An Interview with Ben Folds on Retrospectives, Reunions, and TV Stardom

The songwriter/musician takes a look back with a career-spanning retrospective, while looking forward to the future.

By , Columnist

Ben Folds has been a major force on the musical landscape since 1995 when, with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse, he formed Ben Folds Five. This October, after almost two decades of making albums solo and with Ben Folds Five, Folds will release a comprehensive collection of his work entitled The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective.

When selecting which songs to include, he turned to fans on Twitter for suggestions but admits, “That was more out of curiosity. There was certainly a dialogue going on between everyone: the record company [and] myself.” The feedback from Twitter followers was sought, Folds says, because “I thought we needed a bit of perspective, which actually pretty much confirmed what I thought.”

The retrospective will consist of a disc of hits, one of rarities, and another of live tracks. Choosing the songs to include and which to leave out was a process. “The way I did it was to assume the first disc (which will be sold separately as well as being included in the set) would be purchased by people who only heard my name or one song and wanted a sample of the whole thing. That disc gives every era of what I did equal representation. Some people might want songs from the first record and a greatest hits and that’s it. Other people might want more but to me it all seems like one thing. It doesn’t seem like all these compartments; it just seems like a continuum. So I just put the best of what I thought really represented what I was really doing: The Best Imitation of Myself. It’s not really commercial sampling as much as what I think is the best of those time periods."

On occasion, Folds creates songs off the top of his head during his shows, some of which appeared on the Way To Normal super deluxe set on a disc aptly entitled I Made It Up On Stage. Why were none of these gems included in the retrospective? “We thought about that but there’s so much material, we’d have to figure out how repeatable some of it is. Sometimes I think that some of these melodies are really great [and] I actually consider mining them for songs and not releasing them in this way. But it’s kind of confusing. My sound man probably has a few hundred of these he thinks are good, the I Made It Up On Stage stuff. So we’ll have to think about that later.”

Folds looks back on the early days with a mix of wistfulness and humor: “In ‘96 there was one other fellow traveling with us, our friend Trey. Trey and I moved the piano ourselves and we lived between the van we threw the piano in, which was a Hertz rental truck, and hotel rooms which we’d all share together. The piano got a tuning once a month. And I kind of tuned it up the best I could with a tuning hammer. I was breaking strings all the time and was replacing [them] myself. Not wanting to buy new strings, I would splice them together using a Boy Scout knife and then string them back up. That’s pretty much the way it was going."

folds2.jpgWith so many songs in his catalog, I wondered if there was one of which Folds was especially proud. His response was not at all predictable. “I’m particularly proud of the song 'Rockstar' [on the rarities disc] because it’s just such a warped song. Now I can hear why I wrote it. It was 3:00 in the morning and I just turned the recorder on and sang it one time, turned it off and then discovered it, literally 15 minutes later. Yeah, I think it’s really good. Every time I heard it I thought it was just really good."

Folds has reunited with his Ben Folds Five bandmates for this collection, recording three new songs. How did this welcome reunion come about? "It’s like the MySpace thing we did [where the band reunited for a live performance of their Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner album]. The MySpace thing was MySpace’s idea. They said, 'Would you like to do it?' and I said, 'I don’t see why not,' and I called Robert and Darren and that was that. Same thing with this. The record label said, 'Would you consider doing a couple of songs with Robert and Darren' and I thought why not? So I called them up and we had a week together in the studio. And it was kind of like that. That’s always the way we sort of work.”

Besides his old bandmates, Folds often collaborates with a vast array of artists ranging from William Shatner to author Nick Hornby. How does he choose the sometimes unconventional artists he works with? “There’s just so much talent, really. If you find a way to tap into what it is they actually do. Especially if they’re not normally musical or not normally musical in that specific way. Like Nick Hornby. That’s different. The William Shatner record was very different.

"Ke$ha and I’ve been talking about doing something a little bit. I don’t know if it will happen. A lot of times between two artists...Josh Groban and I went into the studio for a little bit. We were playing around at one point. I like people who are islands, basically. Weird Al Yankovic. They’re not obvious. They’re not the coolest thing in the world to be choosing to work with but that’s partially because they’re not part of the scene. They just do exactly what they do and everyone else has to follow them."

In 2009, Folds produced an album of college a cappella groups singing his material, a project that was instrumental in landing him a gig as a judge on NBC's The Sing-Off.The Sing Off [came about] because they were looking for a panel of 'experts' to judge the a cappella groups, and I had just been involved in recording a lot of university a cappella groups. [The album] is called University A Cappella. It’s for music charity and it’s just something I did because I really liked the versions of my music a cappella groups had been doing. So I guess I was the natural expert. I’m not really an expert but that’s what I am on TV. They asked me and I thought, well, this is great. I’ve been doing this anyway. I’ve been working with these groups and telling them what I think and trying to help produce them all along, and this way I can just do it.”

I wondered if there was a particular reason Folds chose this time in his career to release such a comprehensive collection of material. “You go more active and less active. If there’s more activity in your career, it’s up and down. I think that we were going into an up [period] and I think that’s a lot happier time to release [a collection] than release it at a down time and have people feel that it’s your last gasp. From that point of view it felt like a good moment to put out a sampling because we’re doing Sing Off stuff and I’m going to be out there with Robert and Darren doing some gigs probably next year. The profile will be such that anyone who wants to hear my music, this way they don’t have to buy ten records. It seemed time to release stuff for fans to hear.”

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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