Long before they collaborated on a couple of music projects, Ben Folds and Nick Hornby met via e-mail. Folds, popular pianoman behind the Ben Folds Five in the '90s and a free-wheeling solo career since, was thanking the best-selling novelist and music critic -- and giving credit where credit was due.
"Nick had written an essay in his book 31 Songs -- or Songbook as it was titled in the States -- about the song 'Smoke' from the Ben Folds Five 'Whatever and Ever Amen' album, and he spent quite a bit of time on the lyrics, the importance of the lyrics -- and that's the only song at that point I hadn't written the lyrics to," Folds says, laughing. "So I wrote him an e-mail, saying, 'Hey, just want you to know, this is her name [Folds' ex-wife Anna Goodman] who wrote the lyrics.' We kept up with each other, and I took advantage of the fact I knew he was a fan and asked him to contribute lyrics for the Shatner record."
The working relationship between pianoman and novelist was planted there -- Hornby wrote words to "That's Me Trying," a song from the revelatory 2005 collaboration between Folds and "Star Trek" kingpin William Shatner -- and eventually blossomed into a full CD, the acclaimed new "Lonely Avenue," with Hornby's words and Folds' tunes.
Now Folds is taking the new songs on the road by himself, beginning a two-month tour Friday night in Chicago. We caught up with him last week on the phone as he was running an important errand in Nashville, where he lives, to chat about collaboration, electric pianos, reality TV and his possible next collaboration -- with Katy Perry.
with Lady Danville
7:30 p.m. Friday
Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
Tickets: $34, (800) 514-ETIX, jamusa.com
Q. Where are you coming from?
A. I'm heading home with my repaired old Thorens turntable, coming from an eccentric old man who just repaired the tone arm. It's hard to find people who know what do with this stuff anymore. It scares me the way it does with film cameras and darkroom equipment. The guys you have to deal with are very old, and they're not passing the information down.
Q. I had to get an old typewriter fixed a while back. Same thing, I had to really hunt to find someone who knew what a typewriter was.
A. You must have some forearms if you still sometimes use an old manual typewriter. The action on those things is so heavy. I would never play an instrument quite like that.
Q. But you play a real piano, as opposed to an electric one. Surely that's a creative decision based on something to do with the physical action in the instrument?
A. It is. The feel [of a real piano] can be pretty much replicated on a weighted electronic keyboard, from what I understand. But it doesn't have the same sensation. You don't feel the notes resonate in the instrument. I don't like [electric pianos]. I'm grateful they're there. Sometimes in a hotel room I'll turn to an electric piano to get something finished or write something, but I've only played one in my professional career on two occasions -- one on stage with Elton John, and the other playing the Webbies last year.
Q. You've always traveled with a grand piano, right? I saw you, probably 15 years ago, setting up for a show in Austin. The piano had just been loaded in and you were attaching the legs, beating the bejesus out of them with a mallet. I didn't know you could treat a piano so roughly.
A. You can throw a piano around like a guitar, really. ... Since the beginning, we were totally discriminated against for being a piano band. We played a lot of grungy clubs, and they'd get uptight about the piano, telling us we had, like, three minutes to get the piano off stage, while some guitar band spent 30 setting up. So before the last cymbal rang out, I'd have lifted the piano enough to kick the skidboard underneath the lyre. Then I'm able to bend down and knock one leg off, move the skidboard next to the piano and drop it on its side, knock everything off with the mallets, strap it and roll it.
Q. Have you heard the Elton John collaboration with Leon Russell?
A. Not yet. I aim to download that on iTunes.
Q. Leon has played electric piano for years, and Elton writes in the liner notes about how Leon really came alive once he started writing some of the new songs on a grand.
A. Yeah, because the other thing is an imitation of an instrument. Imitations don't often find their way. A synthesizer is not trying to imitate something; at the end of the day it's its own invention. It becomes something that takes up its own space. The electric piano is doomed because it's an imitation of something that happens naturally. No one would have invented it of its own accord. The thing I don't like about them is that it's some other motherf-----'s tone. Who's that guy, and why should I be married to his hand? Not that I have the best piano tone in the world, but it's the one I intended when I set my hands on the keyboard. I can't come to an agreement with the instrument when the sound is coming from some guy who probably set the tone in the '80s and has since died of a cocaine overdose.
"From Above" from "Lonely Avenue" by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby
Q. The Chicago show is the tour's first, right?
A. Yeah, so you get to hear the practice show. It'll be exciting, full of spontaneous, sometimes wrong notes.
Q. How's the new material fitting into your set?
A. The "Lonely Avenue" stuff is sitting in naturally with everything else. The other songs have reached a worn-in, classic feel where they get a little playful. Then you play the "Lonely Avenue" stuff, and it already sound like my own catalog.
Q. So Hornby nailed it when he provided lyrics? It sounds like you?
A. He and I work extremely well together. It's almost strange, as if we had grown up together. I don't think I've ever had such a second-nature collaborative relationship with anyone.
Q. But your collaboration occurred largely over e-mail, right?
A. It's much like Elton works with whatever lyricist he's working with, usually Bernie [Taupin]. He would send the lyrics, I look at them and figure out a melody pretty quickly. I'm a little different than Elton. Obviously, he's written more No. 1 hits than anyone in the world. I have not. Then there's our age, and sexual preference. And height, and weight. But we both wear glasses! ... Once I've got it all together, only then do I think about what the song's about and begin nuancing things. I think just breezes out his melodies, goes 'Woo-hoo!' and finishes it. I spend some time trying to tweak phrases to match the story.
Q. Tweaking music, or lyrics, or both?
A. I did not edit Nick's words. I wouldn't edit his books. I see a phrase that musically I think should last four bars, but then I find he's still talking, and I don't want to cram so I add more music and let the thing surf out to its natural end. I find that the phrasing becomes inherently more musical. Often, as a necessity to communicate, if I have more words I'll just add a bar and let the phrase become more musical. That's what I learned on this one. It worked. The songs solved themselves. ... I think we stumbled onto something great. By not compromising anything he's written, I have to come up with something more unique musically.
Q. You never wished Nick was standing in the same room so you could ask questions and get immediate answers?
A. If he were here or I was there, I'd say, "Can we cut this?" and he'd say, "Yeah." Then it would just be normal. It might be smoother, but it would take the edge off it. Plus, we'd spend so much time f---ing around it would never get finished.
Q. Are you OK handling the music only? Are you hungry to write your own words again?
A. I will, but this has been a great way to fish through the music. I mean, it's not like I have a stockpile of melodies lying around that I can just apply to someone's words. But I wake up every morning with a melody in my head. Twenty minutes later it's a different one. It drives me crazy. This has allowed me to rope some of them in that might have gotten away. Ultimately, I will go back and write both. We'll both go back to our day jobs.
Q. Who else would you like to collaborate with?
A. There's no one on the horizon. I get some crazy offers, people getting in touch for one-off things. I think the Katy Perry thing would be interesting. She's not going to want to do a whole album, but she's always interested in trying something, and she's really good at what she does.
Q. Is that in the works?
A. We've been knocking e-mails and texts back and forth for a while. There are loads of others equally as headline-worthy that just haven't struck a chord with me.
Q. Will there be a sequel with Nick?
A. I think we'll make another record. We've been talking about doing a musical for a while. We've made steps, but we need to get more done before we start bragging.
Q. You're returning to the NBC talent contest "The Sing-Off" as a judge [season two premieres Dec. 6]. What's that experience been like?
A. I'm the judge, I've got the power! I like it. I love hearing all these [a cappella] groups singing. It's a joy. Most of the time, I'm sad when the song is over. I'm like, sh--, now the talking has to start! If I can help, that's why I'm there.
The homemade video to "Saskia Hamilton," from "Lonely Avenue," created by popular online video blogger Charlie McDonnell (with some exposition at the end).