Ben Folds has never been big on monogamy.
He’s made records with both William Shatner and Nick Hornby, spent the last two years working with symphony orchestras, toured the country with only the aid of a piano and microphone, and penned rock radio hits with a three-piece band called the Ben Folds Five.
Folds’s most recent project is a collaboration with New York’s yMusic. The ensemble features six-string, woodwind, and horn players who, Folds says, are giving him a run for his money. But for all their collective smarts and his platinum records, they’re having a hard time just getting onstage.
“At this moment we’re trying to figure out how the piano fits and where everyone can be where they [can] hear themselves and it doesn’t look like a big shitstorm,” he tells the Voice.
Folds and yMusic are in the midst of their first tour — which includes sets at the Bowery Ballroom April 27, the Music Hall of Williamsburg April 28, and Town Hall April 30 — in which they’re introducing audiences to the music they recently laid down on a forthcoming, currently untitled album. Folds says the music lies “somewhere between a rock band and a chamber group.”
In addition to being a new ensemble configuration for Folds, his role in the music is different from what he’s accustomed to playing. He’s used to his piano being the driving force behind a performance, allowing him to improvise on the fly or push things one direction or another on a whim. Working with yMusic, the piano is just one part among many in a composition. He’s not always the center of the music: Sometimes he’s playing harmonies with the flute, and sometimes he’s not playing at all.
“Everything has to be very tightly arranged,” he says, “but we’ve got depth on the bench and are very capable of making shit up on the spot.”
This is also, Folds says, the first time that he hasn’t cringed when listening to one of his fresh albums. In the past, there’s always been something, be it questionable riffs or tones or general second-guessing. For the moment, at least, he’s giving himself good marks.
“I probably will come up with lots of ways to beat that record up over the next couple months,” he says, “but right now I seem to be in la-la land.”
The jubilation is surprising considering that Folds says there were far fewer hours put into this record than any of his previous efforts. After months of arranging and rehearsing, the album was recorded, more or less live, with all seven players in one room, in about two weeks. Endless tinkering and perfecting in the studio, Folds says, is something that can sap the soul out of a performance, which he believes is audible to the listener.
“People want to hear an event,” he says. “They might not know it, but your human heart wants to hear an event. And if you take all semblance of the event out — and that’s what you’re doing when you’re perfecting it — then you’re fucking it up.”
Ben Folds plays the Bowery Ballroom April 27, the Music Hall of Williamsburg April 28, and Town Hall on April 30. Both the Bowery and Williamsburg shows have sold out, but tickets are still available for the Town Hall performance here.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 27, 2015