Music nerds and lit geeks alike rejoiced at the news that piano man Ben Folds and beloved author Nick Hornby were collaborating on an album. The pair had circled around each other for years creatively — Folds estimates they met in "about 2003," although they had e-mailed before that — but finally were able to work together because of something very simple: time. "And that's not something, luckily, that either one of us usually has a lot of," Folds says via phone from Nashville, where he now lives.
The division of labor during this process was efficient: Hornby wrote the lyrics and e-mailed them to Folds, who would then set the words to music. The resulting album, Lonely Avenue, is Folds' most musically expansive work. While his trademark saccharine piano drips through songs such as "Practical Amanda" and "Belinda," Avenue also boasts mournful orchestras ("Picture Window"), progged-out keyboards (the classic-rock romp "Your Dogs"), synthesizer-based sensory overload (the standout "Saskia Hamilton") and a stylistic homage to Joe Jackson ("Claire's Ninth"). Lyrically, Avenue isn't much of a departure from Folds' past work; Hornby's lyrics focus on socially inept sad sacks, obsessive characters, wacky daydreamers and quiet heroes. Read on as Folds addresses Avenue's evolution and how it was to work with Hornby.
RFT: What was the most challenging thing putting together an album the way you guys did? Did you have any inkling before [Hornby] e-mailed you, what the lyrical themes or topics were going to be?
Ben Folds: No, no, no. He would write, send it, and then I would put my mind to it. It really wasn't that challenging. I shouldn't say that, but it was very easy, because his lyrics were really good. I agreed with them. I have a really easy time with melody, and not as easy a time in lyrics. Which is not to say that I'm not proud of what I've done lyrically, but just that it's more work. So it was really nice to have a world-class novelist doing that bit for me.
I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear you say that [you have a hard time with lyrics], because people really gravitate toward your lyrics a lot.
Well, I mean I think that they're hard-earned. And some of it is because I'm trying to accomplish a really difficult task. I start with the music, and starting with the music leaves you a kind of strict form in which to insert your thoughts. Just in terms of all the syll-ah-bles landing on the right em-fa-sis [laughs], it's difficult to do. You have much more leeway to have the lyrics happen first. But I just never do that, because my music comes quicker. There's something at least subtly profound about the melody, or I wouldn't have remembered it or thought of it. Finding what that's about — like, what part of my subconscious did that melody come from that it resonates — is also a difficult task.
That's a draining psychological exercise making a song, the way you describe it then.
It is! That's exactly right: It's a draining psychological exercise that I don't actually enjoy. But I enjoy the, you know, end result — the fact that there is an end result is rewarding. [Laughs]
When you got the lyrics [from Hornby], did you have any inkling what the music was going to be? Or did you get the lyrics and say, "OK, let's go and see what we can match up to it."
Well, I would get the lyrics, and I would immediately make a quick connection between the lyrics and phrases that would become music really quickly. [There was] not a lot of thinking to it, just, "Here's a phrase — a cadence here or there that seems to be suggesting this." If I shoot from the hip, I find that I land on a cadence really quickly that, sort of by luck, seems to take the rest of the meter into account. And I don't really know how that happens. But if I find the right place, the heart of the song, and find the melody really quickly, I find that melody plays out really naturally generally with the words.
And where it doesn't, that means I need to know more — I need to reach into my melodic brain far enough and in a relaxed way that I can surf the line out. For instance, if it's a line that really the melody implied that it should be four beats — but suddenly I find that he's given me at least a twelve-beat phrase — I'm not going to try to cram those into those four beats. I'm going to have to surf the unexpected wave for longer, and that involves double cadences, deceptive cadences [and] half-cadences that never end when you think they should. And all that then produces a melody and a lyric that sound like they are paired by necessity to communicate the lyrics, if that makes any sense.
That's what struck me — the album was so seamless. Other projects similar to this, you can kind of tell [they were constructed separately]. Actually, several people have commented to me that they were very surprised that you hadn't written some of the lyrics.
It is true that the two of us sort of think alike. But the other thing is that what I'm fascinated with — and what I've always felt most strongly about with a song — is the way the two work together. 'Cause so often, there are great songs that are made of not the greatest lyrics — and sometimes, not the greatest music and not the greatest lyrics, and the way they come together is powerful. Now, Nick always pushes me to give him an example, because he doubts this. [Laughs] And then I don't really know; I can't give an example. But in theory that rings true to me, that there are songs: This isn't a great melody, this isn't a great lyric. But the way that they work together becomes great.
Actually, I'll give you an example: I always tell people, I think New Order has the worst lyrics. But they work well with the music — which is also kinda good but kinda simplistic and dated.
And the thing is, it's hard to insist that to someone once they become married to the song, and it means something to them. Then the song has the most powerful thing music can ever have, which is context. And you can never take that away, because you can never dissociate the song with the wonderful feeling you got from the song, because it was the song. Say, I don't know, take a brand-new song, something that's on the radio nonstop like "Firework" by Katy Perry. I mean, I don't think we would consider that poetry. And I don't think that the melody would be something [that] if I hummed [it to] you, you would [think] — [Folds hums a snippet of the song] — isn't that great? Uh, no. [Laughs] But they do work together in a way that you have to admit is damn catchy and effective for what it's trying to do. Maybe it's better to look at cheap, disposable songs in that way.
But it's just the way that it all works together and the way someone feels about it when they hear it. But Nick and I aren't in that business. Nick can't be in that business, because he has a reputation. He can't write a lyric that if you take it out of the music it's going to make someone roll their eyes. He's Nick Hornby. [Laughs] He writes books, and his lyrics needed to have stood up as stand-alone pieces, which they do.
That's a lot of pressure, if you think about it.
He's a good writer; he's used to it. He has to turn over pages and pages to a producer and director for movies, and these things all need to work well, and they hand it back to him, and he changes it. He's just a really professional writer. I've never really worked with a pro like that before. I'd say, "Well, maybe we should have some lyrics pretty soon. I'm going to be home." Boom. Next day, e-mail, three sets of lyrics.
He's a total badass.