How Ben Folds Became the Patron Saint of A Cappella
In this week's paper, I chatted with Ben Folds, who's playing a sold-out show at the Pageant on Sunday night. Folds' latest album, Lonely Avenue, is a collaboration with author Nick Hornby. In addition to this project, Folds has been dabbling in the world of a cappella over the past few years -- from the full-length album, Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!, to being a judge on the TV Show The Sing-Off. So how did Folds become the patron saint of a cappella? He explains below -- and also tells us the story behind his opening act on Sunday, the Nashville a cappella troupe Street Corner Symphony.
Annie Zaleski: Something else I'm trying to figure out: How did you become the patron saint of a cappella groups?
Ben Folds: [Laughs] Isn't that weird? Well, my writing hasn't been covered that much, and I always thought of myself as someone who would be covered a lot - that is, other groups doing my music. I thought, "Well, I'm a songwriter's songwriter...like Burt Bacharach, everyone plays his music." Well, it never really happened. But as it turns out, about ten years into my career, all of these a cappella groups at universities are covering my music, at a rate that was hard to keep up with. Every single one of 'em seemed to have a couple of my songs in their repertoire, and that means my music was covered.
And that's really where it came from, was, "Wow, these groups are doing it." Now the way I look at it is, that's the most creative way your music can be reinterpreted. They don't change the bass part - they don't have a bass. They got some dude going [imitates low-end voice]. [Laughs] So it's all a really great, creative interpretation. I felt like, "Wow, these people have helped me out and actually covered my music." Never mind that it makes no money, but that's cool. So I took an interest in it, and I think my interest in it helped the cause a little bit.
Why do you think people have gravitated toward your music for a cappella?
There would be music-theory reasons why it's good to cover, because the voice leading...what would be annoyingly correct for a rock band would be a real asset for an a cappella group. I don't know how much you know about music, but if you know what voice leading is, it's simply all the harmonies, how far they have to jump. And if it's a Nirvana song, you can see Kurt [Cobain]'s hands, he's holding a bar chord at this part of the guitar, and then he moves the entire hand all the way up the neck to his next note. That means all those notes had to jump - some of them further than the human voice can comfortably jump.
Someone who's more of a trained composer who's kind of honoring Western music theory, those voices - and this is kind of dictated in a way by Bach - the voices don't move very much. They move very little. The chords move a lot, but the actual voices inside them don't move that much. So they have an automatic voice leading that's built in. It's classic, really, is what it is.
It used to be a liability to me that my music was sort of classic, [that] it was like a throwback, it was corny, it wasn't indie, it wasn't hip, whatever. But for an a cappella group, it's great, because voice leading happens. Then maybe the other thing is [about why his music resonates with a cappella groups] -- there's stories involved lyrically that these people in college for whatever reason are identifying with. So they've got the story and they've got the voice leading. I think that's it.
Deconstructing music is so interesting - and seeing why things work and why things don't. I think that's what a cappella does, that's so great.
What I think is really nice about the phase I've just been through with the a cappella groups, is that it's really honest. There are reasons that music sometimes doesn't work, and there's reasons why sometimes it does work. And the big reason, the big R, is out of our control. It's inspiration and just that general...unexplainable beauty and the art of it. But if that's there, then there are reasons that sometimes there's not connecting. And I don't think that rock bands take the time to actually admit those things.
So a great rock band who's missing it, doesn't often find themselves in the position to have any feedback or to analyze it. It's often thought that the analysis is counter to art somehow. If I listened to a group and I put on my brain first, then I'd be a failure. But if you listen with your heart and you go, "God, that was great! That moved me," well, all you gotta do is take two seconds to figure out why. If it didn't move you, then you take two seconds to figure out why not. But you don't start with your brain; you connect your ears to your heart and you monitor the effect. [Laughs] And then you analyze that, you don't analyze it to begin with. A song is not a good song because it's correct - a song is a good song becase it's moving people. Some of us are interested in why.