Alt-rock piano savant Ben Folds is one of the more important musicians of the past 35 years. Since his start in Winston-Salem, North Carolina with the band Majosha during the late ‘80s and a few years later with Ben Folds Five in nearby Chapel Hill, Folds has become a major nationwide figure in the arts and arts education. He’s also the first artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C along with being an inaugural member of the Independent Music Awards’ judging panel when it started in 2001. Lately, Folds has been focusing on his creative output by releasing his fourth solo album, What Matters Most, via New West Records on June 2. As part of an extensive run of shows in support of the new record, Folds is going to be performing at the Garde Arts Center in New London on June 13 with Boston electrofolk duo Tall Heights kicking off the show at 7:30pm.
Folds and I talked ahead of the event about the making of the new album, a music video he made for one of the tracks off of it, the significance of the upcoming gig and this year being all about his latest release.
RD: You’ve mentioned that What Matters Most is your most true album to date with each side of it having a specific sequence arc that you consider to be different than anything you’ve ever done before in a sonic, lyrical and emotional sense. How did you go about crafting this direction during the songwriting and recording process? Is this something that happened naturally over the course of making the album or was this something you really wanted to go for?
BF: I think both. While understanding that everything you make is a mess while you’re making it, I still was thinking about some stuff. I think the idea of maybe writing a “pandemic record” was dated and would be uncool was a great invitation for me to try it because a lot of great stuff that I like is datable on some levels. From a lyrical point of view, I allowed myself to do it and then from a craft point I kind of felt like this was an album in a point in my career where I wanted to make the best thing I could in that moment. There are the kinds of records that you make when you’re younger, but it’s another thing to make the best record you can later in life.
Someone who definitely inspired me was Leonard Cohen. He probably had three notes left in his vocal range at the end of his career and his life but he was able to flex them in such a way that everyone got quiet and listened, and that’s not a mistake. That’s someone who was also a craftsman and I think that way of thinking was in there. It’s not the era anymore for the kind of songwriting craft that I grew up with in the ‘70s, but I think people still appreciate it. In some ways, even more because you’re crafting a thing that isn’t something you can just shoot out.
I did put a lot of stock and time into the craft of everything from the lyrics in the songs to the song arrangements to the arc of the record and to the sonic structure. The voice leading and all of that stuff was important to me in a way. It wasn’t a terrible risk for someone like me to make an overcrafted record, but that’s what it was and it doesn’t really matter. It would have been more of a risk if it was my second record. I remember when my first band would get flack for knowing more than three chords and there’s a certain kind of risk that comes with building something technically, but it doesn’t imply that you’re not paying attention to the important part.
RD: What was it like working with Joe Pisapia for the first time in over a decade as a co-producer? Did it feel like the both of you were picking up where you left off? I know you worked with him before with Ben Folds Five, but this was your first time working with him as a solo artist.
BF: He’s great and he’s a great musician. He gets me, he gets it, he was near where I live and it was really natural, which was important to me and I need that. I considered going to Los Angeles to go work with a bunch of other producers, which would have been great too, but I settled on Joe because we could figure it out. As long as we both have our eyes on the right thing we know we can make anything. We both are the types of people who can overthink things sometimes, but in a good way where we can just talk about stuff while making sure that we’re achieving what we set out to do.
RD: Last month, you released a music video for the song “Exhausting Lover” off of the album which features comedian Derek Waters, who is part of the TV show Drunk History. It starts off with him interviewing you about the album and then things get very theatrical with all the visuals being shown on an auditorium stage, so what inspired this setting for the video?
BF: That was Derek’s idea and I pretty much just trusted whatever he wanted to do. I sort of said to the label that if we could get Derek then we should do a video. He’s a friend of mine, but he’s busy and does things so there was a chance that he wouldn’t have time to do it so I figured that if we couldn’t get Derek then we could have someone do some animation or something. It turned out that he was available, he put himself into it and it was great because he wrote a lot of the lines in the song that needed to be served. He made it an entertaining video, that was pretty much him making it into a musical akin to community theater and it was fun.
RD: It definitely has that community theater vibe. With the show coming up at the Garde Arts Center, what can people expect in terms of the new album being interjected into your performance? Do you plan on playing it front to back and then playing some of your hits or can people expect it to be weaved into a set of older material?
BF: We’ll do both, but the thing about this show is that it’s the very first one of the tour to promote the album so it’s going to be really exciting. We would have rehearsed, gotten our theory together and then you never forget the first show. It’s going to be me with the band that recorded the album, so we’re going to do both old and new stuff. I like to do it all because I’ve written a lot of songs and I personally don’t like to see an artist stray from their older material. You can do whatever you want, but I like to see some of the older stuff and how it fits into the set.
RD: You can establish a unique cohesiveness that way by merging the older material with the new material and seeing how it goes. Outside of performing and recording, what are some other ventures that you have going on these days? Are you still doing the Lightning Bugs podcast?
BF: No, I wrapped that up. I’ve continued my work at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra along with getting this album out. I’ve also had some various projects writing songs for television and stuff here and there. Mainly, I’ve been concentrating on the album and this tour, which will be going on all year, and then I’ll figure out what’s next.