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Sincerity or cynicism? The captivating slipperiness of Ben Folds

Ben Folds’ new album, What Matters Most, continues his career-long dance between comedy and tragedy, autobiography and piss take. He tells us he can’t help but be “a little of both”.

Ben Folds sitting on a piano

Ben Folds. Photo: credit Alysse Gafkjen

Just who is Ben Folds? Since he started out as the frontman of sarcastically-named alternative rock trio Ben Folds Five in the ’90s – all the way through his solo albums, and his collaborations with orchestras, William Shatner, Regina Spektor, Weird Al, Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman – there’s been a battle. Is the real Ben Folds the guy whose openheartedness makes you weep? The guy who, on The Luckiest, could sing “I love you more than I have ever found a way to say to you” and play it with a totally straight bat so it sounds truer than any love song you’ve ever heard? Or is he the guy in the wings tossing snarky asides? Sincerity or cynicism? Comedy or tragedy? Optimism or bitterness?

“I can’t help a little of both, probably, you know?” admits Folds, on the phone from his home in Tennessee. “Like I might start off with one song as a pure starting point, and realise it’s actually got more heart in it. Or you start off with like, all heart on your sleeve and you realise, I don’t really believe all this crap.”

Folds’ new album – which he’s set to take on tour across the UK this November – unashamedly tackles the pandemic “head-on”. He wasn’t afraid of dating the work, he says. It should be time capsule from a 56-year-old man documenting how he got through “changes in the world and the lockdown and all that”. So, faced with an era-defining crisis, which way would Janus-faced Folds jump?

“It began as more of a cynical record,” he recalls. Looking at the escalating calamity all around, he was going to pessimistically call the album But Wait, There’s More. “Well, you might slide off that cliff and die. Oh, shit. Guess what? You slid off the cliff. But wait, there’s more. There’s alligators down there. Oh, motherfucker! You’re in the jaws of alligators. Everything was like that for 2020. It was like, what the fuck is next?

“And you know, some of it actually wasn’t as bad as we might have thought it was. But we were being fed that, because people make money off of our dread and suspense, right? So that’s what the album started as. But then the album grew out of that because, as I began to write and write more, it began to have more and more heart and less cynicism.”

In the end, the record comes to us titled with the question most of us asked ourselves over the last few years: What Matters Most? The title track finds Folds exiled from touring, re-evaluating his life among storage containers.

“When I started writing [the song], it was actually about sifting through my storage space to get rid of years and years and years of accumulated crap,” he says. At that stage “what matters most” was a question about things – which to keep, which to bin, which to sell? “And as I was doing that, I got a terrible text message that informed me that one of my best friends had died. My perspective just shifted.”

The song, like his life in that moment, takes a turn. In the middle of sorting through “old bills, phones, pictures, and trash”, he gets “a glimpse” of what really matters most. And it’s not things. Obviously. It’s people.

“It’s interesting if I tell the story and play the song, I think it’s really moving,” Folds reflects. “If I don’t tell the story, I think it’s a good song, but it maybe doesn’t hit the same way. So it’s an interesting thing for me because I always want a song that you don’t have to explain. And then I have a song that I feel like I have to explain. But actually I’m proud of that song so, who the fuck knows?”

The reluctance to offer you a commentary alongside the music is classic Folds. The other long, dichotomous dance that defines him is along the line between fact and fiction. There’s always been something in his voice that sounds as though he’s baring his soul, but there are few people who love to play with their audience’s preconceptions more. Or to be blunter, no one screws with you quite like Ben Folds.  

“Autobiographical truth is complicated because in pop music, it’s assumed,” he says. “It’s not assumed if I write a novel. That might have more autobiographical truth than a song I might write. But when someone hears you singing anything, they go – ‘wow, how much of that is true?’ And really, the answer is that it doesn’t matter.”

Repeatedly asked about probably Ben Folds Five’s biggest hit Brick, Folds repeatedly obfuscated about whether it was a true story. It was years before he finally acknowledged it actually was about how he felt in the wake of taking his high school girlfriend to get an abortion. The point is that you lean in, that he makes you wonder. And for the most cynical moment on What Matters Most, he admits he is once again being “naughty”.

Exhausting Lover tells the story of a truly awful, sleazy, unpleasant one-night stand. Friends who know both how much I rate Folds and how passionately I hold my feminist ideals, asked, “do you think this is ok?” With four failed marriages behind him, Folds has faced questions (and his own share of snark) about his personal life, so you have to hope he knows what he’s doing. Well, he does.

“That was a naughty song on the record and to be honest, I really considered it not going on the record a lot. And – to be more honest – I also knew it would be the single,” he laughs. “It’s not naughty of me that I wrote a ridiculous song about a terrible one-night stand. What’s naughty is that I made it easily conflatable. I made it so that you would wonder. Like… I did this. Or I didn’t. It’s the reason people like a conspiracy theory. It’s the reason they like a viral video. They can’t tell if someone really was doing something or if it’s computer generated. It’s fascinating. So in that way, it’s cheap as fuck. That’s fine. But I also think it’s funny.”

Not content with making you question his culpability, Folds also tricks us into a sort of complicity. “I want to make a record that’s undeniably crafted, so you just go, ‘god damn it. I’m tapping my toes and listen to this and singing it now, asshole’. I mean, it may backfire. At the end of the day, it may upset more people than it makes happy. But I only wanted to make people laugh.”

Ben Folds - What Matters Most cover art

Is Folds telling the whole truth in this moment? It’s hard to say. He insists that all art should aspire to Hemingway’s edict about writing “one true sentence”, but only on the proviso that “artistic truth does not have to be literally true”. Slipperiness, questioning, self-examination is more interesting. It’s why Ben Folds still fascinates, why listening to him allows us the access shadow parts of ourselves. You might even say, it’s what matters most.

What Matters Most is out now. Ben Folds’ UK tour starts on 8 November 2023. benfolds.com

@laurakaykelly

Ben Folds on William Shatner

Ben Folds worked with Shatner on the sci-fi legend’s excellent 2004 album Has Been. The pair have remained friends.

“The biggest lessons I got were probably from William Shatner. And I guess some of that is just that I was open to someone who was a lot older than me giving me wisdom, when maybe I wouldn’t have been from other people. I learned all kinds of things.

“Like, I learned about how he never does a take the same way. He doesn’t give a shit. You ask ‘can you do that the same way?’ He goes, ‘I just did it that way. And you have it.’ Oh, shit.

“And then he’d say things about being professional. He’d say: ‘Amateurs are usually more talented, but they can’t show up at eight o’clock and do it. I can show up at eight o’clock and I can do my job and that’s why I’m professional.’ Things like that. He just takes the all the pretentiousness out of all of it. So, I learned a lot from Bill.”

On the contemporary reappreciation of Steely Dan

Mocked in their time, smooth jazz-rockers Steely Dan have lately become an unlikely focus for renewed adoration among millennials. Good, says Folds.

“That’s wonderful to hear. Because as soon as you start being interested in Steely Dan, if you really keep taking that trip, you’re gonna find yourself at Ravel and Debussy. And then you’re gonna find yourself at Beethoven and then Mozart, and then Bach. Then you might bounce back through Nat King Cole.

And then you’ll realise that we have a lot of skills of expression. There will never not be great music – but we are probably a little deficient in some of what Steely Dan has.

“People were so distracted by their craft at the time. So over time they became the butt of jokes, like, ‘what do you think, I’m fucking Steely Dan?’ And I would think, well, let’s hope you are! Jesus Christ, they’re good.

“And also, look, this stuff was dark. Listen to Pretzel Logic. That’s a drug album. That’s not an easy album. Like, those guys, they were struggling with that stuff. And people want to write it off as just some kind of fusion jazz thing.”

On Nirvana

It wasn’t easy swimming against the grunge tide in the early ’90s.

“When Ben Folds Five started, the fact that we knew music was something we often had to almost apologise for. ‘Look, Nirvana only knows three chords. What the fuck are you doing with the six? If you’re telling the truth, why do you need to distract us with the smoke and mirrors? If you have something to say, say it, but I don’t want to hear the flourish. I don’t want to hear the technique. None of that stuff.’”

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