In the decade since Ben Folds set out on a solo career, his reputation has only continued to grow, both as a musician and lyricist. A darling of the critics as well as listeners, each album has been embraced and poured over by his fans. Even so, it's the album that marked his departure as a solo artist, Rockin' the Suburbs, which still stands out as his most memorable and iconic work.
Known for transposing quirky pop against often his often sarcastic, sardonic lyrics, Folds' wit and sense of humor has consistently been the factor that wins over and keeps his fans. The release of his latest album, Lonely Avenue, puts a new wrinkle to his music, however, as it's a collaboration with longtime friend and equally revered author Nick Hornsby.
From an outside perspective, the pairing of Folds and Hornsby could seemingly go only two ways: either a masterpiece or an utter train wreck. When considering the attention to detail that each affords his work, the latter seemed unlikely and fortunately, the end result is quite possibly Folds' strongest release since his solo foray nearly a decade ago.
With Hornsby providing the lyrics and Folds creating the melodies, the album is akin to a collection of short stories: eleven tightly wound vignettes bound together musically. Each is a character study in isolation, whether looking down on soul mates that never connect in "From Above," a little girl trying to bind her family back together in "Claire's 9th," or a faded rock star still haunted by his lost love in "Belinda."
The collaboration is an engaging pairing, matching up Hornsby's economic use of words with Hornsby's ability to match the lyrics with the proper musical atmosphere. From an outsider's perspective, however, one can't help but wonder how the two came together.
"We've both been fans of each other for a long time," Folds said. "We met backstage at a show in London and have kept in touch over the years. We always figured we'd do something together. This is our first foray into that."
"Nick had never written lyrics for anyone before, so I was honored to be the first," he added.
When asking how the writing process actually worked for the two, Folds explained that Hornsby sent him completed lyrics via e-mail, which he would then create the music for and send back to him in completed song form. To that extent, the process went incredibly smoothly with little to no back and forth and no revisions to the lyrics.
"As a professional writer, he has a different way of approaching things," Fold said. "He's already made his name as a novelist and doesn't want to do anything that doesn't stand up well.
"As a musician, you can fall back on 'yeah yeah, hey hey, baby I like that,' and not lose any credibility, whereas he probably doesn't want to write anything to embarrass himself," he continued.
"For a musician, there's not as much pressure if the lyrics are stripped away, but Nick writes stuff that holds up on its own," Folds said. "That's really the challenge we all have: to write something that will stand up with or without the music behind it."
Fold's respect for Hornsby and his lyrics was evident when discussing the songs, sharing "If your diction is not good... Rock and roll diction?
I don't think that's even a term," he laughed. "But if you can't understand what I'm singing at any point, it's a disservice to him, because every word he's written is important -- even the placement of his prepositions."
When asked how he normally writes, Folds said that the music usually comes first for him. "When it (the music) comes, it means something -- I just don't know what it is at the time."
"I think it must be some kind of psychological or subconscious reaction to something," he said. "Kind of like when a kid paints a picture. You might ask him afterward what it means and he might not know, but it can be interpreted later. It's the same when a musician has a melody -- if it's real, it may take some sort of time to decipher what it means and make the song what it's supposed to be."
With Hornsby providing the lyrics first, that process was inverted for the writing of this album, but it was still a similar process. "I'm just relating to something Nick has written," Folds explained. "He's very good at creating a story or a scene, so I live in it for a second and relate to that."
Although the writing process may have changed a bit working with Hornsby, the result is one of Folds' strongest efforts to date and one that already has critics and fans hoping to see more collaborations in the future. Right now, however, Folds is out on the road, offering up the majority of the new songs in a live setting.
When reflecting on the music industry and career, Folds shared that "The tour is going well so far, but it's really a time of dwindling in the music business, so I've got a lot of different opportunities to do things -- like writing with Nick -- that I'm taking advantage of."
"Cake had a number one album last week," he said. "That's a sign that the music industry has become really unpredictable. They're friends of mine and put that album out themselves and were probably worried that they'd get beaten up or overlooked. Instead, it went to number one and I'm really proud of them."
Although the business side of the music industry may be unpredictable, Folds has been consistent with his career, whether releasing wryly observational songs or putting on a live show that wins over fans and critics alike. Right now, he's on the road in support of the new album and the Lonely Avenue tour stops at Cain's Ballroom this coming Tuesday night, Feb. 1, kicking off another busy month of shows for the venue.
Tickets are still available for $34 and Street Corner Symphony will open the show at 8pm. Afterwards, Folds will complete the night with a mixture of old favorites and the latest stories from his collaboration with Hornsby. Hopefully, it will be the first of many more in the years to come.
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