This post originally appeared on the blog for my pop culture podcast Dudes Brunch.
Ben Folds: pianist, a capella enthusiast, photographer and nerdy music industry figure. With a over 20 years of piano driven alt-pop records, a stint as a game show judge and a campaign to save an aging recording studio Mr. Folds’ career can be a bit daunting to the non-fan. So, as a massive fan, I’ve put together a crash course in the piano crashing and genre smashing world of Benjamin Scott Folds.
Ben Folds grew up in Winston-Salem North Carolina, where he picked up his southern accent and listened to a lot of AM Radio. He was especially interested in singer-songwriters including Elton John and Billy Joel. He was particularly fascinated, during one stage with Neil Sedaka, as he explains below:
Folds started his first band, Majosha, in the late 80’s who attained regional popularity with their four-song EP “Party Time; Five songs About Jesus”. Majosha broke up after releasing a full-length LP (“Shut Up and Listen to Majosha“). Many songs from this period appeared on subsequent Ben Folds releases. Folds spent some time as a session drummer in Nashville before attending the University of Miami for music. However, he broke his hand the night before his percussion studio final in a bar fight. The next day, after being told he couldn’t postpone the final, Folds threw his drumset into a pond and dropped out of school. He was (and is) one credit shy of graduating.
After college, Ben Folds formed a trio with Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jesse (drums) in North Carolina. Continuing his penchant for misleading names, the trio became the Ben Folds Five. They released their self-titled album of “punk rock for sissies” in 1995, which spawned the singles “Philosophy” and “Underground”. Their sophomore album “Whatever and Ever Amen” proved to be their breakout album, due largely to the song “Brick”. Only after the song left the charts did Folds begin explaining it’s subject matter:
The trio’s third album “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner” is a tribute to the first man to summit Mt. Everest, though none of its songs are explicitly about him. The opener, “Narcolepsy”, is about an actual disorder where people simply fall asleep when confronted with extreme emotions; and how Folds believes a lot of men have a similar reaction. The live favorite “Army” tells the story of a dropout who realizes he can’t make it in the armed forces, or fast food. The horn break in the middle of the song is
frequently performed a capella by audiences during live shows, with Folds directing.
Ben Folds Five broke up in the late 90’s, prompting Folds to embark on a successful solo career. During the early portion of his solo career, Folds became known for writing songs in the third person. In fact, half of his debut solo record “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is written in the third-person. He explains, below, that he does this to create intimacy or to write about himself without being “emotionally lewd”.
At an early solo show in Chicago, a fan yelled “Rock this Bitch!” at Folds in between songs. This created a live tradition, where the audience may (once per show) heckle Folds into rocking this bitch. Each night he will perform an improvised song around the phrase, regardless of accompaniment. Once he even created an improvised piece with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in Perth.
Folds experimented with the release of his music during the early days of iTunes, releasing singles and EPs in regular intervals to determine which packages of songs seemed the easiest for fans to digest. The songs from this period, which are gathered on the SupperSunnySpeedGraphic LP, include some of his most eccentric songwriting and a few notable covers. His cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” from 2005, was an early viral hit. Since then he has regularly included piano covers of vulgar pop songs in his live sets and as bonus tracks on various releases.
Touring before the release of his 2008 solo album “Way To Normal,” Folds fell of a stage in Hiroshima and sustained a concussion. During treatment, the delirious Folds asked his doctor if the scans of his brain could show whether or not he was gay. The incident became the basis of the album’s opening track: “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)”. As albums were beginning to leak to peer-to-peer networks around this time, Folds and his band created entirely different songs using the titles of the album’s track listing and “leaked” this version online prior to the release. He occasionally performs these false versions to this day.
After hearing a cover of “Brick” by the Ohio University Leading Tones, Ben Folds produced an album of his greatest hits performed by university a capella groups from across the country. He has been known to include a capella groups as part of his stage show when visiting universities since.
In the early 2010s Folds frequently popped up in music news circles for odd projects. In 2010, users of ChatRoulette suspected he was masquerading as “Merten,” a user who would appear on-screen in a grey hoodie and sing improvised songs about other users. Folds dismissed the rumors, and then performed a tribute to Merten during a live-set using a webcam mounted on his piano. In April 2011, Folds collaborated with Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and Damian Kulash as 8in8 to write, record, and produce eight songs in eight hours. And in 2014, he spearheaded a successful campaign to save the historic RCA Studio A in Nashville from demolition.
Outside of music, Ben Folds is a semi-professional photographer. He collects film cameras and has a dark room in his home, where he develops photos that he sells as a side business. He was a judge on a few seasons of NBC’s a capella singing competition “The Sing Off,” where he frequently used musical terms that he would have to explain to contestants, viewers and fellow judges. He also frequently participates in fundraisers for music education, and raises awareness on Twitter about people who #FlossNToss (using disposable dental flossers and then dropping them in public places).
Ben Folds Five reunited in 2011 and released “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” in 2012. After touring for this album Folds composed and performed a concerto for piano and orchestra. The piece will be released as part of his upcoming album “So There” along with eight new “chamber rock” songs recorded with the yMusic sextet.
Ben Folds’ bizarre side projects, strange collaborations and unique songwriting have created a twenty-plus year career of pleasant surprises. His back catalog is as varied as it is large, yet his fans are generally completists. His writing style is extremely verbose, yet nearly always relatable. And his piano playing is some of the best in contemporary pop music. For an easy-to-swallow introduction to his music, click below to listen to our “Intro to Ben Folds” playlist. And let us know in the comments what your favorite Ben Folds project has been.