He (and the oddball pop band which bore his name) scored a surprise radio smash in the spring of 1998 with what is possibly the most depressing pop song ever find a mass audience, the devastating “Brick.” But if you think that success is there all is to know about the Ben Folds story, think again: he has just released his latest album, a frisky and fascinating collaboration with novelist Nick Hornby entitled Lonely Avenue, and he presides over the judging panel on NBC’s hit music competition series The Sing-Off, which the network recently renewed for a third season set to premiere later this year. (A companion album — featuring the best of season two’s contestants performing freshly recorded a cappella takes on such hits as OneRepublic’s “Apologize” and Mika’s “Grace Kelly” — has also just arrived in stores.) I recently spoke with Folds about his participation in The Sing-Off, as well as how he has managed to keep himself and his brand consistently relevant in an industry that seems to be changing by the second.


BRANDON’S BUZZ: This thing, The Sing-Off — for those who haven’t seen it, it’s essentially a strictly a cappella take on American Idol, or something of a cross between Idol and Glee, and you’re basically a judge-slash-mentor on this show. How did you get involved with this?


BEN FOLDS: Well, there were a lot of a cappella groups over the last ten years covering my music, my music being a big part of the repertoire of university a cappella groups. So I was hearing a lot of versions, and some of them I liked better than what we had done originally! I thought they were compelling versions and moving and engaging; they were getting it and they were musically intelligent. So I wanted to feature them on a record, and we made a record called University A Cappella, which, essentially, I was recording these groups in their natural habitats, and we put it on record and gave the proceeds to music education charities. And then NBC rang, because they heard the record and knew of my interest [in a cappella music], and they asked me if I wanted to do the gig. And initially, I didn’t want to.


So what changed your mind?


Well, I thought about it for a little bit before I came back and just knee-jerked and said no. I think when someone says, “Hey, you wanna be a judge on a music show,” you say no! [Laughs.] But [Sing-Off] was different because — I began to think about it, going, “Well, these groups are gonna be singing live, a cappella on television.” That’s pretty — that’s pretty brave! They’re gonna have to be dead-on, and if they’re not, they’re gonna need good feedback. You know, they don’t need someone cutting them down and making a circus out of it; what they need is someone to say, “Look, I’m pretty sure it would have been very moving had you not rushed and had the bassist been more articulate.” So I just thought, “Wow, I can help — that’s not so bad, let’s do it.”


I would imagine that participating in something like this show — even though you’ve been a player in your business for decades now, I would guess that doing something like this serves as a powerful reminder of how much untapped talent there is out there. Are you ever stunned by how many really talented folks there are out there just looking for a shot?


Well, I think that is what is driving the interest in a cappella — in a way, it’s a people’s takeover of music, really a reclaiming of music. You know, if you think about music history and put it all in context, you’ve got about forty or fifty years of uber-celebrity, where one person is gonna be on the cover of all the magazines, and that’s gonna be it, when the truth is that people are very musical to begin with. So if you go back a hundred years instead, people are singing in choirs, people are singing in church, on the front porch even, in groups in school. This has gone away and eroded [over the years] as people have been given these mass [outlets]. So what these kids are doing, and adults too — they’re average people who are coming out and singing. And I know the ultimate prize is a record contract, but they weren’t trying in the beginning [to get a record deal]. They’re all going off to be a schoolteachers and all kinds of [jobs].


You seem to have figured out and are navigating this crazy new digital world better than most; what’s the secret to surviving and thriving as long as you have in an eternally dynamic business?


I think it’s just about being a person, really. [Laughs.] All of these things are just other ways of communicating, and communicating ideas, you know. I’m in a hotel room right now; if someone knocked a hole through the wall, I might decide to take a straw and shoot a message through to the [person next door], or I could yell through the hole, or I could peep through and say, “Hey, how you doing?” That’s really what the internet is, just different ways of communicating, and I think if you overthink it, that’s where the problems come in. It’s not to sell records; you don’t sell records through Twitter, you know. You don’t sell records by making YouTube videos. Those things don’t sell records, so you’re doing [those things] because you’re communicating and you’re having fun with ideas.


You know, whenever I can string together ten uninterrupted minutes, I write a music-related blog, and I do a “song of the day” post each day, and by luck of happenstance, I recently picked “Brick” out of the air to write a post about. We’re talking about over thirteen years now since that tune broke through and went massive — is that song the bane of your existence now?


Not at all. I mean, people at my shows don’t ask for it. A lot of times, it doesn’t get nearly the reception as, say, “Annie Waits,” which was maybe not as big [a radio hit], but is bigger with my fans at a show. I have a niche that is not necessarily driven by radio in the first place, so [“Brick”] is an anomaly. When I get on the radio in some form, that’s something that just sort of happens. I’m not driven by it.


I was reading an article recently about Dan Wilson from Semisonic;
he was talking about the enduring popularity of their one big hit, “Closing Time,” and you and he both came up in an age for radio when these absolutely terrific bands — Semisonic, The Wallflowers, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Ben Folds Five — you know, they broke through with that one big hit and then lost pop radio’s interest for whatever reason. How do you feel when you look back on that time in your life and career?


I think we were really lucky to get in the door with that much momentum in a really unusual time period, like you point out. I’d rather think of how fortunate that is than be worried about the fact that we were shut down, because we really weren’t shut down in our careers, had we decided to keep going. When you have a hit, there comes baggage with that hit, and it takes a while to drop some of that baggage. You know, if you keep it like VH-1 used to say, “Music first,” it’s all good.


So is there anyone whose career you’d trade for tomorrow if you could?


No, I’ve got an enviable career. I do what I want and what inspires me. And what inspires me the most usually ends up being the most successful, so I’m very lucky.


Just follow your heart and it all works out?


I think that is true, because the worst that could happen if you follow your heart is that it doesn’t lead to immediate success in that moment. So you did what you enjoyed, and that’s that. But if you do what someone else enjoys that you don’t — if that isn’t successful, then you’re just doubly screwed. In music, I think you can’t go wrong just by following your heart.

1 response to “the brandon’s buzz interview:
musician ben folds

  1. the buzz from Blake Boldt:

    Very excited to see this in my news feed. Ben is one of my favorite live performers and he has been incredibly friendly the couple of times I’ve come in contact with him. Great interview!

    P.S. Just listened to the university a capella album a few months ago and it’s a real treat, as is all of Ben’s material!