Playing with a chamber ensemble is the latest iteration of Ben Folds’ restless musical career, as he seeks ways to stretch pop sensibilities. By Darryn King.

Classic Ben Folds

Ben Folds
Ben Folds

When Ben Folds was nine years old, growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, his carpenter father brought home a piano from work. It was payment from a customer otherwise unable to pay for his father’s services.

The young Folds launched himself at the piano immediately.

“I just played all the time,” says Folds. “I think I understood it, though I had no method for the longest time. I would just basically abstractly attack the piano and, by experimentation, hit and miss, trial and error, try to find things that made it work.”

He took a few lessons but, having grown up listening to old R&B records, he was bored by the stiltedness and rigidity of the classical pieces he was forced to practise. His mother took him out of lessons with one tutor when, waiting to pick him up, she overheard him teaching the tutor rock riffs. “I’m not paying for that,” she said.

Folds learnt that Neil Sedaka had a song published at age 13 and aspired to beat the record. He wrote instrumental pieces, but was infuriated by his own musical limitations.

“I was very frustrated by it. Especially after the first year when I’d hear things I wanted to do. My parents put up with a lot. I punched holes in walls, I broke things, I was just a fucking pain in the ass, because I was so desperately upset that I couldn’t make it do what I wanted it to do.”

Fast forward a few decades, and the iconic, legendary piano men of another generation are lining up to heap their praise on Folds. Randy Newman has said Folds plays piano better than he does. Billy Joel, too. And Elton John.

“I think some of it is fatherly,” Folds says. “Or… ‘uncular’…? I’m going to take a guess at the subtext: They were kings of an art form that ruled the music business. By the time I came through, I was erecting a lemonade stand next to the monument. I think they really sort of appreciate that I carry the torch a bit and also don’t do it in a ripoffy way. I couldn’t do what I do without them. It has to be the way Ravel felt about Debussy.”

Even those who aren’t fans of Folds’s music admit that he is something to behold at a piano, and not just in his hysterical on-stage moments when he is chucking his piano stool at the keyboard. His right-hand playing is agile, but his secret weapon may be precisely what Billy Joel, for example, lacks: a solid left hand (Folds is also a left-handed drummer) with an impressive finger span that can handle two, three, four notes more than the usual octave.

“I’ve been pulling my thumb out of its joint for my entire career in order to get it there,” says Folds. He’s had X-rays done. “It looks like a fucking car wreck. [Randy Newman] tells people I have a really good left hand. I don’t know if that’s supposed to be some jackoff joke.”

Folds is sporting a newish beard and sitting backstage at New York’s Beacon Theatre on the Upper West Side. He’s 49 now, with two children by his third wife – he’s been married, and divorced, four times. He’s just ploughed through a soundcheck with yMusic, the Brooklyn chamber sextet with whom he recorded his 2015 album So There, who are playing with him on his Australian tour this month. The album also included three movements of a concerto for piano and orchestra composed by Folds.

By Folds’ own admission, “experimentation” is too strong a word for his musical inclinations. No one expects him to venture into music “with a metal crunching machine and sirens,” he says. There’s a subtler undercurrent of relentless musical adventurousness going on though.

Folds sang and played all major instruments – piano, guitars, bass guitar and drums – for both his 1998 Ben Folds Five side-project Fear of Pop, and on his 2001 debut solo album, Rockin’ the Suburbs. On the other hand, his first compilation record as a solo artist was largely a vanishing act, an album of arrangements of his songs performed by college a cappella groups. In his ongoing work as a producer, he worked particularly closely with William Shatner – another who calls Folds “a musical genius” – on his album Has Been. He collaborated with English novelist Nick Hornby on the album Lonely Avenue, writing the tunes to Hornby’s words, and wrote a bunch of songs for charity with muso-writer power couple Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman. In concert, Folds is a compulsive improviser – it’s part of his live schtick to conjure a number out of nothing at least once per performance, when he isn’t conducting the audience in three-part harmony.

Folds says his essential interests as a songwriter are pretty much the same as they ever were – he includes his compositional efforts as a nine-year-old in that assessment – but the orchestral, Gershwin-inflected sound of his latest album seems a far cry from his material with Ben Folds Five, the band that also comprised Robert Sledge on bass and Darren Jessee on drums.

Gigging in the early-’90s, the band was competing with an endless parade of grunge bands. They were openly mocked for going to the trouble of lugging a piano to gigs; Folds took to wearing a wig and masquerading as a roadie to evade some of the inevitable piano-related disdain. They instinctively beefed up their sound in that environment. Their first single, “Jackson Cannery”, begins with aggressive, thumping chords on the lower reaches of the keyboard that are more percussion than piano.

The band soon found an audience hungry for the melodies, musicianship and sense of humour that the Nirvana sound-alikes lacked. “Underground”, their first successful single, was an effervescent cabaret number in pop drag. It was both exceptionally catchy and musically dynamic, with comical voices and falsetto and a piano solo outro.

“That really made a big audience happy,” says Folds. “We had the audacity to play more than three shitty chords.”

“Brick”, a monumental hit for the band, was defiant of the times in a different way: an achingly intimate and personal song about teenage abortion that ended up on a well-circulated list of pro-life songs and the equivalent list of pro-choice songs.

Even at this point, Folds found himself having to justify his stubborn loyalty to the piano, fending off jibes along the lines of, “Have you guys heard of this thing called a keyboard?”

“I was constantly defending it. Once we started to succeed, they’d say, ‘Well, we’d love for you to come up and play on the radio for us.’ ‘Well, we need a piano.’ ‘You’re joking.’ ‘No, not joking.’ I’d just say, I don’t play that other instrument. And I’m not precious. It can be upright, it can be out of tune. Whatever. But that’s the instrument I play.”

It isn’t just the old guard of piano men who hold Folds in high regard. He was also an inspiration to Tim Minchin when he was busily writing quirky piano-based pop in the ’90s. “Discovering Folds was huge for me,” Minchin told me, via email. “It gave me hope that an audience for my stuff might exist.”

Minchin would later pick Folds’ hardest-rocking number, “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces”, from Ben Folds Five’s second album, Whatever and Ever Amen, as one of his six Desert Island Discs. “It was probably the song that made me truly realise that I wasn’t alone,” Minchin says now. “Hitting the fuck out of a piano was actually a potential career path.”

At least once, Folds’ influence on another artist has gone to surreal extremes. In 2013, Brazilian singer Diego Lópes was nominated for the Azorean Music Award for the album Diego Lópes & Bebop, before it was discovered that the album was pretty much a song-for-song facsimile of Ben Folds Five’s 1995 debut album. It featured all of Ben Folds Five’s trademarks: supple piano playing, a noisy rhythm section led by a fuzz bass, and vigorous harmonies, but they were singing Portuguese lyrics. “The Last Polka” became “Polka”. “Uncle Walter” turned into “Old Miro”. “Philosophy” became “My Theory”. “Boxing” was “Knockout”. Even Lópes’s hair smacked of imitation, with exactly the same wispy and untamed quality of Folds’. Lópes was disqualified from the award in the end. Folds laughingly sums up his reaction to the whole saga: “He’s got a good ear.”

The connection between Folds and Minchin is deeper than their choice of instrument. Some of Folds’ most heartfelt songs have a tongue-in-cheek sensibility, and he cites the inspiration of comedian Andy Kaufman as someone who harnessed the power of surprise. It was in Kaufman’s spirit that Folds once “leaked” a fake version of an anticipated album.

On a songwriting level, that sensibility translates to steadfastly eschewing the conventional, especially in lyric writing.

“In pop music, what people want is a song for an occasion: I broke up with my boyfriend or girlfriend and I want a song; I love that motherfucker and I want a song; I lost my job and I want a song. They want a Hallmark card.”

Folds has no interest in that. He uses his three-and-a-half, four minutes of musical real estate to “imply a lifetime”. “Sometimes by accident, a lot of times by hard work, you can get a chunk of life in a song that has the DNA of a story. If you put it in a Petri dish, it would grow a story.”

By the end of the ’90s, Folds was already itching with ambition and chafing against Ben Folds Five. With the band’s third album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, in 2000, Folds was leading a conscious departure from the band’s sound: it was more honest, more serious and more likely to alienate their fans and inner circle.

“It’s not comfortable turning songs in to your record label and they’re like, ‘Well, where’s “Brick”?’ ” Folds laughs. “We had a choice to go kiss ass or break ties with all those expectations.” Opting for the latter finished the band, Folds says. “But it gave me the confidence, I think, to continue that honesty in my career in general. After that, it’s like, I’m still here. I didn’t die.”

Ben Folds Five reunited in 2011 for a new album and tour in 2012. The new tracks would have been received better, Folds suspects, if the band had simply replicated their sound of old. Again: no interest on his part. “When we play together, I’m back to being 27 years old. But I’ve been trying as hard as I can to propel myself forward, to hear stuff I’ve never heard before.”

One of the major threads running through Folds’ solo career has been his easy rapport with orchestras and classical musicians, which began – inauspiciously, he says – with a series of solo concerts alongside the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in 2005. In his own words, Folds was thrown to the sharks.

“I was used to a certain kind of thump and sizzle, where an orchestra only provides one big amorphous mush. But probably within eight to 10 gigs I started to get my sea legs.”

A little more than 10 years later, the concerto and the yMusic collaboration speak to success in that sink-or-swim pairing. So There spent some time on top of the classical album charts, even though it wasn’t necessarily marketed to a classical audience. “I didn’t really step up and say, ‘Yeah, John Adams in the house, bitch, what you got?’ ”

Now, he’s looking for the next thing, like the kid giving a piano hell in Winston-Salem 40 years ago, spurred on by the notion of unexplored musical horizons.

“I now hear all these things I want to do. ‘Oh, I could do that, or I could do that.’ This [tour with yMusic] is going to come to an end pretty soon. We’re going to tour up until the end of the summer and I don’t know if we’ll play together after that because everyone has got other things going on. I like that. We’ll play our last gig, have a drink, and I’ll find something else to do.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2016 as "Centre Folds".

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Darryn King is a New York-based arts writer.

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