Music Mondays: Q and A with Ben Folds


For a decade and a half, singer/songwriter Ben Folds has been a singular figure in the music industry. Going against the grain of ’90s music trends with his alternative piano-pop group Ben Folds Five, he continued carving a unique career path in the 2000s with numerous albums, EPs and unexpected collaborations. Now a judge on NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” Folds spoke with The Daily Universe about BYU’s Vocal Point, a Ke$ha-led super-group and flossing.

DU: Being a judge on “The Sing-Off” has taken you from the pop-culture periphery to something closer to the center. What’s it like to now be recognized by suburban soccer moms everywhere?

BF: (Laughs) Well, this new “Sing-Off” crowd calls me Mr. Folds. So they’re a little different, but there’s still something very similar. When I’m with other celebrities and quasi-celebrities, everyone’s people have a different style, and mine have always been really kind and really smart and considerate.

DU: The other judges on “The Sing-Off” built their careers as vocalists first, whereas yours was more built on being a songwriter. What has it been like to add your perspective to that mix?

BF: I think it works really well, because certain things in my songwriting, presentation and arrangement had to really be on — I wasn’t stepping out like Jeff Buckley and blowing people away with the pipes. And one of the things that I have to get right is I have to be honest. My voice has to carry the songs for the right reasons. So I’m very sensitive to that with singers who are technically really great. They really need to deliver the song in an honest way.

DU: How have your experiences on “The Sing-Off” impacted your own mindset about those aspects of your music — layering, arrangement, etc.?

BF: I’m always looking for the groups to throw the box away. Not even think outside it, just throw it away. The groups on the show have the potential to influence a cappella music. Millions of people will see and hear what they’re doing. And if they do something interesting and creative and different — and it works — you can bet that someone else is going to take note. I’m not going to kick someone off the show for being ambitious and trying something. If it doesn’t work, we [judges] all say, “That’s really cool that you’ve got that gene — the take-risk gene.”

DU: If you were creating your own vocal group, who would you pick?

BF: Well, I’m learning that it’s very difficult for a group of lead singers to adapt quickly to a cappella. So I would probably stay away from lots of famous faces, though I think you need a couple of stars. So I don’t know, I can’t answer that question in a fun way. (Sarcastically) Ke$ha is one of my vocalists. I think Ke$ha would be a lot of fun. Let’s see, who else? Let’s have Katy Perry for a soprano/alto range.

DU: Maybe round it out with Randy Newman, just to surprise people?

BF: Randy and I might want to just write and sit on the sidelines. I don’t think we’re blenders.

DU: Vocal Point really surprised you with their cover of Justin Bieber’s “Never Say Never.” What would it take for them to surprise you, now that they’ve kicked it up a notch?

BF: They’re so pro. They’re so entertaining. They have so much personality. But there is that intangible thing — where the singer is completely being himself and is translating something that you can’t even put your finger on, but you know it’s big. [Vocal Point has] so many ways of being musically generous, but what they have to do now is be almost selfish. I haven’t seen that out of those guys yet. But they’ve blown me away every time. And one thing that’s blown me away is what great guys they are. They just seem so honorable and adjusted. Whatever you guys have in the water there is definitely something worth drinking a little bit of.

DU: You’ve been a recognizable name in the music business for a decade and a half now. How does your music change as your audience changes?

BF: Music artists follow, almost laughably, distinctively predictable trajectories — and fans and audiences do, too. I change what I do some, and I evolve. And then I lose people who were really attached to the way I was doing it. But then you get new people who are there for a whole different reason. It’s ever-evolving, and that’s the way it should be. Fans and audiences grow. Their tastes grow, and they should. There’s nothing wrong with being 35 years old and suddenly discovering Frank Sinatra or Debussy or Bach. Or even Bob Seger. Discover Bob Seger and be 40 years old. That’s fine.

DU: Any last words?

BF: If this is going out to lots of college kids — just make sure you floss. Once a week, twice a week at least. Once a day is good, but just make sure you floss.

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