Empathy And Character: A Conversation With Ben Folds
  • MONDAY, APRIL 04, 2016

  • Posted by: Mike Montemarano

Ben Folds has branded himself on his dynamism within the songs he writes, combining his disciplined piano that rests aisde some of the greatest piano rock frontmen of the last 50 years, with an unbounded, Frank Zappa-esque wit that can put people's sensibilities to the test...in the best way. Since his earliest records with Ben Folds Five to his more contemporary solo material, Folds' rigorous and meticulous musicianship together with his probing looks at parts of life near which few dare to tread have distinguished him as a musician who is willing to shatter boundaries within pop rock.

His wittiness often takes centerfold in each song he writes, whether it be a piano rock song or in his shattering orchestral performances alongside the yMusic ensemble on his latest album, So There. By providing a proper dose of earnest and heartfelt emotional outpouring with some dashes of comedic gags that encompass a genuine interpretation of passionate yet honest emotional moments that have sparked controversial feelings among critics, Folds has been working like a machine to churn out one inspiring and well-crafted musical depiction of life after the next, driven through constant pushes into new musical and thematic directions with each masterful album and subversive collaboration with artists such as William Shatner or Regina Spektor.

Fold's knack for constant gag relief throughout his often earnest and caring take on music has pushed the boundaries on what a pop musician can get away with in the best way possible. In songs like "All U Can Eat," "Song For The Dumped," "Rockin the Suburbs," and many others on his solo album Way To Normal, he takes a frenzied and unhindered jab at everyone to the sophisticated backdrop of a piano's jazzy and charming din. For those more adapted to pop musicians who don't like to break out of a comfort zone or do what isn't safe, it seems like some have a bit of trouble reading into the often ironic and iconoclastic (though admittedly reckless) nature of Folds' hilarity and wisdom in his ageless and far-reaching introspections.



"Pop music is interesting stuff. People want it to be more liberal than I'm willing. Randy Newman has this problem where he would write from [the point of view of] characters, and I've heard authors say, 'you need to find some flaws. Your character needs to have a flaw and some very uncomfortable moments for them to grow.' I feel like if you do that in pop music, you get a lot of people who say, 'that guy is just pissed! He hates women!' All kinds of stuff.

I've gotten misogynist labels over and over again. I remember one time I did an interview where this guy pushed on about the misogyny thing and I was like, 'look dude...I don't know. My lawyer's female. My manager's female. My booking agent's female, and they don't see it that way.' It's just a point of view. Having said that, I can see that I have modes...like this is a very funny song; that's a mode. This is a very serious song; that's another mode. But I don't know...I think I'm looking for something to pull apart when writing a song. But I could probably pretty easily point out the positives or negatives in a song that someone might point out as angry or lacking in empathy, and I could show you where I was very empathetic with a very angry character.

I mean, take a song I didn't write the words to, and a lot of this came from this song, which is 'Song for the Dumped,' and the words are 'give me my money back, bitch.' Well, I didn't write those words, but I would say that the reason I was drawn to including those first couple of words was that, 'wow, this guy's really gotten his feelings hurt; he was really all-in,' and he was so insecure that when she broke up with him he was like 'you can't get the best of me; I want my T-shirt back. You should've done that before dinner.' It was a pretty sensitive, insecure point of view. I think, to me, that resonated, but what I got out of it was, 'boy, he's sure pissed off at that bitch.' But that never happened to me; those weren't my words, and even if those were my words, I was attracted to that character. You don't just get pissed off at somebody without caring to begin with.

If you want to know my personal experience, I'm on the most friendly and open basis with any of my exes as you can be. One not so much, but the rest...it takes two, to stop both of us from being dicks. For the most part, anyone I've ever been in a relationship with, we've got all kinds of respect and it's not like that, but it's an interesting topic to talk about."

As a band that truly pushed boundaries and got away with things that most acts could only dream of, Ben Folds Five found their start not in the kinds of piano lounge environments one would expect but rather in small, dingy punk rock clubs.

"It's where we felt to play. It really all came down to positioning ourselves musically, and it was marketing, really, when you get down to it. The fun irony of playing a punk rock club was that we weren't particularly welcome there, and the interesting thing was that punk rock wasn't particularly welcome anywhere else. That gave us a little subversive edge, and it was tough because we'd have to roll a baby grand piano into a club with a rock band called 'Fucking Death Grip' playing the same night. We'd have to get the piano out of the way with some mean, bugged-out stage guy telling us we couldn't move the piano in, and calling us fucking pussies and stuff, so that wasn't comfortable. But it also helped I think, because that gave us some energy, and I enjoyed that period."

Folds opened up about where he was coming from when he wrote many of his rawest tracks. His confident and forthright approach to the good, the bad, and the ugly has often been misinterpreted or condemned by critics without an open dialogue. What Folds assures is that in even his most "abrasive" songs, he feels the need to encompass and give credit to every character he includes, flaws and all. The empathy is always present, it's just channeled in bizarre and jarring ways that take some reading into.

"There's two sides of it. A song can't do everything, and no piece of art does everything. If it's pop music, what people expect out of pop music is to be a little bit more literal, and for each occasion, they want a song for a particular thing, like 'here's my song for breakups.' I don't really look at a breakup song as the end of something; I look at it as the end of something and the beginning of something else. I'm probably a lot smarter than lots of people who listen to my music and I'm probably a lot dumber than some people who listen to my music. Depending on where you're sitting, you're going to have a vantage point down to the writer or up to the writer. I find that I have a vantage point down to my subjects. I try not to write down to my subjects. I can descend down to the guy yelling at some chick and I can descend down to the chick being yelled at, and I can find flaws in both of them. I tend to see things as never being one person's fault...which is funny because what a lot of people believe is that there is a lot of finger-wagging and finger-pointing. I don't think there's a lot of that in my opinion. But you have to take it song-by-song, and I'm sure there are songs that I couldn't defend, and I wouldn't."



For many musicians, harsh criticisms can get abundant. What distinguishes Ben Folds from most musicians is the huge clash between critical acclaim and disdain for everything he's put out, down to a track-by-track basis. He noted a very interesting example with one of his earliest songs, "Brick," which was about his experiences in supporting a former girlfriend who had gone through an abortion, to showcase the way his songs seem to have a universal effect on completely different people.

"If someone is misinterpreting a song, they might just be hyper interpreting one angle of it, and while I might not agree with it, my job should be to make them feel something. If someone's feeling something out of the song and they're picking something up and filtering it through their own experience, that's kinda cool. Let's say it's a song with person versus person, or boy versus girl because people love that. Well, some people take the boy's side and some people take the girl's side. An example of a song where I was happy that it was broadly interpreted was the song 'Brick' which was almost in the same year simultaneously on a fairly well-circulated top ten conservative songs about pro-life list, and on a top ten list for liberal pro-choice, and it circulated on both of those lists. I was kind of proud of that because what I wanted was for someone to feel that sadness of the experience with no opinion on what you should do or be allowed to do. I never took a stance on it, I just said, 'here's a story and here's what it feels like.'

Sometimes we want things in pop music that make a statement. It's easy to get one side, but I would argue that if someone's getting one side of it, it's because they're only seeing one side of it. They're gonna go for half empty, and I maybe meant half full. It's very important to me for a song not to be wagging its finger. I like to ride that line a lot. I enjoy it, and sometimes people write it off. The reason the family stuff like 'Gracie,' and 'Still Fighting It,' those two songs'Gracie' is pretty much straight-up positive. The reason is, I wrote that for her when she was four years old, and I wanted something that I could see something in as an adult, and I wanted something that she could get now and always get a little bit more out of later. 'Still Fighting It' was more like the first thing that came to mind, so that was more ambiguous, and a lot of stuff like 'you're like me; I'm sorry.' That's got two sides to the coin, too. It's not person against a person like in a breakup where people take sides.

At the end of the day, I don't mind interpretation. If I wanted to be very specific, I wouldn't be writing poetically. It wouldn't be so ambiguous. It would be more like a manual on how to change time. Sometimes people do interpret it in a way that I never would have guessed. When that's being used to kind of bully the artist, like what Rolling Stone would've done before they stopped reviewing my music a couple albums ago, which would be very personal. It was like, 'this guy's got a problem; this guy's done this. This guy's done that.' That's a whole different story."



One of his many love-inspired songs which delves into a collapsing relationship can be found on the latest album's title track, "So There," which Folds uses to explain the way he delves into characters in order to paint a portrait of the visceral and authentic experience without the rose-tinted glasses. A well thought-out emotional depth in pop music, of course, comes at the cost of nothing being sugar coated; the moments of hurt, for Folds, are supposed to hurt, in a way that's real with all sappiness and ability to be easily sold cast aside.

"The way I saw it was a sort of lost joy of getting your own place, and the couple in the story I was painting around it just going into the song to get a picture was that maybe they were young and they talked a lot about moving to New York together, Brooklyn specifically. Then they break up, and this guy or girl...actually, I imagine this coming from a girl's point of view. I always saw a female thing in these lyrics; they always seemed to be coming from a female point of view. But it was like, man, I did this; I'm actually here. I'm typing you a letter but of course I'm doing it with my thumbs on a phone because I'm sitting on a pile of boxes. I can put my stuff where I want to now, but I don't know where exactly to put it.

The imagery to me is really blue skies, messy, slushy streets in the winter, and that's new. I think with a breakup, so much of it, or the catch to it, is 'I can't forget you. There's just nothing there.' There's nothing wrong with that. That just means that this person was invested in something and probably projected a whole lot. 'He or she is perfect; he or she is this or that.' That's not so much of a cut down. It's not like, 'nothing to remember, bitch!' It's more like you had a lot of stuff projected on you. I can't be able to forget the person because I never bothered to know who you actually were. Now I'm trying to figure out who I am, because I'm trying to figure out where I want my furniture, and I projected someone onto me who I'm not, and it's not a good development. It's a little sad. I'm off on my own, and it's a little exciting. I think on their part, it's like, 'yeah, that's sort of a jab,' but it's like a doing it for themselves sort of jab. But it's like, 'yeah, fucking, so there, I'm a person; I can do this.' It's sort of like 'I Will Survive,' which is one of the best breakup songs ever. It's that sentiment times one hundred."

Ben Folds has been one of several well-known musicians to publicly endorse a presidential candidate during the current primary election cycle, which he did in a high-profile way on Super Tuesday. At a Bernie Sanders rally in Vermont, Folds and his daughter both opened up with a candid performance in anticipation for Bernie's win in his home state. So far, Folds has had a resoundingly positive experience among his fans regarding how he carried out his endorsement.

"I think it's been really respectful, even in my two posts about it. The second one was just tons of people saying thanks about having a lot of class about it, whether they agreed or not. I think that's great, that's what we need.

The whole thing was an amazing little experience. My daughter, Gracie, she's sixteen, and she joined me onstage, and that was fun. She's a great singer. She's certainly the singer in the family, so that was fun. Seeing how that organization works is pretty incredible. Just seeing how everything worked from the inside was amazing, and there were a lot of great people."

After some time, we got to talking about Folds' latest release, So There, and some of the many inspirations that went into it. It was through a lucky coincidence that Folds and the yMusic ensemble managed to run into each other, but from that little spark came a powerful influence of chamber pop into Folds' songwriting that was unique to such a dynamic small orchestra.

"I just liked them. I loved their record, and I like them personally. We just clicked from the first meeting I had with C.J. the trumpet player. We just happened to be in the same neighborhood the day I wrote a fan email and I was just like, 'I'm two blocks away; lets meet.' We talked and really met eye-to-eye on music and how it ought to be accomplished. The day we first worked together I thought, 'there's' nothing but possibility here; they're so fucking good,' and it's a really positive group of people. There's nothing we can't do. It's just like, 'let's pursue this,' and we make it work. I just think they're amazing."



With this experience, it can be said without a doubt that the making of So There will in many ways enhance and encourage Folds' songwriting and what he incorporates in his craft in his future endeavors, whether it be experimentation in the studio or during his vibrant and off-the-wall live performances. Though it can be certain that his music's evolution will come fast, it's likely going to be similar to his impact in the past by hitting the audience where they least expect it. As is the mark of some of the most versatile musicians, Folds' live performances will be filled with constant improvisations and re-imagined takes on the set list, which differs from show-to-show but always includes great songs from throughout many years.

"I never really do a direction. I tend to kind of skirt off one side of the road and then jam it back to the other. I mean, I'll do more of it, but I'm not sure it's a direction exactly. I'll probably do more of something else, because I get tired of doing one thing and then find a renewed interest in doing something I haven't done for a while. Right now I've got a couple of things in mind that are kind of interesting. One of those things is a solo piano record, and another is maybe more of a collaboration of some sort with some very acoustic pop songs. I feel that's where my interest is. Long term, I do have pieces I want to write, for instance, for university orchestras and ensembles. For me, I would've found that really fun...to have a current pop writer write stuff to orchestrate; it's exclusive for me. We've updated the repertoire a little bit, and it's been evolving. The shows we've done so far have been some of my favorites ever and I love this configuration. If one night we decide we need something new, we just get together in a hotel room with laptops and instruments and really quickly arrange something else new, and then just go into the gig with it."

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