Ben Folds: “Pop music is like an animal. But you lose that”

Almost retiring into teaching before returning with his best album in years – Ben Folds talks the highs and lows of being a middle-aged rockstar

Ben Folds’ way with the piano has long been irresistible. First, there was his influential 90s three-piece, Ben Folds Five. Then the solo trail, and a smattering of high-profile collaborations featuring the likes of Regina Spektor, Nick Hornby, and yMusic. In 2019, he even penned a well-received memoir entitled, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life Of Music And Cheap Lessons.

His latest album, however, is his first in eight years, and it emerged from bouts of crippling self-doubt. As Folds tells us, fears haunted him that his best work was in the “rear-view mirror” and that his relevance had dissipated. Thankfully, What Matters Most dashes any worries with two fingers raised and a magnificent flourish. It’s a terrific record.

“I got stuff. And I’ve got something to say,” he says defiantly as he leads us through the new album and shares his thoughts on ageing into music, why it’s good to write quickly, and how teaching ended up greasing his songwriting wheels. 

Ben Folds - "Exhausting Lover" (Official Music Video]

What Matters Most is your first album in eight years. Not give you a hard time about it, but why has it taken you so long?

I was doing stuff! [laughs]. I became artistic advisor at the Kennedy Centre for the National Symphony Orchestra. Every day I had something exciting coming along – completely new territory. I was advocating for arts and arts education. There was also a lot of touring. And there was no real incentive to make a record. Over the pandemic, I was even teaching songwriting and piano classes. 

You were teaching songwriting? 

Yeah, and I was enjoying it. It’s not exactly like I had to do it. Some of it was useful, but some of it was adjusting to the possibility that that would be my life from now on. And it wouldn’t be unheard of to retire at 55 and find yourself teaching like that. That’s totally normal. 

I don’t think there’s any real reason to put on a pair of leather pants and go shaking your ass in front of people at 55, trying to rock. You don’t want to be that guy. But you know, it’s like the Jethro Tull song: ‘too old to rock and roll, and too young to die’. Then the pandemic happened, and that’s why the record happened.

You’ve said that you don’t feel you could have written What Matters Most at any other point in your career. Why? 

Pop music is like an animal. And when you’re 20 years old, you’ve got some animal sh*t to say. But you lose that. Only the kids can do it. If you keep going, what you gain is a continued sense of craft instead. Some of that is learning when to sit on your hands. Also, if you think about classical composers – and I know a lot of them died of tuberculosis when they were 15 and they made better stuff than I’ll ever make, but many of them didn’t and lived on – but the point is that they were still learning. Music with a big ‘M’ is a long learning curve. 

Ben Folds - "Back To Anonymous" [Official Audio]

It sounds like this realisation altered your view about ageing as a musician.

I always viewed [ageing in music] as being a noose around the neck: you get old, you start writing sh*tty music, you make a sh*tty record, you’re tired, trying to be your old, younger self… it’s pathetic. 

I did that to myself. I beat myself up. I was like, “I want to still be young. I want to be relevant. I’m afraid my best work is in the rear-view mirror. I’m jealous of young kids doing hip stuff”. 

So, what’s left? I got stuff. And I got something to say. I really shouldn’t give a sh*t. I shouldn’t. I have a lot of skill, something I’ve used earlier in my career, but I had no hang ups about it this time. It was lovely. 

In that case, you’ve embraced the craft you’ve developed and used it to your advantage?

Back in the Steely Dan days, they would create an aural soundscape – and you don’t have to like it – but you’re getting the best of everything: the tones lead perfectly, the voices lead perfectly. It’s just so well crafted. And now, in 2023, I think we’re losing that sense of craft. I believe that people miss that. Yesterday, I spent all day tuning a bass drum and finding different ways to mic it. That’s a normal thing for me to do.

People tend to appreciate craft when they hear it but can’t necessarily explain or articulate it.

Nor should they because it’s a burden. The listener is not supposed to be burdened. It’s like having a plumber coming over to your house. The great plumber just fixes the toilet, the sh*t one talks to you for about four hours about what they’re doing.

Do you think technology has made things too easy?

The first suspect when it comes to changes in music – both good and bad – should be technology. When you see a huge technological jump over a decade, you’re gonna see great differences in music. That’s why there’s such a huge difference between 1951 and 1965, but when you’re looking at 1995 and 2010, there’s not as much. We’re going through a crazy period now, and we don’t know what’s coming next. There will be craft in the new iterations in pop music, it’ll just be different.

Ben Folds - "Winslow Gardens" [Official Lyric Video]

Going back to What Matters Most, the album took shape during the pandemic?

Yeah. Most of it towards the end. I sat around for the first half with all these pieces of partially completed songs that were my greatest hits for the last seven years: things that I thought were going to be on an album one day and gonna be great. But I wasn’t feeling it. 

I started writing new stuff from scratch and it was so much better than then the things I’d become wed to, thinking, “This is gonna be my next record”. Suddenly, I’m chucking that stuff in the bin. And it’s a very unsexy thing to admit, but some of the songs were actually born out of the songwriting classes.

Which songs came out of the songwriting classes?

Both ‘Kristine From The 7th Grade’ and ‘Fragile’. They were written in just a couple of hours to show my class how you take a song from a headline. 

Can you tell us a bit more about that approach? 

[I would ask them] “Give me a headline from today and write a song from it”. I was trying to say, “Here’s the newspaper article. It’s very detailed. It tells you everything you need to know, but what is the song inside there?”

Usually, what they presented was the newspaper story reproduced but now it rhymes. That’s understandable, but as a teacher you go, “Okay, that’s what you don’t do. There’s an emotional motive beneath the story. That’s what you’re trying to find”. The best songs do that. That said, one out of maybe 10 songs will be very literal.

Ben Folds - "Kristine From The 7th Grade" [Official Audio]

Are there any songs you’d call “literal” on the new album?

‘Exhausting Lovers’ is just some silly story – which didn’t happen – where I’m making it rhyme, using my craft to make it funny. ‘Kristine From The 7th Grade’, on the other hand, came from the newspaper article called, Here’s Why I’ll Be Keeping My Shoes On In Your Shoeless Home.

Do you remember the publication it came from? 

The Wall Street Journal. And [the writer] will hear about me soon, I’m sure! Her name’s Kris [Frieswick]. 

The narrative to ‘Kristine From The 7th Grade’ doesn’t sound in any way connected to that article. What did you do? 

I said to my students, “This story is not interesting to me. It’s a wedge piece, meant to divide people to create chaos and clicks”. And I thought, “If I’m not interested in the story, what am I interested in?”. I am interested in the writer of the story. This girl, Kris, who was she when she was a child? 

So your approach was to invent a story from there?

Yes. [Adopts the position of a character] “I knew Kristine from seventh grade. She used to laugh a lot in school. I saw her on Facebook though, and she didn’t look happy. She’s posting guns, dead foetuses, and really aggressive-sounding things. She writes to me but doesn’t ask how I’m doing; she just tries to convince me of her side”. 

I’m trying to write a character that elicits empathy from the listener. If I do it right, what you’re saying is “The writer is not perfect either. Maybe he needs to back off. He’s not right about everything. He asks her, ‘Don’t you see the world ever as beautiful too? Or do you just walk around all the time in your little conspiracy theory nightmare?’”. The audience should be able to see that the writer can only see their side too. 

Is it unusual for you to write songs so quickly? 

Any of us who has ever written hates to admit how effective it is to write something a little too quickly. With me, I like to consider stuff for a long time. But as Leonard Bernstein said,  “All that’s needed to make something great is a great idea and not quite enough time”. There’s something so perfect about that. 

With ‘Kristine From The 7th Grade’, I was throwing away a lifetime of music theory. It sounds like it was composed over a period of a month, but it was between two to six hours. By hour six, I was running back to the piano, changing a few chords here and there, but that’s all. 

When all is said and done, what are your hopes for What Matters Most

The day that they tell me it’s paid for itself, I’ll be happy, because the people who believed in me enough to help make that record weren’t sh*t on. And that means more to me than all the rest.

What Matters Most is out now. Ben Folds begins his UK tour in November. Find Ben Folds tickets here.