For Ben Folds, an Orchestral Backing Makes Classic Sense

October 28, 2009 at 6:48 PM EDT
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When rock 'n' roll pianist Ben Folds writes songs, he often does so with an orchestra in mind. Now on tour performing with leading symphonies, Folds is experiencing a homecoming of sorts, reports Jeffrey Brown.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: a piano rocker and his big band.

Jeffrey Brown has our profile.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ben Folds, a 43- year-old piano-playing pop star with a string of hits, usually performs solo or with a small group.

BEN FOLDS: How about my band tonight?

JEFFREY BROWN: But this recent night in Washington, D.C., his band, as he called it, was the National Symphony Orchestra.

BEN FOLDS: What was exciting about this to me was the idea that we would arrange my music in a way to where that made the — the orchestra the rock band, because the orchestras grooved for hundreds of years. Why does it have to sit there and go “eeehhh,” you know, for a while behind me? So, they’re really taking care of a lot of the — a lot of the percussive elements of the songs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Folds himself began as a percussion player in youth orchestras in Winston-Salem, N.C. Eventually, he turned to the piano, although you can still see the percussionist in the way he sometimes slams the keys.

JEFFREY BROWN: He first made his name with Ben Folds Five in 1994 and had his first big hit, “Brick,” three years later.

JEFFREY BROWN: Folds went solo beginning in 2001, producing a series of albums. Most recently, he released a collection of his songs sung by university a cappella groups.

Inspired by Salinger

JEFFREY BROWN: Folds' songs often feature down-and-out characters, like a newspaper reporter who gets laid off after 25 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Others can be very funny, like the one about an out-of-town visitor who keeps hanging around.

BEN FOLDS: One of my models would be J.D. Salinger's short stories, just in how quickly he gets in and out of the character, how -- how that character and -- and peripheral characters in the story relate to other characters.

BEN FOLDS: Humor is a very serious tool. I mean, when people laugh, they don't know why they laugh at a funeral, or they will make a joke at a time that's either inappropriate or a time that is trying to, you know -- trying to keep their composure in the middle of something that's actually really tough.

BEN FOLDS: People call them novelty songs. But I find them much more effective for me to show the depth of what's going on than just to say, I'm so sad, and here's my minor chord.

JEFFREY BROWN: As to playing with an orchestra, it turns out that, for Folds, it's actually a homecoming of sorts. He first conceives his songs in his head with a variety of arrangements, including orchestral.

Playing the unexpected

BEN FOLDS: The structure of the songs, there's the voice leading them, and the potential arrangement inside the song can be carried by an orchestra, or it could be carried by a choir. The songs will be built, so that they can stand up to a lot of different treatments.

The rock band treatment was a bit of a twist when I started out as a piano player playing in sort of grunge era, playing punk clubs, because my band would make -- would beat the songs up. They would take otherwise pretty chords, and a lot of these songs we're playing with the orchestra now were just played with a band crashing cymbals and distorted bass guitar.

And, so, hearing them this way, in a funny kind of way, it's more coming back home for those songs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ben Folds's tour continues this fall, and includes more performances with some of the nation's leading orchestras.

BEN FOLDS: Thank you very much.

National Symphony Orchestra playing with me tonight.

JIM LEHRER: And Jeff's interview with Ben Folds continues on our Web site,