Sometimes our heroes heighten their pedestals simply by showing their natural vulnerability. It emphasizes a point that tabloid magazines endlessly like to point out-stars are just like us. In Ben Folds’ case, it took the death of a friend to open that curtain.Sometimes our heroes heighten their pedestals simply by showing their natural vulnerability. It emphasizes a point that tabloid magazines endlessly like to point out-stars are just like us. In Ben Folds’ case, it took the death of a friend to open that curtain. Folds surely will win even greater respect from fans with “Late,” a heartfelt tribute to Elliott Smith and the eighth track on his recently released Songs For Silverman. “When desperate static beats the silence up/A quiet truth to calm you down,” Folds sings about the late songwriter. The next two lines suggest our common ground: “The songs you wrote/got me through a lot.” Music as therapy-it’s universally understood.
Folds is best known as an irreverent showman, a reputation he solidified in concert with his former band Ben Folds Five, but he’s also thoughtful, straightforward and genuine. That’s apparent on “Late,” and the traits shine through as he talked with American Songwriter in early May about the follow up to Rockin’ in the Suburbs. Folds says the approach to recording the album was loose and uninhibited: “We recorded this album really fast because I wasn’t worried about making changes to the song.”
It paid off. To borrow from the late, great Hunter S. Thompson, listening to Songs For Silverman feels like falling down an elevator shaft and falling into a pool of mermaids. When the Winston-Salem, N.C. native phones during a break from taping an episode of Austin City Limits, he’s just begun planning a late summer tour with Rufus Wainwright and Ben Lee. I begin by asking how “Landed,” the album’s first single, is doing on the charts, and Folds’ answer is blunt: “Not good.” But this doesn’t bother him-Folds isn’t one to measure success by units moved or chart rankings.
You recorded materials last year for a solo album and scrapped it, right? How much of that made it onto Songs for Silverman?
Yeah, I made demos. I guess about five or six of them are on the new album. “Give Judy My Notice,” “Time”…what else? I don’t know. I don’t have the list in front of me right now. But about five or six of them. The rest of them ended up on the EPs [Speed Graphic, Sunny 16 and Super D]. And it wasn’t as dramatic, as I’d recorded the whole album and scrapped it. I was recording anyway. I was putting a lot of stuff out on EPs, and I had stuff left over. So, we considered making an album, but when I really looked at it, I realized that I was just recording to record.
Tell me about the new albums title.
It’s called Songs For Silverman, and there’s no Silverman.
Can you explain that?
No, not really, there’s no story.
Ok, then. What’s the story behind the first single, “Landed”?
“Landed” is about a friend of mine who was in a bad relationship. I just wrote a song about it.
I know you wrote “late” about Elliot Smith. What were your experiences with him like?
We toured together for a few weeks…a good tour. He was a talented guy. Yeah, I mean, he was playing before me, then I played, then Beck played afterwards. We hung out a little bit, but not much. I didn’t really know him that well, but I liked him. He was a great guy. You know, when you’re on tour, you don’t get that much of a chance to hang out. I was usually just traveling. But we got along well. I was really sad when he died.
I’d imagine that’d be a hard song to write.
Actually, it wasn’t a hard song to write. It may have been a little difficult to decide that it’s OK to release it, but all in all, it was fairly easy writing. It was just a matter of cutting out anything necessary that wasn’t absolutely true, if that makes any sense. It was about keeping the song really honest, and keeping it to what I know. I didn’t try to make a big concept about it.
What inspired “Jesusland”?
“Jesusland” is sort of a walk across the country. You know, “There’s a billboard, there’s a McMansion, there’s a couple nice houses”…just trying to put together a montage that recreates the playing field as you have it.
Did you write it on the road?
No, I never write on the road. Well, I wrote one album on the road that I had to scrap because it sounded too much like a Foghat record. That was real dramatic because it was a real big budget record.
Is there any particular new song you’d like people to hear the most?
Nah, not really. I sequenced the album in the way I’d like it to be listened to. You also make every song individually so they stand on their own, and so anything that someone listens to is fine with me. I mean, sometimes when you hear 15 seconds of something taken out of context, it can be a little disconcerting. But I’m totally fine with it if people are listening.
I read that you said Songs for SIlverman is “Spiritually tight.” What exactly do you mean?
I don’t know. I mean, what I probably meant was, you know, if you spend a lot of time in the studio trying to tighten the living shit out of everything, you can loosen the overall emotional effect of the music. You can concentrate on the wrong thing. So, what I probably meant was that we were spending time-instead of sliding drum tracks around trying to make things perfect-more concerned with the impact and the subtlety. That’s more important. We did the takes very much live.
Now that you’re back with a band, which do you prefer, playing solo or with others?
They’re just different. It’s hard to even really compare and contrast the two. It’s all making music. I’ll do both in the future. I might go out with 87 people in the band next year.
That’d be quite an undertaking.
It is, but you get a different 87 people in each city to play. I played with the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra recently. The idea came up to do a tour [playing with orchestras] because we’ve been offered a show in every city in Australia by now.
Let’s talk songwriting. You said that you don’t write on the road. Do you have a typical writing process?
Usually, I come up with the music first. The way I think of it is that the music is some sort of abstract interpretation of the way I’m seeing things. I’m not usually all that aware of what the song’s actually about. When I look into what’s going on and think about what the song might be about [lyrically], I realize that’s what the music’s about to begin with. So, they kind of collide, and you put the two together. I can take a long time on a song. I can do it quickly, too, but I’ve started to take a long time on each song. The music always comes first, but then there are the things I’m thinking about writing at the same time. The music is like an interpretive dance. It’s what’s going on in your life, and you take it in and process it.
Do you think that a song has to have meaningful lyrics to be good?
Well, I don’t think there’s any rule. Shitty lyrics and shitty music can come together to make a great song. It’s the way that they come together and the impact they have. I mean, you know, if I was reaching into a stack of lyrics for a song to work on I wouldn’t pick up “Wooly Bully.” And if someone played me the tune and I heard it, I wouldn’t give a shit. But it’s a good song. It has its impact and it’s certainly lasted a long time. It’s not my favorite song, but you know what I mean. There’s something to it.
In what ways do you feel your songwriting has matured?
I think by the time I hit my stride and what I did was good enough to be on a record, I’m not so sure that it’s actually changed that much. The presentation has changed, but basically my style of writing songs has pretty much stayed the same. I try to be more subtle about some things. I don’t even know, though, I couldn’t really say quite honestly.
Has being a parent changed things?
Yeah, but that hasn’t changed my songwriting. I wrote a song for my son on one record and a song for my daughter [on Songs for Silverman], but to me that’s not a change in writing style. I used to write about whatever was in front of me, and that’s what I still do. I think that’s pretty normal. It’s like if having kids made me decide, you know, what’s really important in life is streamlining my chord progressions or being less dramatic or something like that…I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think it’s changed my writing style.
Many readers of this magazine are aspiring songwriters and musicians, presumably looking for a record deal. How did you land your first one?
Well, if I was going to give solicited advice to an aspiring songwriter or musician, I would say don’t make a demo tape. Concentrate on your music. Play live shows. I think the last thing someone should be going for is a record deal. I know that’s easy to say because I’ve got a record deal, but there were certainly a lot of times in the last 10 years when I wished I didn’t have a deal. This is not the day and age to be concentrating on that. There’s a whole other music business going on out there too. I just have always thought that if someone’s music is there and that was their guide, they’d have their day in court. That’s turned out true for almost everyone I know who stuck with it. It does take a lot of persistence, but a record deal is really overrated. It’s just someone to put out your record. A record deal doesn’t necessarily mean a good record deal. There are a lot of things to look at when it comes to distributing your record, and you’re in business with [the labels]. That’s about it. You get about 20 minutes with each of them, they come out to your shows and you do the whole handshake thing. You meet some pretty nice people, people who are good at what they do. I wouldn’t say go for a record deal-I’d say go with the most money, because most of the people at the label are probably gonna change. Keep concentrating on music. You know, the Internet has changed that a lot. It’s really giving the labels a run for their money. I think as an up-and-coming band, a label would almost be like natural selection. Like if you sign with a major label, you have Darwin’d yourself. You kind of went to the gutter there. Why not self-release albums? Concentrate on your craft-that’s what you should think about when you wake up and go to bed. Not the record deal. It’s not about the charts, and it’s not about the airplay. You have to keep that perspective, or you won’t last. I think a lot of people have lasted and outlasted criticism because of that. Even Madonna. Because at the beginning of the day and the end of the day, she remembers that if she doesn’t make a good record, she doesn’t have a job. I wouldn’t talk about it so much if I didn’t think it was killing music. I know a lot of really talented musicians who I wish weren’t as obsessed with their record deal, because I think they would have made much more great music.