Ben Folds & Nick Hornby: A Q&A With Ben Folds

Videos by American Songwriter

Rock novelist Nick Hornby may have penned all the lyrics for the new Ben Folds album Lonely Avenue, but that doesn’t mean the “Brick” singer is about to start writing books.

“With a song, it only takes a couple of minutes to go back to the beginning and try it again to see if it works. The novel freaks me out because, what if you get into the eighth chapter and think, ‘Let’s go to the top and see if this works again? It’s going to take me three weeks.’ I’m in awe of that.” We talked to the versatile piano man about Lonely Avenue, Randy Newman, and why he doesn’t actually like to write songs.

For this album, Nick Hornby sent you the lyrics, and you had to write songs around them. Did you have any trepidation about your ability to pull it off?

No, though I normally write from the music first. The music half of my brain is maybe a little faster than the other side. It’s sort of like interpretive dance. Almost anything that happens, I’ve probably got an interpretive melody.

With the Nick stuff, he’s giving me a life to live inside, when he sends me these lyrics, so I get a feeling off of them and within about 15 minutes I usually have the basic structure of the song. I was goofing around on Chatroulette and came up with these videos that went up on YouTube that got about 6 million views. Those videos are live, writing songs on the spot with strangers, who are coming over Chatroulette in front of an audience. If you were ever wondering what the process was like, it’s kind of similar to that, in how quickly the melodies come if there’s something to sing about.

“Belinda” is a pretty great song.

Nick always thought it was interesting that songwriters were saddled with having to sing the name of their ex over and over again for the rest of their career, like Eric Clapton and “Layla,” where you’ve got a famous couple and a huge hit song written with the woman’s name in it. But then they break up and years later, he’s still singing the song, still summoning the image of his ex ex ex ex, by this point.

So what he’s done is given me this sort of bizarre assignment of having to write a parody song to a hit song that never existed. It’s supposed to sound like a massive ‘70s pop song, a huge hit, that this man’s singing over and over again. But when he’s onstage, he’s sick of this woman, so he’s singing his own made-up words while the audience, who are in their 60s by this point, are singing the real words.

It was one of the more difficult songs to write, because, first of all, it’s not believable if it doesn’t sound like a massive hit. If the chorus doesn’t sound like a big hit from the ‘70s, I failed.

The second thing was, the first line of the song actually references the chorus. You don’t reference your chorus in the first line of the verse – that’s death in a song. So I found a way to do it; I weakened it with the relative minor, and I started the chorus about two bars earlier than it sounded like it should start, so you would get a good surprise jolt.

Also, I only allowed the chorus to happen twice. That way you felt at the end of the song that you’d heard the chorus three times, but the first time being the reference in the first verse. I’m taken with geeky songwriting stuff while working on his lyrics.

Are you the same with your own music, or was it just the nature of this project that allowed you to get into this mindset?

Like anything, it should be second nature. Even if someone hasn’t studied composition, the main devices haven’t changed. It’s not any different from Bach to Scott Joplin to The Beatles to Lady Gaga. I can’t believe I put her in the same line there, but the same thing holds true. You’ve got a theme, and you’re building on the main ideas; there’s augmentation, diminution, sequencing of the theme… All that stuff happens whether you’re a pop writer or whether you’re classical. Whether you can name it or not, it doesn’t really matter.

You once said “I don’t like writing songs that much, but I like that I write songs.” Is that still true?

It’s really funny. I don’t geek out that often, but I had dinner with Randy Newman, one of my favorite artists, the other night, and it was just fantastic. Weirdly, the only music we talked about was when he asked me, “Do you like writing songs?” I said, “No, I kind of hate it.” [laughs] He says, “That’s good, that’s good.” And most people don’t say “that’s good,” so I took that as a great affirmation from Randy.

But no, I don’t enjoy it, because it’s not rewarding to have this really fantastic feeling in your chest, a chill and inspiration, and just to watch it painfully slip through your fingers as you work through the reality of it. Most songs start as a very pure feeling, and the whole thing you want to do is get that feeling across to other people. And then they’re misunderstood as well, and you have all that to navigate, while you are writing it. You’re throwing everything against a wall, trying to find what it is that’s making you feel that way. And I don’t find that very damn fun at all. I think it’s a drag. There are worse things to do: I used to wait tables, I mowed lawns. What I love is playing the songs once they’re not mine anymore. An audience has them, and I don’t even remember writing them at that point. Then you can dig into them, and it’s more rewarding. But immediately speaking, it can be a real drag.

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