For some music fans, Ben Folds may still be best known as the front man of Ben Folds Five. Hit singles like “Brick” or “Song for the Dumped” took to alt-rock stations in constant repeat in the mid- to late-‘90s. Another talented son of North Carolina—Winston Salem, to be exact—Folds’ solo career as a songwriter, composer and pianist, has been the draw of attention as of late.
Since his rise to popularity 20 years ago, Folds has released seven LPs, three EPs, six live albums, not to mention collaborated on other multiple projects. His latest album, “So There,” released in September 2015, is the most recent reflection of how the musician blends classical and pop music he knows so well.
“So There” features Folds with yMusic, a New York City-based chamber ensemble, made up of Rob Moose, CJ Camerieri, Gabriel Cabezas, Alex Sopp, Hideaki Aomori, and Nadia Sirota. yMusic’s execution and configuration of string trio, flute, clarinet and trumpet have earned them partnerships with bands and songwriters like Blake Mills, Beck, José González, and now Ben Folds.
Folds is touring with his new record and chamber ensemble friends. In light of their upcoming performance at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Saturday, November 7, Folds spoke with encore about “So There,” his work with yMusic and what his next project might look like.
encore (e): You’ve done several records at this point; all are probably special, but what sets “So There” apart for you? What is pushed to the forefront with this album?
Ben Folds (BF): The album began with an orchestral piece, A Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. That set the tone for the rest of the album, and my discovery of yMusic was lucky timing.
What comes to the front on this album, to the casual observer, is that it is notably a hybrid of classical and pop. For me, it’s even simpler: It’s just expressing what’s in my bones at this moment.
e: Tell us more about the Concerto For Piano and Orchestra movements and why/how they came to be in this album? Were they the impetus for the new songs and album, or did they “just fit”?
BF: The concerto was a commissioned piece. The premiere of the piece was such a success that we knew we had to make a record of it. Finishing the record, I thought, required more orchestral and methodical approach to pop songs. The only real decision was to write lyrics or not to write lyrics. At the end of the day, I had stories to tell.
e: There seems to be a lot of whimsy in the instrumentals and progression of songs, like “Long Way to Go.” Yet, there’s a sense a of urgency in the lyrics of time ticking away. Can you tell us more about the story in this song and how you chose to frame it?
BF: Time is sort of elastic for us human beings. What seems like forever is sometimes a second; we all know about that. I wanted the sense of calm ticking down to an end—sort of the feeling that any death must in someway be birth. Like a break-up song: They’re never really about the end as much as they are about possibilities. If you’re calm about the end of something as it approaches, you are probably in a very enlightened place, wouldn’t you think? Like Chief Dan George in “Little Big Man” when he says, “Today’s a good day to die.”
e: What is your collaboration with yMusic like? How much influence came from them in terms of final cuts on this album?
BF: They have a sound all their own. They are very distinct. Initially, I brought in a few arrangements, or sketches of arrangements, which were my impression of yMusic. This, I felt, would get the ball rolling. Rob and CJ, the arrangers of the group, also brought in many charts. From there we collaborated, adapted each other’s ideas, and I trusted them completely. That’s a long way of saying it was one of those perfect “nobody knows who did what” sort of collaborations. We just collaborated.
e: In regards to lyric and music writing, how do these two meet in the process of compiling a record?
BF: One song, “Yes Man,” was a finished instrumental arrangement by Rob, the violinist. I loved it. I sung a melody over his chart and added words to that. That’s an interesting way of writing a song together. But that was the only one that was a songwriting collaboration with the group. The rest of the songs, melodies and lyrics are songs I wrote. We scored them together; although, I don’t think I had much to do with the arrangement of “I’m Not the Man.”
e: What types of music most influenced you growing up in Winston Salem and around that area? For example, was there a lot of folk/Americana, classical, rock?
BF: What I liked about growing up in Winston Salem was that my music education was good. I spent a lot of time at the North Carolina School of the Arts, for instance, playing in the youth orchestra. There also were a lot of great local bands. Some of these bands, I thought, were world-famous. I didn’t know they were only local. Mitch Easter was there. The dB’s (power/jangle pop group) and so on. That gave me a sense of literacy musically and of artistic independence. I didn’t hear a lot of classic rock and Americana. I’m still not sure what Americana actually is.
e: Are you already thinking about the next project? If so, are there any details to share?
BF: Orchestral pieces, choir pieces for university ensembles and choirs—I want to write something for college students that’s theirs first before it’s a recording.
Ben Folds will close out the GFLA concert season with yMusic on Saturday, Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m. Only a few tickets are left and are available at greenfieldlakeamphitheater.com.