Ben Folds has established a unique place in contemporary music, becoming regarded as the creator of genre-bending sounds and an influencer of today’s generation of musicians. He will open the spring schedule events via Jorgensen Digital Stage on Thursday, March 4 at 8 p.m. with a livestream performance from Australia.
A self-described “quirky” musician, Folds first came to prominence in the alt-rock band Ben Folds Five, which had only three musicians. He continued his self-deprecating style of performance with several solo recordings before collaborating as a musician or producer with a diverse array of musicians, including Regina Spektor, “Weird Al” Yankovic, yMusic, actor William Shatner, and authors Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman. He has worked with several major orchestras and was named the first artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
His most recent album was a blend of pop songs and his “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” which reached No. 1 on both the Billboard classical and classical crossover charts.
Folds was on tour in Australia when the pandemic hit in early 2020. Since then, he has been holed up in Sydney, writing new music for his next album, working on a television series, a new podcast about creativity, and doing livestreams for his patrons on Patreon. Last June, he wrote and released a critically acclaimed single entitled “2020” on the turmoil of the pandemic.
He spoke with UConn Today about his career as a musician. The interview has been edited for clarity.
You have said it’s been good for you to do different things, that collaboration is where you find your space.
Yeah. I just think it’s the way almost everyone works. I’ll tend to make an album like “So There” and rather than saying it’s a Ben Folds album, it was put out as a collaboration between me and a band called yMusic and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, and that’s what it was. There’s a lot of artists who would just call it a Ben Folds album and then they would be on the credits somewhere. A lot of the things that I do gets framed that way because I get excited about the collaboration. Even if I make a solo album, I’ll be collaborating with musicians and possibly other writers. I think that’s the normal state of creating.
You famously have created a song onstage with an orchestra, with college students or major symphony orchestras. When you are in that moment, what are you thinking about?
It’s different each time. The common denominator is a certain amount of anxiety about it because it’s a pretty audacious thing to do, especially with the symphony orchestra. You’re sitting on stage with 70 great musicians who are used to doing things a certain way and some rock musician is going to come in and start to dictate parts to their sections? Each time, I try to find something to concentrate on. It’s like building a house or a model. There are parts and you learn roughly how the parts come together. I don’t think that musicians would particularly be all that impressed with what I’m doing in laying out the harmonies. I think they’d be impressed with the stupidity or the audacity of doing it. If you’re talking about a 10-minute party trick where you’re making an orchestra sound a certain way, that’s the easy part. The hard part is having something to hang it on and coming up with that quickly. Then there’s the social part. There are live people on your stage looking at you like you’re an idiot.
Listen to Ben Folds describe what it’s like to compose while on stage:
Fans have certain expectations of what they are going to hear or want to hear during a performance. How are you approaching streaming performances, where you don’t have that direct connection to the audience?
It’s a different kind of energy. I’ve done some live streams where there’s all that scrolling that happens with people making comments and we’re not usually privy to what’s on people’s minds, except for the odd heckler that security tosses out. I had to get used to that at first playing shows where I’m by myself, essentially in a bedroom with a digital keyboard. It’s real humbling, and actually it just brings it down to a real basic human one-on-one thing. It’s like, “Here’s one dude. I’m in my room, I’m stuck in here like you are. We don’t want to get a virus.” All of a sudden, I know what’s on these people’s minds and they’re talking about everything under the sun. I had to get used to that, but it is energy.
This hearkens back to when you were starting out in the business, maybe doing open mic nights, just trying to get gigs where you can get in front of an audience and prove yourself. Does that come into play?
I think that’s a state of mind any performer should aspire to put themselves in all time. You should have reality checks and those can come in the form of stretching too far with new material. I’ve got a guitar hanging up over there. I’ve been practicing every day for this last year. I’m becoming, I think, a reasonable guitarist. I made the rule myself, no guitar [in my band]. I’m enjoying breaking the rule because it’s humbling to call a friend mine and say, how do I do this little thing? I suck at it, but I’m practicing.
Getting back to collaborations, when you did “Live From Daryl’s House” with Daryl Hall, you would do piano solos which changed the songs, because while he’s a keyboard player, he primarily plays piano chords. He also has a group of musicians who are speaking compatible musical languages.
“Daryl’s House” is a treasured guest spot for me. That’s one if I had to send a few tidbits of my life up in the spaceship or I might pick to put it in a time capsule. When Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jessee (drums) and I played together in The Ben Folds Five, we never played one-size-fits-all kind of musicianship. We were very quirky, but I know that we all harbored the dream of playing in situations which were much more professional, if that makes any sense. Neither Robert, Darren, nor I could go in and be the band that was that Daryl Hall’s band, because what he did was bring in crack studio musicians who’ve done everything. They know how to do that kind of ultra-professional, one size fits all because they’re used to bringing in a variety of people. They have to fit to everything. I really think Robert and Darren, too, always kind of secretly wanted to be that and it would always come out in our recording sessions. One of us would start playing real traditionally and the other two would gang up on it and say — go play with Toto, what are you doing? We were kids. I love this because I got to go in and play with these amazing musicians and actually throw off all the kind of ego stylistic stuff. I thought that would define me and just go to be a great session player. It was fun because I got to do that. I learned all these Daryl Hall songs. I’m not used to learning other people’s songs and I soloed. If you listen to Ben Folds Five records, they’re not full of piano solos. It was a thing where I kind of got to feel grown up. I look up and see these guys ready to play and have their little drink and they can play anything. I’m thinking this is little intimidating, but it was fun.
Ben Folds discusses working with actor William Shatner:
You’re underselling yourself. I watched videos that included you doing a long encore where someone was turning music pages and you are singing one of your songs, the page turned, and then you went into a Billy Joel or Elton John tune. In discussions about musicians, I note that great musicians have open ears. They listen to a lot of stuff. They build a knowledge base and come up with their own music from that. Clearly, you’ve listened to a lot of music, and that I think has probably allowed you to be the collaborator you are, and be sought out for that.
An interview almost never goes where you’re going here with the bricks and mortar; the stuff that holds it together. Most musicians, and this goes for someone like Elton John too, are ultimately kind of working class in nature, in mindset. We want to show up on time. I know we don’t show up on time, but we’re proud of being paid for what we do. We’re professionals and we learn a vocabulary of music and we learn how to put it together. It’s very much like construction to me because my father is a construction worker. I related to that with Elton John when I visited him one time in his hotel. As you’d imagine, he had a whole floor in the penthouse suite in Tokyo. I went by to have lunch with him and he talked about the days of hauling his own electric piano up five flights of stairs and playing with musicians, how many nights he’s worked that year. He’ll tell you how many new cities he’s played that he’s never played before, all the things that are very kind of ingrained working-class things. For any musician, what we’ve done our whole life is we’ve listened. It’s part of our craft. You amass a vocabulary the way that you would to speak, and what it takes to put it together. If you’re going to be a professional, then you can put those pieces together on call at eight o’clock tonight. You’re not inspired at eight o’clock? Who gives a —. Get your ass on stage at eight and put together all those little pieces for us and build that thing, because this is how you make living. That’s ingrained in most musicians and we love that.
For tickets and more information about Ben Folds’ performance at UConn, visit the Jorgensen website.