Leave it to Todd Rundgren to spot The Difference. Hosting a 1995 episode of the late Philadelphia-based radio program of that name, Rundgren interviewed Ben Folds, “fronting his trio, The Ben Folds Five. Go figure,” the pop icon dryly noted. Reflecting on the experience sixteen years later, Folds recalled with typical candor the moment when Rundgren spotted the difference in the young musician. It was “fucking surreal…He said ‘you have a distinct voice.’ And I thought, ‘really? I think I sound like you, I think I sound like Elton, I think I sound like Joe Jackson…so, thank you!’ That was a really nice thing to hear out of someone who I think does have [a distinct voice]!” The singer, songwriter, pianist, producer, television personality, and multi-instrumentalist has been making waves with that distinct voice since the 1995 release of Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut. With his first-ever career-spanning anthology The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective arriving on October 11 from Epic, and NBC’s The Sing-Off gearing up for its third season (which premieres tonight) with Folds as a judge, the prolific artist took time out of his busy schedule to chat with The Second Disc’s Joe Marchese about past, present and future.
Best Imitation of Himself
Folds, 45, “had no idea it would be such a process” to assemble the truly comprehensive collection he had planned for both diehard fans and new listeners alike. “There was a lot to consider,” Folds begins. “The main disc is really for the uninitiated.” And after a pause, he continues, “I suppose I’ve stuck around long enough where the equivalent to me as a consumer might be, say, Graham Parker. I’m aware of his name, I know friends who respect what he does, he was around for a long time, and at some point I picked up a disc that encompassed everything. As a newcomer, you appreciate the old and the new stuff without bias.” That lack of bias from new and potential fans led Folds to sprinkle some personal favorites among more familiar songs on the eclectic 18-track “best of” disc. It was important to him to create “a full, equal representation of all phases of my career and what I felt resonated about that time period, like there [is] a song on there, ‘Still’ [written for the 2006 film Over the Hedge]. Not the most popular song, never gets requested, no reason to put it on there other than that, at that time in my life, I think it’s the best that I did. Maybe it will never come around, but maybe in years, maybe people will hear. I always felt there’s really something to that song. It’s like that.”
That main disc of Best Imitation will be available as a stand-alone release and also as the first disc of a deluxe three-CD edition. Folds crafted something very special for those second and third discs. He explains, “There’s a live disc and a rarities disc and as we discovered more and more and more and weeded out, it was a really heavy process. I would find something that was competitive or better or in some way illuminates something about the song that the studio version didn’t. I would take the studio version off the main disc and use the alternate version on the second or third disc. A lot of stuff got changed in that way and had an effect on the main disc.”
Folds is understandably proud of the new material finally seeing the light of day. One song, “Rock Star,” had previously been released in a very different version on the 2003 EP Sunny 16. In digging through the archives and finding his long-unheard demo, he came to a realization. “One thing I was struck by was that the version I arrived at for the EP that was released was just a real underwhelming track, and I’d never thought about the song anymore after that. To hear my head space upon the impulse of the song before it was even really finished, that’s so much more powerful. I think the song is lyrically, a really, really interesting song. It sure wasn’t when it was released,” he offers candidly. “I don’t know what happened by the time I kind of finished it; it wasn’t as good. I think it’s a really good reason to look back at these things because all artists ought to be honest about these sorts of things so they can make the right decisions in the future.” Both melodically and lyrically, Folds takes evident pride in the reworked “Rock Star.” But that’s not all. He soon discovered that he had much more to offer: “duplicates, triplicates of songs.”
The ’55’ Digital Vault: No “Sub-Par Shit”
There was so much, in fact, that a first-of-its-kind, 55-track digital vault will supplement Best Imitation of Myself. “It’s a natural place to put the more obscure, rare third-tier stuff,” he asserts, keenly aware of how he’s resonated with a generation raised on the Internet. “The fans can get it that way and my fans are mostly, have been Internet-based, savvy folks, since 2000, really. 2000 was the first year I recall signing more burned CDs than purchased CDs and I still think there are artists who can’t claim that. Anyway, the only way to placate everyone on our kind of curation team…was saying, ‘Okay, gets into the vault!’ ‘Alright, into the vault!’ I wanted to figure out how to put it on [a duet by The Divine Comedy’s] Neil Hannon and me…I had to go, okay, that goes into the vault. And that way it’s still out there. And what we did talk about was that none of the stuff in that 55 or 50 song collection in the vault could be sub-par shit. We weren’t going to do it. It turned out we had plenty. We still have stuff on deck.”
We’ve got much, much more with Ben Folds waiting for you, including the scoop on what’s next from Ben Folds Five! Just hit the jump!
The Ben Folds Five Reunion: 3 Songs Down, 10 to Go!
Among the many highlights on Best Imitation of Myself are three tracks by the reunited Ben Folds Five, the first new recordings by the trio in over a decade. Why a reunion? Why now? “It all happened really quickly,” Folds says. “The decision was all pretty quick and last minute and what I felt about that was: it was a retrospective record and was probably a good idea to think that way when recording. Not that we were going to imitate our former selves at all; I don’t think we’re capable of conjuring that up. The songs themselves? The Robert [Sledge, bassist] and Darren [Jessee, drummer] songs were two of my favorite songs that they’ve written and you know, they’d been recorded in their bands, they’d seen the light of day, and that makes it retrospective for them. [As for] the new song [“House,” written by Folds], I felt I had the past in mind, and I also found that we were gravitating towards another ten songs we had started working on that were very much more in the future, and we’ll be exploring that in December.” The band members are enthused about the prospect of continuing with these new, forward-thinking songs: “we’d get into this and then say, ‘we can’t put this on the retrospective record!’”
Although Folds, Jessee, and Sledge found themselves back in the groove, Folds points out that each man brought the sum of the past decade’s experiences to the table when preparing to record the new “House.” “It was a cool place to see it fall in,” he offers. “It’s interesting. It was a little bit of a crisis because we’ve all learned to play a little more in time, and do things that work with other groups really well, and other situations, and we tried to bring that together to make it work, and it didn’t really sound like us. But then when we tried to imitate our old selves, that wasn’t honest either, so we all realized we came to a place where we supported the song. It still sounds like us, but I don’t think you could mistake it for something on the old records.”
Folds grew up in North Carolina. “I began thinking I was going to be a percussionist in a symphony orchestra, and that’s what I worked out until I was 20 years old, and even had gone to an abroad program at Duke University to teach percussion and travel with the symphony,” the artist reflects. “But I had all these songs I wrote, so then they’re creeping up, and I would be in rock bands for fun, and I would be the songwriter, or contributing songwriter, and I would say, well, [what] about the singing? Then I’m making tapes of the songs, getting frustrated with the way real singers sound when they’re singing them, and I find myself making tapes and giving them to people,” self-deprecatingly adding, “…and running! Then I played a show on the piano, a last-minute thing, which I really enjoyed and got a lot of attention out of, and following that, it was all really difficult for me, because my first few shows of just playing the piano and singing my songs were so nerve-wracking for me that I thought I was gonna be sick the whole time. Somewhere, I thought this was the right thing to do and it just took me a long time to shake whatever tremendous fear and trepidation I had about doing it.”
He had shaken that initial hesitance by 1995. The year that Ben Folds Five first hit the scene, Alanis Morissette was at the top of the charts with “Ironic,” but in truth, nobody was more ironic than Ben Folds. The name of the trio was just a start. “Underground,” off that first, self-titled album, smirked at the alternative-rock hipsters, but that was the very scene in which the musician was gaining notice. Asked whether his music was indeed a response to the alternative and grunge scene exploding around him, Folds replies, “Probably!” He then clarifies, “Probably a little bit, yeah. I thought it was always really weird to talk to some guy and talk about laundry or what you’re gonna have for dinner tonight! I don’t understand that…I was just a musician.” Wearing his pop music sensibilities on his sleeve, Folds’ worldview has served him well over the years.
Folds once famously called his acerbic singer-songwriter piano-rock “punk rock for sissies,” and he generously credits his bandmates for giving his songs the edgy push that saw them to success. “[In my early demos you can hear] a guy who by himself wasn’t probably going into cut through somehow. I think when Robert and Darren came along, I needed to have something that represented what was going on underneath what I did. Robert and Darren were the real thing. They were playing in those kind of bands. They thought it was a really good challenge to do it this way so then it all clicked. I think it’s fun to hear the original version of ‘Best Imitation’ and it’s interesting. It’s a really good recording but you can hear how if that had been the first record, it would have been lost.” You can decide for yourself; the 1991 demo of the song that gives the new collection its title can, of course, be heard on the 3-CD set.
Karen and Jim
Though Folds has maintained one of the most unique voices in pop and rock, other names often get bandied about when describing his signature sound, a blend of AM-ready melodies and keenly observed, bitingly acerbic lyrics. He has always been open about crediting the influence of Elton John, Joe Jackson, and others on his style. Yet some of Folds’ influences just might surprise you. He lets us in on a secret: “At any given time, every record that we’ve made and make still, I find myself sort of almost quasi-obsessed both in a biography, biographical, musical sense of another artist, and it’s not who you’d think it was. For me [on Ben Folds Five’s 1997 platinum-selling major label debut] Whatever and Ever Amen, my obsession was Karen Carpenter. So much Carpenters! Right back to box sets, watching videos; there was something about her voice and her musicianship. And Richard, too, is great. They were great together, but why did she stick so hard? Why?” He seeks to answer his own question, musing, “There’s barely a vibrato in the voice…why? The fact that she died young? It kind of plays into Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, and anyone who died tragically young. She didn’t have that kind of obvious ‘fuck you’ in her music…[but] we would listen to tracks. [For] the song “Missing the War,” we were doing the vocal track on that record, and I kept going back to ‘Close to You’ by Carpenters, and I would go back to ours, and say, but ours doesn’t have that quality. Why does hers have that quality? And we would do the vocal again and listen to both and say it still doesn’t have that, why doesn’t it have that?”
Ben Folds Five’s next record, 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, wore its dramatic and orchestral influences on its sleeve, even featuring flugelhorn parts in the tradition of Burt Bacharach. But Folds had someone else in mind, too. “The next record we did, Reinhold Messner, was Doors, non-stop. It was nothing but Jim Morrison, for me. Big influences, but are they obvious? I don’t think so.”
From University A Cappella to The Sing-Off
As Ben Folds Five’s music took off on college radio, university a cappella groups began discovering Folds’ songs. This, in turn, led Ben Folds to the world of a cappella. “It began out of flattery, because they were all covering my music, and as a songwriter I always wanted people to cover my music, and it never happened,” he admits. “It was becoming a staple of university a cappella groups to have my music in the repertoire, and that wasn’t represented on records, it was just out there. It was kind of like the song ‘The Luckiest,’ which is used as lots of people’s wedding songs. But there’s no Top 10 Weddings or anything, so I used to wonder how successful that song is in that way. It was the same thing with my music, a cappella, so I thought, well, fuck it, let’s make a record!” With that can-do spirit in mind, Folds set out on the road to Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella!, released in April 2009 on the Epic label. “So I got in a van. It took six weeks, and went from place to place, we contacted them by YouTube. I would just write. They tried to do contests, and it wasn’t working, so I would just watch YouTube, and the ones I liked, I just wrote and said, ‘This is Ben, I’m going to come to your college and record you if you have time,’ and we put it all together.”
Later that year, Folds found himself seated alongside fellow singers Shawn Stockman (Boyz II Men) and Nicole Scherzinger (formerly of the Pussycat Dolls) for the first season of NBC-TV’s a cappella singing competition The Sing-Off. He returns to the program tonight as it begins its third season. Sara Bareilles (for whom Folds is producing an album) is replacing Scherzinger on the panel, as she has defected to join Simon Cowell, L.A. Reid, and Paula Abdul on Fox’s The X Factor.
The judge is animated, enthusiastic, and encouraging when speaking of the show and the impact it can have on young vocalists. “I think that we’re going through such a massive change in the way music is distributed and categorized, and…in this case, we’ve got this NBC Network reality music show that happens to be in some ways on the cutting edge of the issue about democracy, and it’s not that anybody can be a star. It’s that so many people are so utterly musical and unique, and to see groups one after another, of 15 kids and like 7 of them have stellar voices, that’s a real revelation! We all thought you had to have a license for this shit! We thought you had to have your record deal, publicist and there’s only one in a million. It turns out that’s not true! And so I find myself not really wanting to [only] champion them commercially but just enjoy what they do!”
What’s next for Ben Folds? For now, he’s concentrating on The Sing-Off and The Best Imitation of Myself. He’s excited about the prospect of bringing so much unreleased music to his fans, and found a number of surprises for himself, as well. “A lot of stuff on this record was not only unreleased, but I hadn’t even heard it! I don’t know how many records have that kind of ratio of unheard to heard music but it’s a lot…it’s a lot of shit!”
With Ben Folds Five currently planning to reunite in December (with live dates always a possibility after that), one might think that’s enough for Mr. Folds’ plate. Not so, he tells me. He’s confident about at least one more future career path: composer/lyricist of a Broadway musical. “I will do a musical one day,” Folds admits. “It’s starting to come into focus more now. It’s been an idea since 1995 when our first record came out, and all the various Broadway producers got in touch, and I’ve stayed in touch with so many of them and the fact is, I haven’t had time, and nothing’s really kind of come out. My prediction now is, within in the next two years, something will really start happening in assembling a team that I like now, and some really good concepts and some ways to do it which hopefully will be quite an experience. I never wanted to do this kind of ‘jive-ass break into song’ thing that I didn’t believe in, and so I keep quitting. We start it, I quit. We start it, I quit. It’s terrible!” If anyone can respect the past traditions of the musical and take them to a new plateau, I’ve every confidence that it’s Ben Folds. (He even name-checks two disparate musicals, The Music Man and Jesus Christ Superstar, in the liner notes to Best Imitation of Myself!) For this multi-hyphenate talent, it’s still all about the music.
“I’m in a hotel, and one of the housekeeping staff was singing her ass off down the hall. That’s good enough for me!” And the spirit, enthusiasm, generosity, and talent evinced by Ben Folds in each project is, indeed, good enough for us.
The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective is in stores October 11, in both 1-CD and 3-CD formats, from Epic Records and Legacy Recordings. The third season of The Sing-Off premieres tonight on NBC at 8:00 p.m. (7:00 central).