Center Presents: Ben Folds: In Actual Person Live
The Palladium // Friday, Nov. 12, 8 p.m. ET
Returning to the road with a solo piano tour, Ben Folds has created an enormous body of genre-bending music that includes pop albums with Ben Folds Five (“Brick,” “Army,” “Battle of Who Could Care Less”), along with multiple solo albums and many collaborative records. His last album was a blend of pop songs with his “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” that soared to No. 1 on Billboard’s classical and classical crossover charts. Folds has performed with some of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras and currently serves as the first-ever artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.
Janelle Morrison: I read that one of your earliest memories takes you back to the age of 2, listening to your parents’ 45s—specifically, Little Richard. I was curious if that was the spark that ignited your passion for songwriting and performing?
Ben Folds: I think it definitely had a big impact. I think that anyone who listens to Little Richard understands that there is something unbound about his singing, music and playing. It’s just so out of bounds. If you think about him singing “The Girl Can’t’ Help It” or “Tutti Frutti” and think about his voice—nobody sings like that.
And it gave me the idea that your only bounds are things you can’t physically do, and sometimes, that’s not even a thing. I remember reading that John Lennon—he loved these blues artists so much—and he would scream until he had no voice. I think there’s something to that, and we should all be exposed to music that’s sort of just beyond, you know?
JM: Absolutely. Speaking of boundaries, as we look back at 2020 when the entire world was shut down, when people were unable to perform, tour and gather, I saw a major decline of humanity and am curious, where you were in your headspace during that time? What were some of your thoughts as they pertain to artistic creativity and what you were planning to do once the world opened back up?
Folds: I was very pessimistic about when it would open up again. Everyone had their best guesses when that would be. I mean, we cancelled our stuff super early.
Folds continued [laughing]: I figured that when we finally got back out there, we could just pretty much play a pair of spoons and do a jig on the stage and leave, and everybody would be like “YEAH!” We were just going to be so happy to get together that the bar would be lower.
JM: Obviously, your fans are familiar with your work with Ben Folds Five and your solo work over the years, but I wanted to ask about The Bens Rock Over Australia tour . How did that all come about?
Folds: That was a time where I was taking on crazy schizophrenic amounts of projects and work. I did a soundtrack for a movie, “Over the Hedge,” that year, I produced a William Shatner record, I did The Bens, I started a studio, I made three EPs, a live album and an orchestral album with all-new charts. It was just an insane breakneck period of me being productive. The Bens came about because all our fans—the three Bens in that group—had all sort of jokingly said we needed to play a tour. So, a tour was booked. Ben Lee called me and said, “Hey, this is a good opportunity to make a little tour EP—that’s my new trick.” And I said, “Well, that’s my new trick too, so let’s do that.” I had the studio that I was putting together. so we went straight to the studio and just s*** out tunes in like three days.”
Folds continued [laughing]: The only one of us that had a cell phone was Ben Kweller. Ben Lee and I hadn’t even discovered the cell phone yet. I remember Ben Lee and I started one song, “Just Pretend.” Each of us had written a verse and were like if [Kweller] ever gets off his f****** phone, we’ll finish this song.”
JM: Since you mentioned collaborating with him, what are your thoughts on William Shatner’s trip to space?
Folds: If I didn’t know Bill really well, I might have written it off as a bunch of rich boys playing with some expensive toys in space when you could make like 10,000 hospitals in Africa for that amount of money, but at the same time, we can look back at space exploration and see where it directly led to innovations which have actually saved lives on Earth. So, there’s a good argument for progress. So, it is my mind to go there first. I was super nervous because Bill’s no spring chicken, and I can’t even get on the f****** tilt-a-whirl at the county fair, and he’s going up into SPACE! I held my breath for the whole 11 minutes or whatever, and I’m waiting for him to come down and tell us that his vital signs are good! Then, they just let him step out of that beer can, with no doctor there, and I’m having a lot of feelings. I was really proud of him. He’s the oldest man to go into space and was the symbol of space exploration in the ’60s before we put a man on the moon. So, yeah, it was pretty cool.
JM: I once heard you say that most of your composition is done in your head versus working it out on a piano, guitar, etc.
Folds: A whole lot of it is, yeah.
JM: Can you briefly describe what that process is like?
Folds: A good example is when my son was born. I knew instantly what the song was. I didn’t have it all in my head, and I wasn’t going to try and work it there with a ukulele while live childbirth was unfolding before my eyes, but I did see [the song], and there was something there and kept it [in my head]. That’s a good example because things happen at inconvenient times, and I would rather not be inspired to write a song right at the moment that I’m being asked to cut the cord on my first child. But it happens, and then I walk, I think about it, I let it go, and I compose a lot that way because the tool of moment is my mind.
JM: You are the first ever artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, which is pretty cool. What have you been able to do in that role to grow advocacy and appreciation for the arts?
Folds: Gosh, I’ve treated that as kind of second job over the last five to six years. Things did die down during 2020 because the Kennedy Center was shut down. Coming back, we’re going to try to come back really strong. I think it  just strengthened my resolve that we need the symphony orchestra more than it needs us. And like you said, humanity took a little bit of a dump and we’re going to be recovering from that dump for a while. People lost their f****** minds. The symbol of civil civilization is being in the same airspace, doing something that’s bigger than any one person on a stage, that IS civilization—all working together for something greater, and yes, everybody has to get in line a little bit, then you get to create outside of that.
I think experiencing and seeing that “symbol” is even more important than ever. And it’s complicated because the symphony orchestra is seen as an elite, uppity entity that thinks it’s better than everyone, but that’s not the case. The Symphony Orchestra doesn’t get paid that well, and they do so much outreach and free s***. They cater to kids and all genres. They do everything they can to say this is what society is about. And by supporting the symphony, you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. If you want to hold it up, you’ve got to hold up the symbol [of civilization], and you have to experience it.