Concert Preview: Ben Folds with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra
The acclaimed singer, songwriter, and producer joins forces with CSO on Saturday, April 9 to perform orchestral interpretations of his brilliant catalog - including a concerto featured on his most recently released album "So There".
I reach out regularly to agents and publicists to request interviews with big-league musicians who announce upcoming tour dates in Columbus. They receive hundreds of emails like mine on a daily basis – every one of us who sends them is hoping the stars will align and we’ll be able to steal a few precious minutes from their client’s already overflowing schedule to chat. More often than not, you don’t receive a response – and understandably so. If your PR team has to choose between booking a twenty-minute conference call with me and a twenty-minute interview on The Tonight Show…well…I’d probably pick Jimmy Fallon, too.
But every so often you do get a response. It could be a polite decline, or – if you’re especially lucky like I was last month – it could be Ben Folds’ media relations manager offering you a spot on his calendar the next day.
It’s hard to talk about Folds’ music without a certain amount of fanboy gushing on my part. It’s rather tempting to prattle on for paragraphs about how much I adore his expressive vocals, his penchant for experimentation, and his clever lyricism. All of that is completely true – but my endorsement is neither here nor there, really. Folds’ prolific catalog doesn’t need my critical bolster – it speaks for itself.
His latest album, So There, is more than just a record – to use Folds’ own verbiage from our conversation, it’s an event. Folds has a reputation for selecting fascinating – and sometimes surprising – recording partners for his projects. This time around, he’s enlisted the talents of New York City-based chamber ensemble, yMusic: Rob Moose, CJ Camerieri, Gabriel Cabezas, Alex Sopp, Hideaki Aomori, and Nadia Sirota. The product is as interesting and well-crafted as you’d expect – not unlike a storybook with Folds’ playful hooks as its body and yMusic’s exquisite instrumentation as its full-color illustrations. Listen to the opening track “Capable of Anything” and hear how the woodwinds and brass sparkle when they flirt with Folds’ steady, pulsing piano. Or the album’s first single, “Phone In A Pool”, where plucked strings poke up from underneath its frisky Jeff Lynne-channeled melody. Although audiences had been hearing “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” for well over a year while Folds was touring, he takes advantage of the soundscape he’s created on this album to finally showcase it to the music-buying world. It’s extraordinary. So There might seem as if it’s a refreshing interjection into the mainstream – and it is – but it’s also a tribute to an almost bygone era when classical orchestration and pop music sensibility were in a beautiful, long-term relationship.
Folds will join the Columbus Symphony Orchestra on April 9 for a nearly sold-out show at the Ohio Theatre. Afterward, yMusic will join him on the road for an extensive US tour before they cap off the summer with a handful of dates in Australia.
You’ve been collaborating with symphony orchestras on tour for the past year-and-a-half. How do you work with them to mount a show – and is it challenging to start from scratch every time you change venues and personnel?
“Well, the incredible thing about symphony orchestras – the good ones – is they’re generally outstanding readers. The songs are all charted and scored down to the note, the rest, the tempo, the dynamics – everything’s in the music. Very often, I work with a conductor I’ve worked with before now that I’ve done so many tours like these. Probably the guy that I’ll work with in Columbus – I haven’t checked the schedule – is (someone) I’ve worked with four or five times and is very familiar with my music and the concerto. He’ll know what’s up with the scores – the orchestra may already know a lot of the material by now because we’ve played it a lot together before. But even without any of that, it’s on the page and that comes about by someone having to score it – very rarely me. I’ll revise it, add my bits to it. Sometimes…their directive is to interpret my arrangement and fill it out. We tour these things and revise them; they never really come out of the gate exactly as they’re supposed to be. It’s the great symphony orchestras leading it – and we come in extremely well prepared.”
You were recently quoted as saying that So There is one of the best albums you’ve ever made. What do you believe makes it so?
“Yeah, I mean it’s absolutely subjective, you know. I just don’t feel like it’s a record that I’ve heard before…I mean, there aren’t many rock records will full piano concertos on them, for one. So, it’s a different record. But, I feel like we pulled it off really well, too. And I don’t often feel that way about a record right after I’ve finished it. I couldn’t say if that matters at the end of the day. I hear these artists all the time go ‘it’s the best thing I’ve ever made’ – and you listen to it and you’re like ‘are you serious? This is what you think is your best?’ I don’t know. But that’s the way I feel about it.’
“Phone In A Pool” is actually about you tossing your cell phone in a pool – I’d made the wrong assumption at first that it must be a metaphor. Does your songwriting tend to be more literal, or would you say it leans toward the abstract?
“I think some of the most abstract stuff comes from taking one specific, literal moment and bothering to dwell on it. I mean, that in and of itself can be a very abstract thing. I feel like there needs to be that ambiguity: ‘is that real? Is he for real? Is that about him or about somebody else? Did that happen or is that a symbol for something?’ That’s the way life is. I think things happen and you’re like ‘what the fuck did that happen for?! That’s insane!’ And, you read out of it what you want to, you know? It’s like The Incredible Lightness of Being or something like that where you’ve got a character that just keeps thinking about things as a sign from God: ‘this is a sign – he likes Beethoven!’ If you plant those in songs right, you can evoke those things from the listener if they’re willing – if that’s the way you listen to music. There are several ways to listen to music, and listening to (songs) as poetry is one. But, it doesn’t have to be intended and you don’t have to listen to it that way.”
Tell me about your partnership with yMusic on this record. How did you mesh your strengths together?
“They’re some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard. Working with them…they’re very open-minded, and I think I am. And we just arrive however we can at the thing that makes it work or makes us happy. Some of the arrangements were ones I brought in, some of them are ones that one of the two guys in the group who arrange did, and some of them are a little more collaborative between everybody. So, it’s just all over the map. Almost every song represented a different model of how we could do it. I think part of that was this being our first thing that we’ve worked on together where we’re just trying stuff – ‘oh, today let’s try it this way! Oh, let’s dictate!’ Sure, we’ll try it that way. Next day is like ‘I’ve got a chart!’ Great, let’s do that. Done. Fine. I would trust them and I would just go to the other side of the studio and work on something else and let Rob and CJ just finish off a chart – why not? And then we’ll play it. And when we did play it, that’s that. We’re done. We might make a couple of revisions – some days we made crazy revisions, other days we just did it. It was really a fresh process, you know? Really fast, too. We worked quickly.”
You are also an avid photographer. What draws you to that art form?
“I don’t really even know. I mean there are so many things I like about photography. It gives me a fresh look on music, for sure. One thing I like about photography – it’s just…it’s really the base: I like cameras. I like the equipment and the cameras and chemicals and enlargers. I like the connection to the past. And then it gets more artistic – I guess I like framing. You just question it over and over and over again. ‘Should I have been a little to the left? Just a little bit? But that one line – what does that mean? Does it mean I’m boxed in?’ In music, I don’t have to ask myself those questions as much. So, it’s kind of cool to have sort of a discipline or art form or hobby that, if nothing else, points out some of the strengths I have in music. Because some things that I worry about in photography – I can see that there are masters of it that don’t worry about those things. They never did. They just had a voice. And I see a lot of other musicians and artists that struggle with things that never were a struggle for me with music. So that give s me a little confidence and it also reminds me to keep some innocence about it all, too, as a musician. For instance, if I love cameras – I like to talk to other photographers about cameras. I will probably come across a photographer who will say ‘I don’t give a shit. Who the fuck cares? Just take the fuckin’ picture. Who gives a shit? You shouldn’t care. I don’t talk shop – that’s way beneath me.’ But, then I think about music and I go ‘you know what? I wouldn’t say that to someone about music.’ If they’re fascinated with a tape machine or a piano or something – great! Be excited about it. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll find some artists – photographers, artists, musicians – who are very excited and willing to talk shop and others who are not. Those things are interesting to me and I think keep me a little more well balanced – and I think it’s just a good distraction. I get sick of making music and I really enjoy sinking myself into what’s essentially my hobby.”
I wanted to ask you about Grand Victor Sound, the recording studio you saved from demolition in Nashville. It was undoubtedly a labor of love as you restored it. In a technological era where someone can fully produce an album on an iPad in almost any location, do you think studios still have a relevant place in the industry?
“These days, you know – you’re right – we can record and mix a record on an airplane with headphones. You can do all this stuff anywhere you want to. But there has to be, still, a place – sort of a temple – where you can capture performance. That’s mainly what a studio is about. In the studio, you have the advantage of the control room, monitoring a certain way, equipment at your fingertips, and a room that sounds good and that’s malleable – and all the idiosyncratic angles to a room and all the organic stuff. The studio is meant for people who want to capture an event – and I think you always have to have those. Now, we see there aren’t as many of them because, you know, a lot of people use the studio to capture events that didn’t happen. So, those are the kinds of records that get made based on a concept – not so much based on capturing the event. For me, I find that the less familiar I am with the music, the genre, the artist – all this stuff – the more interested I am in the event that was captured. To give you an example – I love to go pick up old 78 records. It’s insane because all these people made all these 78 RPM records that sound amazing. And all these names – they’ve just long been forgotten. They may have not even been popular then – I don’t know where these come from. You go to yard sales and stuff and you just find all of this shit! I love putting those on and knowing that I’m hearing a day…an hour…three minutes…whatever…in this artist’s life. Maybe they even work a day job and they just went in the studio and did this one thing. I feel really drawn to that. I feel a lot less drawn to, like, an 80s record – for instance – or 90s up through now where I’m hearing something that didn’t happen. Not that I’m not into it in that moment when it’s popular and the moment that it’s responding almost like it’s an internet meme or a design suggestion. That’s what I like about Mark Ronson – that’s what I like about that record that he did (Uptown Funk). It was, like, a silly little dance record – but goddamn I hear the event on everything, and I love that about it. And I hear that with Kendrick Lamar, too. I hear an event going on in his music. I doesn’t have to have happened all at that one moment, but the studio is the place to make that happen. Of course, you can record in a church, or record in a bathroom, or a bedroom, or whatever, and bring the equipment in. The Talking Heads made a couple of great records in their house – and we made (Ben Folds Five’s) second record (Whatever and Ever Amen) in a living room. So they can be done other places. But there’s something really nice about ‘lab coats meet the artist’ – someone whose job it is to capture the event and they’re sensitive to the mood of the artist. Like they’re bringing in a lab experiment or something, and they’re like ‘we’ve got to get this musician in his natural habitat – he needs to feel like that so he can mate’ (laughs). I think that art form – it’s not completely lost – but it’s certainly not the only way to do it anymore. And the studio that I worked so hard to help save had had so many successful experiences in it – so many great records come out over so many different eras of technology and popular curve and everything. It really was worth saving – it needed to survive. It would have been another thing if it never was successful. It was always successful studio – and to, like, take this part of our history and just fuckin’ throw it away and put some condos there was not okay with me.”
It also seems that managing the studio with accessibility to other artists in mind was an important business consideration.
“Yeah – and, you know, I’m out of the business now as of April. (Producer) Dave Cobb’s taking it over and I’m bowing out. And that’s great because he’s full-time making records and I tour and do all kinds of other stuff. I’ve spent a lot of money on that place, and I actually can’t keep doing it. So, we got it saved and now someone else is going to pick it up and keep going.”
The mix of genres you explored on this album – is that something you’ll continue with moving forward, or have you moved on at this point?
“I’ve probably moved on. But I’ll circle back to it, I’m sure. I tend to kind of – predictably – go all the way left and then all the way right. I swerve around a lot. So it wouldn’t be normal for me to make the next record like the one before.”
Ben Folds will perform with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, April 9 at the Ohio Theatre. Tickets prices range from $25.00-$68.00 via Ticketmaster. “So There” is available on New West Records via benfolds.com.