Ben Folds on heading to Norwich with just his piano
PUBLISHED: 09:31 17 May 2018 | UPDATED: 10:58 17 May 2018
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The wandering musical career of Ben Folds has ranged from indie-pop favourites Ben Folds Five to classical records, via working with William Shatner. Now he is coming to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival with just a piano and some of his best-loved songs.
“That’s sort of my natural habitat,” says the alt-rock troubador Ben Folds, whose performance solo with just piano has been one of the most anticipated events of this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival.
“It goes back to what I do, it’s the centre of all I various interests I have, from producing records to playing with orchestras, rock bands and everything else, the thing that I have always carried is that I write songs and play them on piano. So these tours and shows like this are home for me.”
The multi-platinum selling singer-songwriter has spent over two decades mixing highbrow and lowbrow in a consistently surprising career. But it is piano that has dominated since he first gained attention with his band, Ben Folds Five, who were famously, despite their name, a three-piece.
Since their dissolution he has created an enormous body of genre-bending musical art that ranges from pop albums, multiple solo rock albums, as well as unique collaborative records with artists from Sara Bareilles and Regina Spektor, to Weird Al and William Shatner.
His last album was a blend of pop songs and his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra that soared to number one on both the Billboard classical and classical crossover charts.
This juggling of alt-rock goofiness and seriousness has given him the best of both worlds but does he approach it differently? He insists not, citing his musical upbringing.
“My first experience of playing music with people was in orchestras when I was a kid, a youth orchestra,” he says. “My tastes may have developed over the years, but actually also in a lot of ways things have stayed the same since I was young.
“I find myself circling around music, learning it, making it and understanding it, but I’ve never felt I’ve had a particularly trajectory. It’s never felt I started in rock music and have moved to classical, that is more about the opportunity in my career. Playing with an orchestra is an opportunity that’s generally not afforded to a man playing in a rock band.
And he finds rock and classical musicians surprisingly similar. “There are tribal and cultural differences and there are pecking orders and snobberies, but at the centre I find it is usually very similar,” he insists.
“The differences tend to be similar to those between the people generally. Some people like working for a big company, some like working for themselves. If you’re playing with an orchestra, for example, that is 60 to 80 people that are clocking in - they are going into work. That’s different from a small jazz band or rock band that is more like people who are a small business or working for themselves.”
Solo touring like his Norwich gig is therefore him being his own boss. Is that liberating? “Yes I think so. It is liberating in a lot of ways. You can control the performance and discover the dynamics of music. If you suddenly feel that, say, a chorus should be quieter, you can do that. That kind of freedom in a performance I think is very interesting.”
And he has no fixed notion of what the Norwich audience can expect beyond the intimacy of just a piano and some of his best-loved songs.
He said: “I keep it loose, you know, but it’ll tend towards anything. I’m not going to concentrate on any particular era. It will just be anything that I’ve written.”
That could be playing the piano-led pop of Ben Folds Five, a band who shunned lead guitar in the era of grunge rock, or any of the music that followed as his continual upturning of accepted pop convention gave him a cult appeal.
His use of humour has often seen him described as a combination of Randy Newman and Elton John, and he has sought out some unusual collaborators including William Shatner and Nick Hornby.
How does he go about picking the people to work with? “It’s usually as combination of people who peak my interest at the time and socially what happened,” he explains. “Very often it will simply be because you met somebody along the way and realised ‘oh, we could make a thing. Should we?’
“That’s the way it worked with both Nick and Shatner. I am really open the idea that people who are apparently seem to not be especially musical might have even more to offer when it comes to music, because their perspective is different and not as prescribed.
“When I worked with Shatner he had clearly never had to conform to anything musically and that was really interesting. I find that more interesting usually than working with just a straight musician.”
His passion for nurturing musical talent extended to being a judge of US TV show Sing Off, though don’t think of an X Factor style talent contest.
“It was kind of a nerdy show,” he explains. “It was pretty unique because it as a cappella so the adjudicating was more technical in nature. If you have a singer singing over backing tracks you need to get into the technicalities with of their vocal performances, but if it been a cappella you can.
That was the success of the show, getting very in depth and technical about singing. People learned a lot about the process and seem to enjoy it, even if they weren’t musicians. It was a very unlikely hit, but we did it for five years.”
Ben is currently in the process of writing a book about his musical adventures, though exactly what form it will take he is still pondering.
“That is the million dollar question,” he chuckles. “I feel I can write something of a memoir style that is meant to be lessons in music. I guess it’ll be a journey, though I hate when people say that.”
• Ben Folds is at Norwich Theatre Royal on May 19, 7.30pm, returns only 01603 766400, nnfestival.org.uk • Ben Folds is part of this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival. For your daily guide to festival events click here
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