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- Posted on Sep 21st 2010 4:40PM by Jenny Charlesworth
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When it comes to writing clever, insightful lyrics, Ben Folds is a bit of a maestro, so it surprised some fans when he confessed that he didn't feel like playing wordsmith on his new album, 'Lonely Avenue.'
"I was coming to a moment where I really wanted to have another voice in there," the singer-songwriter tells Spinner. "I didn't really want to hear what was in my head."
While a statement like that can easily be interpreted as good ol' fashioned creative burnout, the former frontman for nineties alt-rock staple Ben Folds Five insists that's not the case at all.
"I think it comes down to something my mother pointed out, which is: studies have shown that people live longer when they do things out of their comfort zone," he says. "Someone who has a habitual life and never tries to do [new] things is going to get old and rot."
So in the interest of avoiding that nasty "get old and rot" business, Folds brought his longtime friend, English novelist Nick Hornby into the mix, looking to the 'High Fidelity' author's enrapturing tales about Levi Johnston ('Levi Johnston's Blues') and suburban skids ('Your Dogs') to inspire his own lavish piano-heavy pop.
"There was no consulting. He sent me emails without explanations," says Folds of the way in which the pair collaborated on 'Lonely Avenue.' "I'd play around with them [the lyrics] a little bit, and if I found something in it and was ready to go, which I usually was, I called the band up and went to the studio, which was on hold, and recorded it, Nick got an MP3 the next morning."
According to the North Carolina native, the recording process was more rapid than usual because he wasn't consumed with perfecting lyrics as he usually is when working on new material. With ready-made short stories hitting his inbox day after day, there was nothing to hold things up.
"It was great with Nick," says Folds. "I would bring the lyrics and sit them on the piano, and the other members of the band would all look over my shoulder and go, 'Cool man, that's Nick Hornby's words.' And then we'd play the song, and I'd sing live with confidence because I liked the words immediately and wasn't ashamed about any bits and pieces of it."
The disc may feature 11 dazzling tracks but there were dozens more up for grabs. According to Folds, he didn't follow any specific guidelines when determining that 'Picture Window' should turn into a haunting ballad or that 'Saskia Hamilton' suited a kooky electro ditty, or that others didn't quite fit at all -- at least not on this particular record anyways.
"I wasn't going on content, I was just looking at them and would get a feeling," says the singer. "One of the things that is probably a terminal frustration of mine, is that people assume some sort of thinking process happens when it comes to my music. Yeah, there's thinking in it, but it starts with what you feel. I would just look at the lyrics and just go, 'Oh, that's a chorus, okay, that feels good. Oh, that should be a little faster, nice. Oh, minor chord, that feels good, okay, ready.'"
Collaborations can be tricky to pull off, especially if one artist outshines the other, but in the case of 'Lonely Avenue,' Folds and Hornby work in tandem so seamlessly that credit for this extraordinary album can't help but fall equally on their shoulders -- though the author hardly seems interested in accepting credit for his words.
"I was telling Nick the other day that his thumb print is all over the record," Folds says, "and he goes 'Well, I have a confession to make: my wife wrote the lyrics.' Like he's been out at the pub down the street watching sports on the TV and she's been doing all the writing all along, right."