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Catching up with Ben Folds

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One of Ben Folds’ earliest gigs in Indianapolis was on a side stage at Blues Traveler’s H.O.R.D.E. Festival in the mid-1990s. His next show here will be with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 26.

In the years between, he’s made a number of his own CDs, recorded with novelist Nick Hornby and actor William Shatner and become a judge on the NBC a cappella competition “The Sing-Off,” which returns at 8 p.m. Sept. 19 for a third season.

I caught up with Folds this week in California to talk about his ISO show and his TV show. Here’s the conversation.

Q: You’re playing with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in October. How did that come about?

Folds: I’ve been playing with symphony orchestras now for, I guess, eight years. I commit to devoting a certain amount of my year to symphony orchestras. We’ve got now, I think, 40 charts, and if you know anything about it, that’s 10 to 15 grand a chart. It’s not necessarily always a lucrative thing, but I really love symphony orchestras. I grew up playing in symphony orchestras, and it’s a passion of mine. I’m now on the board of directors of the National Symphony Orchestra, and it’s just something that I’m into.

Q: So what will we hear?

Folds: Stuff from every album, really. Most recently, we’ve charted stuff from the record I made with Nick Hornby, the British novelist. Those charts were done by Paul Buckmaster, who did all the old Elton John stuff. He did David Bowie stuff. He’s the architect of strings on ‘70s recordings. And he does those charts for us; they’re pretty special. So every album I do, I go: OK, well, time to shell out 30 grand and do some new symphony charts. And we revise them constantly. Every show I go out and do, I talk about it with the conductor. We go: You know, the percussion and I ain’t workin’. Hasn’t worked for the last two shows. So we go back and revise. It’s getting really good.

Q: I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of “The Sing-Off” before, and I was surprised to see you were a judge. But apparently, you’ve been doing this for a while. How did they approach you, and what did you think when they approached you?

Folds: The quick history is that I’m a songwriter who was slightly disappointed that in my career I’ve never really been covered. Bette Midler did a song of mine (“Boxing”) on one of her records very early in my career, and then after that, there are no notable covers. As it turns out, a few years ago, someone pointed out that there were over 300 YouTube videos of university a cappella groups covering my songs. I thought: Wow, people are covering my music. I’m going to cultivate this event.

So I got in a van with an engineer — actually, I answered these people on YouTube. I said: This is Ben Folds and you nailed my song. What are you doing the third week of October? Because I’m going to come there with a van and a microphone and record you for a charity record. So we came through, recorded them and sold the stuff for a music education charity, and I made a year of being A Cappella Dude.

“Glee” came out the next year and the next year after that, NBC came to me as an expert because they’d heard my work with university a cappella groups. It was kind of a shoo-in for me because I just had myself in the position of listening to a group sing once, making a few comments, and then had one more chance to record them. So this was the same thing to me. They do it once, I have to make comments, they might come back again. I just thought it seemed really natural. I don’t think I’m very comfortable on TV. But I knew for this that I’d probably be OK.

Q: You give this show a hip factor I don’t think it would have otherwise. But I imagine there were a lot of people who said to you, “You’re going to be a judge on a talent show?!”

Folds: Yeah, and I had to think about that stigma. My knee-jerk was no. But I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Sometimes you say, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that.” Especially people from my era. Nineties groups are so quick to say, “I won’t do that. It’s selling out.” But I had to think about why and I couldn’t come up with any good reason not to do it. If it had been a different show, I don’t think I would have done it. I know that puts a signal out that could stunt my upward mobility, but I don’t think I want to do another one. I’m interested in this because I can dissect the inner workings of the vocals and the rhythm section and how it works together in a group. And the fact that it’s never been done on television. All those things are compelling. The celebrity part of it is off-putting, and the corniness of some of these things are off-putting.

All of my friends were like, “Folds, you’re doing this TV show? I guess I’ll watch it.” And they all got hooked. They’d call up, “Who’s going to win this? Because I’ve got my money on this one.” So it must be working.

Q: I was wondering if it was a business decision in that it’s so hard for artists to connect with audiences, there’s no radio play for your work and you thought this was a better avenue.

Folds: You have people to think about that for you by the time you’ve made your first record. I’ve found that when I go into something on intuition, something happens I didn’t expect. I went into this, and I think the conventional wisdom was that this is going to sell records. I now know that it won’t. But that’s not really why I did it. When I got into it by taking three months of valuable touring time off — we’re talking about a lot of income that I turned down to go record these groups — it was pure instinct. And it landed this show. Now I’m on this show and maybe it leads to something else interesting.

But I don’t think that people buy records because some dude’s talking on TV. And people who see me on the show first — which is most people, if I’m to admit it; most people who see this television show have never heard my music. And I’m learning that. Because I get in taxicabs and the guy goes, “You’re Ben Folds from ‘The Sing-Off’!” They had no idea I play music. They’re not interested in buying my music at all. So I don’t think it works that way. So the decision comes down to: Do I have the time? Am I willing to do it? Does it actually pay enough for me to miss my gigs? Which it does — barely.

Q: At the session with TV critics, it was interesting when one of the critics asked about a song the three judges could sing together, because there’s so little common culture. We all know about four of the same songs.

Folds: That’s a real interesting point because whether you realize this, our culture, our fabric, is really transient. And it’s just whatever’s on the radio at that moment. And that brings people together just as much as “Kumbaya” would. In other countries, other cultures, they sing together more. They sing in pubs, they sing at football games, they just sing together more. We’re so much more commercial here. But that’s what it is; it’s just about the moment. But that’s good enough. Finding the talent for this show has been the easy part. Finding songs to license that everyone knows season after season, they’re going to run out of those before they run out of talent.

Q: What’s next for you on CD?

Folds: I have a 15-year retrospective that I worked really hard on that’s coming out in October. It’s 60 songs. It’s just been going through a lot of vaulted material and lot of live stuff — like this amazing show we had no idea we had on tape with strings and horns at Royal Albert Hall with my old band. All the songs are the best version of those songs I’d ever heard. So we have all this unreleased material. Really fun for fans, and fun for me to put together something that would sum up my career. I’m not planning on kicking off anytime soon, but after 15 years, it’s the first time I’ve sat back.

Q: The first time I saw you was on a side stage at the H.O.R.D.E. Festival in ’93 or ’94. Now you’re playing with symphony orchestras and you’re a judge on a talent show. Is this anywhere close to the trajectory that you saw for your career?

Folds: Not at all. And that’s what’s truly fun about it. The music business has blown apart too, so none of us are doing it the way we thought we would. It makes you do things outside your comfort zone, and I have to say that’s probably a good thing. It’s like symphony orchestras. They’re institutions that are in danger of serious atrophy. So now they’re trying to find pop musicians to join with to sell subscription tickets. So now I get that opportunity as a result of the downturn in the whole economy. I have to credit the downturn in the economy to my success in my second half.

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