything say to the crowd coming out in Tampa?

Come out. We’ll make music. We’ll make some noise. Let’s rumble! It’s going to be amazing I’ll jump around on a pogo stick all night. It’s gonna be good.

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