Ben Folds orders a Talisker 10 Year neat and looks over at a piece of art hanging on the wall at Ingo’s Tasty Diner in Santa Monica. It depicts two female silhouettes grasping drinks in their hands. “I hate that,” he says. “Just look at the girl’s face. She has this sorority jaw going on that’s like, ‘What-ever.’ I don’t think they are naked, but the one on the right is telling the one on the left about some friend she saw on Instagram and their boyfriend bullshit. It bothers me.”
The soon-to-be-49-year-old adjusts his glasses and starts to play a tune into my recorder with a pair of knives. “I wonder if that sounds good?” he asks. He looks at the drink menu, analyzing the selections again. He points to the $15 shot of Auchentoshan Three Wood single malt scotch and says that he overindulged in it in Glasgow three weeks ago. “That’s some good shit,” he proffers.
So There, the Southern piano man’s new album, opens up with eight new songs written with New York classical chamber ensemble yMusic. They worked for six months arranging, orchestrating and recording most of the material at the Grand Victor Sound Studio in Nashville, where Folds resides part-time.
The second half of the album, entitled “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” is a 21-minute, three-movement work co-commissioned by the Nashville Ballet and the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra premiered it in 2014. He takes a sip of his scotch and opines, “Anyone sitting with a classical handbook critiquing my record can jump on a dick. The record ends on my sort of acid trip. If it’s death, that’s the way you want to go out.”
Folds orders another scotch and tugs on his blue button-down shirt. He’s very funny, discursive and gregarious here, but claims that he’s not much of a talker. He admits that he’s thought about quitting music many times before. “I thought I didn’t want to travel anymore. I don’t want to shit out something that’s not good. I don’t want to look like an old f–k on stage, shaking his ass. But what am I going to do? I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t even drive.”
The two patrons across the table to the left are staring. They recognize me and say hello. Folds tells them a surprising piece of (fake) news: “We are getting married! We are planning the wedding right now,” he says, laughing. “Yup, that’s right. She’s engaged!” The waiter brings over a cardboard box with water inside, since Folds joked about wanting boxed water to go. He reaches for the check and tells me that he’s going to pay for it. “I saw your car missing a bumper when you drove by the restaurant; you need the money,” he cackles. “But that’s my kind of car. When I was at the height of my career with my band, I was driving a Toyota Corolla that was so rusted that the front door came off in my yard. When you are done with your car, please sell it to me.”
You have been married and divorced four times and now have a girlfriend. Do you think the fifth time is a charm?
Uh, I don’t know. Honestly, a year ago, if you sat down with me and the first thing you asked was about me having been married four times, I would find that question pretty offensive. I would feel like you were trying to define me, but you have no idea what went on with each of those relationships, what it meant to me, or not. I felt like it was viewed as some rock star womanizing thing, but it was a f–king knockdown, drag out, horrible time in my life. I was also ashamed of my decisions. What stupid f–king idiot gets married a second time if the first time didn’t work out? Oh, and he wants a third one? Okay, let’s have it again. By the fourth time, it’s like, “Okay, this guy is just a f–king chump.”
It seems like you are still self-conscious about it.
I used to be. I’ve learned a shitload from each one. The first wife I knew since we were both five years old. If she called me and needed a f–king lung, I would have to consider it. I probably wouldn’t, though, because I have kids. I don’t hate these women; it just didn’t work out. It’s the divorcing of the ego that matters. Who the f–k cares what someone thinks of you? A fifth f–cking marriage? Maybe. I’m that guy, fine, who cares? It’s not a nice statistic, but I don’t regret anything. I think people learn at the rate they are going to learn. I don’t know anything anymore.
What do you mean you don’t know anything anymore?
I’ve given up on trying to figure anything out. I come from the poor South, and if you weren’t married by 22 years old, you were f–ked. My parents told me I must get married. I was seen as a failure if I didn’t do it. My path at the moment is to think what I honestly want and need on that day and not worry too much about the future. I do think that when you make repeated mistakes, it’s usually because you’re just not coming to grips with something. That may be a bulls—-y way of answering this.
Your hit 1997 single “Brick” was based on your girlfriend in high school having an abortion. Have you ever been with anyone else who had to go through that?
Well, if I had, I certainly wouldn’t talk about that to anybody. Abortion is a total trigger point for me. I don’t like talking about it. I wouldn’t have spoken about it in that song, but as Randy Newman says, “I would run over my grandmother for a song.” If the melody is telling me this is what the song is about, then I’m sort of forced into confession, autobiography or fantasy. If I don’t do that, I’ve hamstrung the melody. I was making a live record, and I realized that was the moment I could say, “Here is what the song is about.” But it makes people have an opinion about every note that I sing. It doesn’t help me. The less I talk in bars, write emails, express myself in an emotionally lewd way outside of my songwriting, the more I have to do it through my music. I’ve gotten to the point where I realize that I need to tell my truth in music and not walk around blabbing my mind.
Do you believe that people can be monogamous?
I think it’s possible. For men, I don’t think it’s really wired in the DNA. I’m romantically inclined. No human being on Earth is not attracted to other people. There is no fairy tale that they only have eyes for you. You just choose to act on it or not. If I’m in a relationship and my girlfriend is sleeping with other people, I don’t need to know who it is; I just want to know how she feels about it. If we weren’t communicating that much and she had body issues and had a drink and boom, I don’t want to know the details, but I would want to know why she was feeling low, so I could make a decision. What I don’t want to be burdened with is the imagination of what happened. At the same time, I don’t know about open relationships. I don’t want to have a million fucking rules, either. It’s too complicated. I think it’s a loving, beautiful idea. It’s not much different from regular relationships, which also just fail most of the time.
Have you ever been cheated on or have cheated?
I have had significant others cheat on me, and I have done it myself. It wasn’t a happy thing, and no one was proud of it. It felt bad five seconds later. I felt like a dick. I don’t want someone who is unfaithful being in the town square throwing fruit at him or her. I just feel bad for them. It’s a lot of strife and judgment coming their way. I don’t have a big jealousy gene. I think you have to be open to stuff. I think it’s always premeditated because your subconscious is so powerful. If you stay out all night partying, that’s what it leads to. You’re looking for it.
The song “Yes Man” on your album seems like a confessional about how you were affected that a female noticed you gained weight. You admit sometimes that you are weak in some ways. Do you think you are an insecure person?
Well, I certainly can be. The nice thing about age is worrying less and less about what people think. I think for me it requires a little bit of work. It’s certainly okay to admit weakness, everyone has it. “Why didn’t you tell me how I got fat?” is not usually how you start a ballad, so I felt like that disarms the listener and confuses others. I divorce myself from listeners who aren’t tolerant of humor. I did notice universally that, especially when it comes to weight, people look in the mirror and get the angle just right, tell themselves it’s all right, and then they go out. And people say “Take my picture from this angle or don’t take it from that angle,” and at some point, in time you get a perspective on it and you are like “Holy shit!” I also like to start with an awkward sentence to open up with because that’s how I feel as a person.
Why do you feel awkward?
I think that everyone does, but I guess I can just admit it and enjoy it. I have manic energy. What can be done about it? I don’t know what to say sometimes. I’m professional in public, but I like to stay inside and be a hermit. I could probably live in Bali the rest of my life and completely live in the sticks and have a f–king moped and make a record every couple of years and not step in public and break even like I do anyway. That’s really tempting.
Did you really throw your cell into a pool in Los Angeles like you claim on “Phone in a Pool?”
Yeah, I did. I had a lot of very frustrated messages, especially about not calling people back, but I couldn’t answer my phone on stage. I’m a people pleaser and it upset me that people were upset that I didn’t call them back. I’m really impulsive and I threw the phone in the deep end at the Sunset Marquis in 2010. It felt real freeing to throw it in the pool. I didn’t think anyone was there, but Kesha was and she saw. She said, “Ben, is that you?” but I didn’t know who it was because she had a hoodie on. She pulled it off, and then I realized it was f–king Kesha. She jumped in the pool with all her clothes on at 1 a.m. and fished my phone out and told me to put it in rice. She tried to save it, but it didn’t work. I didn’t turn it off fast enough. The next day she got bronchitis, but I hope it wasn’t from jumping in the pool.
You sing, “I’m dancing on my own grave. There could be fewer days ahead” on the song “I’m Not the Man.” Do you often contemplate death?
Yeah, a lot. I hope it doesn’t hurt. Getting there sounds dreadful. One day, I am going to look at the expiration date on a milk carton and go bad before the milk does. The second movement of the concerto on the record is about death. When we go out, we don’t know the date. When I turned 25, I thought I was so ancient. I was so depressed and had been so broke. I was waiting tables before my first record came out. But I finally had a little money and got a big cookie at Wendy’s by myself. I think if I died then, I would be sad. I wouldn’t have accomplished what I wanted. I do think, “If I kicked it right now, would I be okay with that?”
Would you be okay with dying now?
I would. I have a few things I would like to sort out. A few personal things, and I don’t know if I have everything financially together. I don’t want to know my death date. You don’t want to leave people with a deficit of crap they have to do. When you say death, two things occur to me: one, trying to be okay with it at any moment. If you are being honest with it and doing what you can do or being yourself, then I think you are okay to be hit by that Mack truck. I was crossing the street with a friend of mine in New York, and I just about walked into the fucking traffic. “How have you been lately?” and I said, “Awesome.” As I said “Awesome,” I stepped in front of the car and he pulled me back. The joke for the rest of the day was, “Don’t say that word anymore, because you don’t want that to be your last word.” Two, you have to be okay with all kinds of death. Death of your personality, your tastes. In this case, it was the death of the guy who thought he was the shit.
You sing that you weren’t the man you used to be on the song. What do you mean by this?
That motherf–ker is dead, and I am the happiest man on Earth that he’s not with us anymore. It’s not supposed to be that I am a shrunken version of myself. It’s a greater moment of detaching yourself from the ego. There are a lot of things he used to be.
Do you use any substances when you write your songs?
I drink a lot, probably too much. My scene while writing lyrics is always a bottle of scotch and stacks of note cards, pencil and pencil sharpener. I throw around note cards and drink. I think alcohol is a good drug for me when I’m writing. I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem with it. I can stop for a few weeks, so I think it’s okay. I don’t think it’s good for my liver, but I do love it. It’s a huge part of my life, and it makes me happy.
What do you want people to take away from your new album?
Just to be moved and to think. You can be who you are and say what you feel, and it’s going to be okay. Sometimes music can be helpful. I think on this I’ve stretched in my vulnerability as a writer. The song “Capable of Anything” is about my revelation that being capable of anything is a bullshit concept, unless it means you also admit that you’re capable of cheating, lying and killing. You can do all kinds of gross shit. Don’t tell me people can’t do that. That’s a very constipated person. Loosen up. Everyone has a price. Like if I’m going to kill your kid unless you go f—k a bunch of school children. It’s like, “Okay, bring it on. I’m going to save my kid.” People do certain things, and it doesn’t have to be as honorable as saving your children.
I want people to listen to my lyrics and be okay with themselves. The people who have it the roughest are homosexuals who come out of the closet. I look to an out gay man or woman as pretty much what I would aspire to. The strength that it takes to do that and the floodgates that open and what they pay for it. I also don’t have a moral issue with lying at all, but you will pay for it. You aren’t going to hell, you aren’t a bad person. It’s going to fuck you up, but it might be worth it. The songs are notes to myself, not notes to other people. I can create shit and it’s no longer about marketing myself as being cool or not cool. I can orchestrate the f–k out of stuff.
What’s up with Ben Folds Five? Are you guys going to put out another album? Have you worked on any new material recently?
Right now, it doesn’t suit me. When it does, I might do it. If I want that sound and if I think we need to hear more of it, those are the two guys to do it with. When we get together, we sound like us. I want to hear shit I don’t know. That’s more exciting to me right now. I was in a darkroom printing and I realized suddenly that I was a huge dick after the band had been broken up for six years. I thought, “Damn, that’s pretty hardcore. You are an asshole.” I blamed everything on everyone else and I thought I was above it. I used to have nightmares and I was on stage and the band showed up. It was the worst fucking dream of my life. It recurred all the time and they hijacked my life and I couldn’t do my thing. When I had the realization, I didn’t have the dream anymore. You can totally fuck me up by saying something I didn’t want people to know, the difference is now I can admit it. If someone came up to me and said they saw me doing coke off a stripper’s dick or got a gay blowjob, then I wouldn’t deny it.
What do you think about Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift? How do you feel about women in this generation of music?
I think the people making that music are pretty smart and they know it. I have been in a text/email/pen pal relationship with Miley Cyrus since she was 14. I think she’s a really smart chick, and she’s really talented and bright, too. When we first started talking, she wanted to know about Regina Spektor. She’s obviously not gone in the same way. Intelligence and independence in a female voice, lyrically and vocally, is nothing but attractive. For girls, it doesn’t need to be “F–k you, I’m my own person. Hear my roar and growl.” What I hear is them being themselves and not having to be overtly feminist. I want to hear girls sing with their whole voice more. Not just the top part. Don’t hide behind girly shit. Sing with your alto range! I like schizophrenic artists. They make me happy.
You produced Amanda Palmer’s album Who Killed Amanda Palmer in 2008. How crazy was she?
She opens up vocally, I’ll tell you that. I will produce when it makes sense. With Amanda, it was real informal. I have written three fan letters in my career and one was to Amanda after the second Dresden Dolls record. I love that record so much. She’s a force of nature. I wrote her a really glowing note, and she posted it online. We became friends. I love her. If you love Amanda, you can be friends. She’s not crazy. She’s efficient, down to business and more organized than myself. Some of our dissonance is because she was into making lists she wanted to accomplish and I was not into the lists. I say we start and let’s see, which isn’t really what you want your producer to say. I scared Sara Bareilles s—less all the time. William Shatner, too. They enjoy it when it’s finished, but I don’t give them the comfort of telling them where they need to go. Why should I? It’s not finished.
Do you read your own album reviews?
Yeah, I do, sometimes. I haven’t seen any on this record yet, but I anticipate they won’t be very good. I get a lot of really mean reviews. Don’t read the Rolling Stone ones. And instead of Pitchfork being all smartass, they could say, “Look, there is something here; this guy has a voice as an artist. There is nobody like him, but can’t he just learn to relax the sphincter and broaden whatever? I hope he does next time so I can give him a perfect grade.” That would be fine. I was a judge on the NBC show The Sing-Off, and some of those people sucked dick. It never once occurred to me to discourage them.
I think for this record, it takes people more than one listen. There are also three long movements. I think that’s a very difficult thing to critique. It’s a difficult thing to ask of the ego of a critic. It tests their skill. You know what I would do as a lazy critic, and this is what I expect them to do: I would look at the batting average of a pop musician in relation to classical endeavors. I think when they look at it, they will see it as a very unsuccessful classical endeavor. And they will hedge their bets and say, “Nice try, but not quite.” It makes them look better, and they don’t have to be specific about it. But it’s not going to matter. My goal is to crack the Billboard Top 10 with an album with a concerto on it. I want to piss in your yard with this record.
Finally, who is the best piano player out of you, Elton John and Billy Joel?
I will tell you that both consider me a better piano player. They told me that. I don’t think that’s true, but I know why they say that. I’m also the one that hasn’t sold as many records, so they are very fatherly and nice to me. Both of them are so encouraging. I sent the concerto to both of them and got nothing but great feedback.
As piano players, I think Elton is more versatile and also less prominent in his songs. When you listen, you will get everything else but the piano unless you listen to it carefully. He doesn’t necessarily always challenge himself, but he finds his moments. Billy puts his piano more forward and has all these iconic moments, but I think he’s more like me and advertises the moments he can do, but backs out of the ones that he can’t. I think Elton across the board is more a versatile piano player. He’s Royal Academy-trained and probably plays better in all keys. Billy Joel’s Fantasies & Delusions record is very underrated and unfairly dismissed. The melodies are so beautiful. We should applaud it and not discourage one of our great 20th century composers to get back to the “Uptown Girl” box and shut up. It makes me want to cut a bitch.