Transcript for Ben Folds on Working with Nick Hornby

Jim Fleming: Ben Folds is a singer-songwriter from North Carolina. He used to have his own band,  “Ben Folds Five,” but in more recent years Folds has struck out on his own and released solo albums full of witty lyrics accompanied by his evocative piano playing. He recently joined forces with Nick Hornby, the critically acclaimed novelist from England, and the two collaborated on an album called “Lonely Avenue.” As you might guess, Hornby wrote the lyrics and Folds wrote the music. To the Best of Our Knowledge producer Doug Gordon talked to Folds about working with Hornby to create Lonely Avenue.

Doug Gordon: Ben Folds and Nick Hornby have been friends since the mid 1990s.

Ben Folds: We were mutual fans early on. I was reading his first novels and he was listening to my first records. He was at our first gig in London.

And I did know that, but I was very nervous because I was reading “High Fidelity” at the time.

Gordon: In Songbook Hornby hit high praise on Ben Folds song “Smoke.”

Hornby wrote: “Smoke is one of the cleverest, wisest songs about the slow death of a relationship, that I know.”

At the time, Hornby did not know that the lyrics were written by Folds but by Anna Goodman, Folds’ ex-wife. Folds knew right away how special the lyrics were.

Folds: I knew that they were good lyrics, what's funny about this was they weren’t even my lyrics; because I normally write my lyrics. She’s a great writer. She writes letters that read that way. She just can’t help it. I guess I’ve been with Anna since I was five years old, you know. I remember, she played piano as well. She was playing piano in the first grade after school. If I was after school I could hear her playing, like, ragtime and made me want to play piano, so she was actually a big influence. Yeah, I know what she writes is great, and it gets better each time. I mean, each time I play it, literally, I find something else in it.

Folds [on recording]: Leaf by Leaf page by page/ Throw this book away/ All the sadness all the rage/ Throw this book away

Rip out the binding, and tear the glue/ All of the grief we never even knew/ We had it all along/ Now it’s smoke.

Gordon: Folds contributed to the power of “Smoke” by creating a poignant melody, in waltz time. Did he know, from the beginning, that it was going to be in 3/4 time?

Folds: It implied that but I think you can put lyrics in lots of time signatures in lots of phrasing. There’s so many possibilities. When you see a page and it’s just got words. And this is the way I was working with Nick: he sent me an email that had completed lyrics in it, and I just find, looking for the melody that brings out the most in the lyrics, that doesn’t step on them, which is really easy to do.

Gordon: Each of the songs on Lonely Avenue is a story told from a different character’s point of view; which isn’t surprising since Hornby is a novelist, but Folds also writes a lot of songs featuring characters.

Folds: I like characters. I mean, characters are harder to write in songs, you need more space, more time, to do it. That’s why, you know, when you hear story songs, the folk songs, they might have, like, eight verses, and the verses are fairly simple and they keep repeating and repeating, and that gives you a chance to just concentrate on the lyrics and let them build, you know.

The detail is very important, and it’s a three-and-a-half minute  song; if you’ve only got a few verses, if you’re going to build a character, it needs to be implied through those little moments that resonate. And one has to have a really good instinct of what those are. Obviously, Nick does.

[music]

Folds [on recording]: Woke up this morning, what do I see?/ Three thousand cameras, pointed at me./ Dude says, “You Levi?’/ I'm like, “Yes, that’s me, sir.”/ Well, you just knocked up the VP nominee’s daughter.”  So I tell him, “No. You got it wrong, mister. “Already got a girl and her name’s Bristol.” / And they all laugh and say, “Where you been, sonny? Your mother-in-law’s a heartbeat from the presidency.” So, I say mother-in-law No - we ain’t getting married.”/ They say, soon you will, boy; she just announced it.”/I get on my dirt bike and ride to my girl’s home,/ I'm going to lay down the law...tell her what's going on.

Man: That's a song called “Levi Johnson’s Blues.”

Folds: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Gordon: One of the most beautiful songs on Lonely Avenue is a ballad called “Belinda.” The book that accompanies this CD includes an email that Folds sent to Hornby about how hard it was to set the lyrics for Belinda to music.

Folds: Many things about the song came very easily: the chorus came easily. The problem was that he quoted the chorus in the first verse - in fact, in the second line in the first verse. That’s a problem, because you’ve given away the place that you’re going, but there aren’t many places to go on a pop song, and you’ve kind of taken the place that we're all going really early. So, I had to figure out a way to make it basically the same melody, weaken the chords a little bit, and then find a way in the chorus, to make you feel that it was a surprise. Because that’s what’s great about the chorus: it lifts you, and it’s... There's something that’s some sort of lift, or surprise.

So I set the chorus, I think, sort of late by a couple of beats or half a bar, or something, I can’t remember what I did but I had to mess around with these things to make it work.

The other thing is that the chorus was supposed to be... He’s quoting a chorus - fictitious on this, supposed to be a massive hit from the early 70s. That means that my chorus, if the melody didn’t sound like a massive hit from the 70s, I failed. So, I really had to do all those things. So, that took a little bit more time.

Folds [on recording]: Every night around this time

He has to sing 'Belinda'

"Belinda, I love you

Don't leave me, I need you"

He tried to stop a while back

But what is he without her?

A one hit wonder with no hits is what he is

And anyway

He always hears how much it means to people

There's a lot of forty-somethings

Who wouldn't be in the world without it

So now he does it with this lyric in his head

Belinda, I loved you

I'm sorry that I left you

I met somebody younger on a plane

She had big breasts

A nice smile

No kids either

She gave me complimentary champagne...

Gordon: I was curious. Part of the challenge was that Folds was dealing with Hornby’s words rather than his own. Folds said, in a Time Magazine interview, a few years ago, that he always wants to push the barrier a little bit with lyrics, and he didn’t have the chance to do that here. But Folds didn’t see that as an issue.

Folds: Just in his style he’s already pushing something. There's a thumbprint about his writing that, I think, is pretty obvious in the first few lines of each song. In “Being Nick Hornby,” in my opinion, he’s already pushing it. I don't need to be the one that writes the lyrics, the music is inspired to me by how I feel about what’s happening. It’s like interpretative dance would be for some people or maybe, you know, like a child has made a drawing of, you know, a witch make him clean up his room, and it’s raining, and... you know, he’s sad. And I'm like, “Why are you sad Johnny?” “ Yeah, I don't know why I'm sad. I'm just... “

 And you can interpret these things, and music is like that for me. The problem is when I write the music first it’s coming out of the way that I feel. But I’m not exactly sure, any more than the child is sure why he drew that picture and it’s my job to find the lyrics, which I think is very difficult.

With Nick, he’s already painted a world for me. So, I read those; I sit inside them, and then I create the music that.... and then the whole thing is finished.

Gordon: Since Folds is from North Carolina, and Hornby is from England, I was curious about whether Hornby’s lyrics included and British vernacular that Folds had trouble with.

Folds: There could have been, but Nick’s really good at writing for characters. And I think he realized that I was singing. You know this is the odd reference to a place in London, like in Picture Window, but he’s pretty good at that. I mean like long way down, he’s got four or six characters going at one time from completely different walks of life - and three of them I think are American... It’s all believable, he’s really good at that. He probably could have thrown me a curveball if he wanted to be; but he was being kind.

Folds [on recording]: They checked into the hospital New Year's Eve,/ Nothing to be done about that./ Rainbows, daffodils; she's not naïve./Symbolism's all crap./ There's a big picture window in their room,/ On the ward, with a view of a parliament hill,/ But the view offers more joy than they can afford/ When there's this much pain to kill./You know what hope is?/ / Hope is a bastard. /Hope is a liar,

A cheat and a tease.

Hope comes near you?

Kick its backside.

Got no place in days like these.

At dusk the darkness surrenders to color

As the fireworks streak the sky,

And their window gives them the prettiest picture.

Their useless luck makes her want to cry.

Then it turns midnight, the shitty old year spent,

Another Mom gives her some sparkling wine,

And she nearly gives in to the moment,

But he'll still be sick in 2009.

You know what hope is?

Hope is a bastard.

Hope is a liar,

A cheat and a tease.

Hope comes near you?

Kick its backside.

Got no place in days like these.

Just as she's thinking of pulling the blind down

A rocket bursts in front of her eyes

The city lit up like a crown on London

And she tries and fails to stop spirits rise

You know what hope is?

Hope is a bastard.

Hope is a liar,

A cheat and a tease.

Hope comes near you?

Kick its backside.

Got no place in days like these.

You know what hope is?

Hope is a bastard

Hope is a liar

A cheat and a tease

Hope comes near you?

Kick its backside.

Got no place in days like these.

Gordon: In this clip from a promotional video for Lonely Avenue, Hornby and Folds talk about how they think the album turned out.

Folds: The record sounds a lot better than I imagined it would. I imagined this to be more of a side project feel in every way that.... and that that would be, really, a cool thing that would be good; it would be something, we would both be posing against the white background like that, like, it would be a coffee shop record in this way.

Hornby: But it would just be one coffee shop.

[both laugh]

Folds: Yeah, one place, yeah. We’d just be... And we’d be sitting at the table, actually selling ourselves.

[music]

Fleming: Ben Folds collaborated with Nick Hornby on the album “Lonely Avenue.” Folds spoke with the Best of Our Knowledge producer Doug Gordon.

 

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