Web Exclusive: A conversation with Ben Folds
Inspired by an innocuous YouTube video, BEN FOLDS set out to create Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella, an album featuring collegiate vocal groups performing a cappella versions of his songs. The huge production found Folds flying from city to city, recording the groups in their own settings and presenting them on record while maintaining a focus on cohesion and clarity. BRIAN SHULTZ recently spoke with Folds about the album, another interesting collaboration in the works and why he hates greatest hits compilations.
How and when did the idea to do this album first come to you?
About two years ago, I was sent a [YouTube] link to an a cappella group covering one of my songs. I thought it was really good, and I was totally impressed with it. Then, next to it, it had the related videos thing. I clicked around on those a bit, just to see what else was going on-[and there were] a lot of covers of my stuff, but then lots of other songs they were doing, too. It just seemed to me that that needed to be a record.
Brick - Ben Folds Presents: The Ohio University Leading Tones
Were you ever tempted to sing leads on all the a cappella versions, like you do on the last few songs?
Oh, hell no. I had to listen to 250 submissions-at least-for this. And it was the lead vocals, generally, that would've been the reason why I chose the track. I'm a songwriter first, and I just always wanted to hear someone else sing my music. I've always envisioned there being a Stevie Wonder or someone with a huge voice singing my music [because] that's just never been me. I didn't really want to do the two songs that I did, but the idea was that if I did those two songs, it'd help the promotion of the record.
Did you put creative control into the hands of the a cappella groups?
Absolutely. I was like a National Geographic field recording producer. I just went to them in their natural habitats, set up mics, tried to make them comfortable, and their arrangements and everything were there. But we were making a record, [so] I wanted to make the best record we could. Sometimes I felt like it was best for me to step in and say, “You know, you've got, like, three octaves of thirds on this and that's just not... that's not cool. It's not working." Or I’d say, "I think you could sing louder," or something like that. [It was] just production stuff.
So by natural habitat, you basically mean the classrooms of the given group, right?
Sure. The first choice was always where they rehearse. If that wasn't available or we stepped into that space and we had problems recording there, [we’d move]. We had to go through massive amounts of class change noises and air conditioners and traffic, or it just didn't sound good. We just pretty much improvised the guerilla recording. Whatever we could get, we did it. The main thing was that they were singing where they live; where they are. They weren’t brought into an unnatural situation. A couple times that had to happen, but for the most part, it was field recordings.
Were you ever concerned the sound wouldn't turn out as high-quality or consistent on the album?
That wasn't a concern of mine. I knew we could get it. That's the thing about recording. That's what we do. You get the best recording you possibly can. A great performance is when you’re not thinking about it.
Did you get any submissions from non-university-affiliated a cappella groups?
A few. Most of them were university-affiliated. I chose one of the groups without knowing they were a high school group. I found that out when I called the dude and got his mom. Yeah, there were a few. One group that just about [missed getting] on the record was really interesting. One girl had overdubbed her voice in GarageBand; and I thought that was really good, but it didn't seem to fit in the sequence properly, and we were making a record. The bulk of the submissions--250 to 300---were a cappella groups from universities who were doing these songs live.
Magic - Ben Folds Presents: The University Of Chicagos Voices In Your Head
Have you ever sung in an a cappella group?
No, I haven't. Never did it.
Did you find it challenging to rework your songs that way?
Oh, yeah, but it was a fun challenge because [a cappella] has its own conventions, methods and techniques. I'm used to playing in a rock band, so I sort of had to learn the [a capella] language a bit, which was fun. It all sounded exotic to me at first, because I didn't know who was singing. “How's the bass working against the melody? Where's that rhythm coming from? Oh, some dude's doing beat boxing with his mouth.” Now I hear it. But I think most people just hear this wall of music, and you say, "Well, that's all voices," and they go, "Whoa, it is! Wow, that's cool!" That’s the way I hope the record falls on ears. I hope many people hear the record and don't think about it being a cappella. [I hope] they just think it sounds like a song.
Who are the vocalists backing you up on the songs you sing?
The two tracks that I did are almost all multi-tracked by me and my bassist, Jared Reynolds. That's mostly the two of us just piecing it together in the studio. See, I arranged these things and sorted it out on paper so it's all there. We brought professional singers in and they didn't know how to read music, so we had to send them home. We got this other group of singers, and they could read music, but they couldn't interpret rock music; Like, they sounded very stiff. They were opera singers. [Laughs.] Or choir singers or church people. So I just went back to the drawing board. My bassist reads music well, so the two of us just read the charts, sang each part and then overdubbed the next one.
You’ve been quoted as saying, "I’d rather this be my greatest hits record than someone collecting my masters and slapping on a photo of me leaning against a piano.” Do you harbor a bit of resentment for greatest hits collections?
[Laughs.] Well, you know, I'm probably engaging in a very light passive resistance to having to do a greatest hits record. My friends at the label--and I don't say that facetiously; they’re really friends of mine and they've done a lot for my career-- don't really agree with me and would like me to make a greatest hits album. I'm sure that they will, and they'll do it respectfully and stuff, but I kinda resist it. I think there's a way to go back into someone's catalog [without] just kind of chucking all the tracks together on an album like that. I'm not dead, so I'm not into it too much. But it'll probably happen, and there's not much I can do about it because it's in the contract. They can do it. The thing is, as soon as they say, "Okay Ben, we're releasing it," I'll probably try to figure out some way to make it so that if someone buys it, they don't feel like they just got ripped off. [Laughs.] I'll try to make it as fresh as possible. I don't know what we can do, but we'll see.
Would this potential collection include Ben Folds Five songs?
Oh, I would think it would have to. It's gonna be a greatest hits. I mean, the only hit I had really was with Ben Folds Five.
The Luckiest - Ben Folds Presents: The Washington University In St. Louis Amateurs
You had "Rockin' The Suburbs."
Yeah, well, I mean, I've had a lot of "hits." But I mean, as far as really numbers turning, sales, airplay, official big business, there was one-“Brick” [from 1997’s Whatever And Ever, Amen]. Then in 15 different countries, I've had an array of songs that were popular but not necessarily hits. I mean, two of my biggest songs weren't hits at all--one's "Bitches Ain't Shit," the Dr. Dre rewrite [on 2006’s Supersunnyspeedgraphic] that enjoyed a really successful run, but just not in terms of numbers. And "The Luckiest" [from 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs] is a huge wedding song now. But there aren't wedding charts, you know what I mean? I'm not a one-hit wonder, but I think you have to have Ben Folds Five represented, because that was the commercially popular era for me.
Were you worried about releasing this too close to Stems And Seeds?
Nah. Not at all. I think they're two totally different things, and if [the label] does it right, the a cappella record will be released through a lot of the university channels, too--like it would be in bookstores at colleges and stuff. I think it's totally different. Stems And Seeds was made for the fan club. You can't pay for it. It's expensive to make a record like that. I paid the production costs and the record company picked up the distribution in order to pay for the manufacturing. So it ends up being a record that'll be in a couple stores but it's not enjoying a lot of promotion.
You say in you're in the middle of another record right now. Do you mean promoting or recording?
I'm writing a record right now with British novelist Nick Hornby [High Fidelity, About A Boy].
He writes the lyrics and you write the music?
Yeah, he's quite a ways ahead of me. He's written a lot. But I've been on tour a long time. I’m just getting sent his lyrics. He'll just send them in an e-mail attachment [and say], "What do you think of this one?" Then I start putting music around it. I haven't really had much time to work on it, but I'll get to it.
How many songs do you think you’ll end up with?
Well, Nick is about up to 18 different sets of lyrics. As soon as I really start recording some of these, I think Nick is going to probably be inspired because he'll learn how his lyrics [adapt] to music and I kind of expect us to go through a second wind. I think we could end up going through about 30 songs before we make an album that has about 12. That makes sense to me.
Do you think you’ll be using anything you learned anything from the a cappella groups?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Not to sound obvious, but I think you learn a lot every time you record. This was an exercise in absolute live documentation of an event, which is a little bit of a lost art form, at least in the mainstream. That's what you do when you make a classical record. So I think that's really what I learned. Also, these groups were getting it right, like, quickly--much more quickly than most professionals get it right, because we have a different list of concerns about what's going on the record. The kids were just universally getting it right. They were like, "Oh, we're here to nail it. Fuck it. Let's do it." alt