Before rockin’ the outer boroughs at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens last Friday, Ben Folds fielded questions from fans as part of his AMAA (Ask Me Almost Anything…About Music) master class. The segment has become a signature part of his concert tours — including this most recent one with co-headliners, Cake — and the crowd of nearly 100 came armed with a wide range of queries ranging from what happens when you die to why he made that “Oooh ho!” sound in “Annie Waits” (short version: it was his producer’s idea). Read on for some of the most enlightening answers from the piano-pounding maestro!
1. He originally had no intention of becoming a frontman himself.
“I didn’t plan on being a recording artist. I thought I would be a songwriter for other people. And every time I heard someone sing my song they were always going ‘Yeahhhhhhhhh’ and doing all this stuff with it. I wanted to hear the words with the notes, you know? I knew I wasn’t a good singer but I could hit the notes. I hear these tapes of me making demos so that the real singers could sing it. And I’d go, ‘Well that’s the way it’s supposed to go,’ and then just end up doing it [myself]. So I think for that reason I came to [recording] so late. I was still 23, 24, 25 years old and I didn’t think I was going to be doing this. I thought I was going to be a songwriter. I was trying to get people to play my songs. The first person to cover my music was Bette Midler, and that was when I was 25 years old, and then a couple years later I met Robert [Sledge] and Darren [Jessee of Ben Folds Five]…”
2. Index cards are his secret songwriting weapon.
“I had a habit early on of writing on the floor on lots of notebook paper. I’d copy the song over onto another sheet of paper, and then I would copy it again, and every time I would change something about it. That’s a weird way to do it. The note card allowed me to do it. Four-by-six or five-by-seven notecards fit a verse, and then I can write that on there and copy it down. Plus, I like notecards because no life can happen in three and a half minutes — no story can be told in three and a half minutes. You can’t actually do it, but you can make a song about it. And the song might not always be in sequence. So note cards are awesome for that because you can take the second verse, shuffle it with the first and sing the song that way one time and see how that changes the perspective.”
3. He writes for himself — and the rest just follow.
“At the end of the day, I try to write a song I wish someone had written…I used to sit and do that. I’d sit and go, ‘God, if I put the needle down and listen to a song, what would I want to hear? [Starts humming melody to ‘Underground’] Cool! OK, so that needs to be about kids with tattoos and nose rings and stuff, and they’d be horrified by this goofy Broadway music. That makes me so happy, f— you!’ I wanted that record to be made so badly, and eventually it was made. I don’t think that was my perspective, I think that was just what I wanted to hear.”
4. The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999) was a tricky — and sometimes tense — album for Ben Folds Five to record.
“I do what I would never advise, which is I do a lot of my writing in the studio. The band, Ben Folds Five, got unbelievably sick of it. It was a point of great tension that I would still be finishing the song right prior to the mix. They would say, ‘Well, just come up with a name, I don’t even know what key this is going to be in!’ That was the thing about the Reinhold Messner record — they didn’t know what was happening for most of it. I’d say, ‘I have a scene in my head,’ and we’d start recording it and I was going to put them all together.”
5. His unique cover of “Such Great Heights” by the Postal Service got some help from Altoid tins.
“The Altoid can in the piano came from needing to quickly prepare a piano to cover a song for National Radio in Australia. Basically, they wanted to do a song the next day. ‘Can you do that?’ I said, “Yeah, can you get me a bunch of crap to put in the piano and I’ll just tape it to strings, and get me three drummers but no drums — we’ll just use things around the room. So I decided to cover ‘Such Great Heights.’ That was pretty early after the song’s release — before everyone covered it!”
6. He wrote and recorded an entire “fake album” in a single day to thwart leakers.
“Way to Normal  was recorded and it was an incredibly high budget record. The producer on that record was very old school and his game was to charge the record company so much that they would have to push the record. Desperately, they would have to promote the record. It was the kind of budget that rock musicians have never seen. So the record came out, and they were shoving it up the press’s ass like there was no tomorrow and it leaked. Which was, in that era, what happened. The reason it leaked was because it was in the hands of so many people. So when it leaked they said, ‘OK, next week it’s going to be all over these bit torrent things, we’re going to have to release the album a month early.’ I said, ‘I hate that. I hate being early. That’s so dorky. Let’s not do that.’
The idea was to take all of the titles of the songs in a single recording session, write new songs — with the same titles — with the worst music and the worst lyrics I could come up with. My band came up with a lot of the lyrics. Sam [Smith], my drummer, was particularly talented at horrible words. One of his lines, which is my favorite, was for a social awareness song: ‘A piano’s all I got and I know that ain’t a lot, but music’s got the power to change the future.’ So we were having a blast. We were in Ireland when I came up with this idea, and we recorded, mixed and leaked the album in 24 hours, and that’s why it’s called “the Fake Album.” Then that went over all the sites, so when people leaked our album… chances are they got the fake version. But they didn’t know what it was, or why. It got reviewed a few times. When the real record came out, there were many people who were disappointed it wasn’t as good as the fake one!”
7. “The Luckiest” was originally written for a movie, and it (inadvertently) follows Kenny Rogers’ Rules for Songwriting Success™.
“I think one of the reasons that song strikes people as personal is because it’s not. [laughs] It is in that it’s a song from me, but it was for a movie. The movie was a comedy, but it had a really touching moment when the two completely awkward failed characters got together at the end and it was a one-shot, 360-degree sort of round and round, and I wrote the song to it. Then they cut the scene from the movie and the song got dropped, so I kept the song.
I think what makes that song good is because I don’t usually write songs for all occasions. If you want them to be successful [commercially] they need to have some sort of occasion attached to them, or some part of someone’s life. I talked to this very interesting songwriter, Kenny Rogers — he had like 20 number one hits that he’d written or that he sang or that other people had done. He told me that the only two kinds of songs that his number ones had been were usually things that a woman would like a man to have said, or a man would have liked to be able to say but couldn’t say. So it was that thing that they couldn’t communicate and it was his job to do so. The other kind was a socially relevant song about something socially relevant in our time. Those two things, he said, were the only two things that he’d had number ones out of, and without fail they were the only things that he’d written that way.
Kenny Rogers was convinced, so I was convinced. So for me, if I asked myself the same question. ‘The Luckiest’ has become a hit over time — not a radio hit but over time it’s become the most listened to song that I’ve written — and it’s the same thing that Kenny Rogers was saying. When I write songs most of the time, I don’t write them like, ‘I got a song for all occasions’ or ‘I got a song for this current event.’ I write songs that are little pieces. I would like to think of them as little poetic stories, vignettes. But if I really wanted to rake it in, I’d keep doing songs like ‘The Luckiest,’ because it’s a song for an occasion.
When I wrote that, I knew my generation didn’t have a convincing ‘indie rock’ (or at least my neck of the woods) love song. Michael Stipe said, ‘Don’t write love songs,’ and no one did. That’s really the way it happened. It was so uncool to write a love song. It was too earnest. ‘Love songs are evil’ — Frank Zappa had said that before. It’s evil because it sets up something that could never happen. It’s a fairy tale that never actually happens in life, so I thought, ‘You know what? There’s a wide open space here. No one’s written a credible love song.’ And so the way I made it credible was to think about what’s the darker and lighter side at the same time, which to me was death.”
8. He doesn’t have high hopes for the afterlife.
“What will I be when I die? I guess fertilizer for a while! For reincarnation…I’d like to be a goat? I don’t know, I don’t have much confidence that it’ll be much more than fertilizer. I don’t know, I’ll probably have to come back as myself again. ‘You’ve been damned to eternity!’ [laughs]”