“There are two kinds of cities: those that have symphony orchestras, and those that are crap.” Ben Folds is on stage addressing the people of San Diego, whose city is not crap. At 48, the musician from North Carolina, known for peppering emotional, often beautiful piano rock songs with a heavy dose of sly wit, is daring to step into the lofty world of classical music.
“Orchestras are the highest form of civilisation,” he tells the polite crowd of cheese nibblers enjoying table service by the waterfront in southern California. Seagulls settle on top of the outdoor stage he shares with the San Diego Symphony. Boats drift by, hotel towers begin to glow, a full moon rises and he sets about giving his extensive back catalogue a sumptuous orchestral makeover.
He’s not stopping there, though. This show, part of a “Summer Pops” series that also features Burt Bacharach, Esperanza Spalding and a tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein, is the lightweight bit. His next album, So There, features eight new songs performed by the New York classical sextet yMusic with Folds on piano and vocals, followed by, for the main course, his 21-minute Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. It’s easily his most ambitious collection, and certainly his most affecting complete work. Next week, he’ll perform the song segment with yMusic in London at the Royal Opera House, a venue that doesn’t let any old riff-raff onto its venerable stage.
“The idea is to interest a new group of people, but I personally am really not for the dumbing down of the orchestra in order to fit in,” he tells me earlier in the day over a veggie burrito. The album is a serious piece of work, painstakingly constructed. His score for the Concerto inched along in daily segments of around 15 seconds. It’s a good deal more melodic and accessible than a lot of modern classical music, but doesn’t feel lightweight. If you’re waiting for a cheeky wink from the man responsible for compositions such as Bitch Went Nuts and The Frown Song, who began his career in a trio that he named Ben Folds Five, it doesn’t come.
This of course doesn’t mean that he thinks he’s the new Beethoven, but he does dare to draw a polite parallel with George Gershwin. Gerswhin had already become wealthy and famous through his lighter tunes before he began composing orchestral works. “You’ve got a guy who was a fantastic melodic writer, who became interested in the same way I’ve become interested, in the opportunity to seize a classical audience by walking in and saying, ‘I can put asses on seats.’ When they premiered his first piano concerto, he made a statement that was basically like, ‘I don’t want you to think I’m trying to be Rachmaninov or Prokofiev. They are the real thing. This is me bringing you in, giving it a go.’ Then everyone thinks, ‘Great, all I have to do now is enjoy it, because he’s not trying to prove anything. He’s just playing music.’ That’s what I’ve been saying.”
The Concerto was written in 2013 as a joint commission from Nashville Ballet and the Nashville and Minnesota Symphony Orchestras. Folds divides his time between Los Angeles and Nashville, where he is the current owner of RCA’s historic Studio A, now known as Grand Victor Sound. Everyone from Dolly Parton to The Beach Boys has recorded there. “I was at a dinner for the Nashville Ballet. I’d had a few wines and a guy says, ‘Why don’t you compose a long-form piece?’ It’s a real time-consuming, very not lucrative thing to do.”
But an obvious labour of love – he’s serious, though sweary, when he talks about it, thoughtful beneath shaggy brown hair and behind large smudged glasses. And he’s not worried about what critics, or the snobbier elements of the classical world, make of it when he’s already had the thumbs-up from some piano playing mentors. “I got fantastic support from Elton John, I heard some really nice stuff from Billy Joel, from the point of view that it’s fuckin’ well put together. If you do this yourself you know what it requires and you can hear the craftsmanship in it.”
He saves the humour for the stage, where he’s still one of the most entertaining performers around, even in a restrictive suit with a conductor beside him. In San Diego he performs the umpteenth incarnation of Rock This Bitch, the title he always gives to a song made up on the spot. A piece of paper is passed around the front rows for audience members to write down words that rhyme with “San Diego” – “Lego”, “Play-doh” and “flamingo” are among the suggestions. Meanwhile Folds gets different sections of the orchestra to play parts as soon as they spill from his brain. The end result, with him singing the submitted lyrics and gesticulating wildly at violinists and cellists, really works. It’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of music making I’ve ever seen on a stage.
So he’s no interloper. He really knows how to work with orchestras. He played with them too, as a young university music student, though as a percussionist rather than a pianist. He claims to be a terrible sight reader, but he can write parts quickly and keep the numerous different elements clear in his head.
He doesn’t believe that younger fans could be lost at this point, and gives them a good deal of credit for their openness to classical sounds. “They’re used to going to the Superman 7 movie or whatever it is at the cinema at the moment, and the scores are incredible. The theme music on TV shows like House of Cards and Walking Dead – that’s good shit. A lot of hipster bands out there are using more classical technique and sound. The excitement of music is stuff that breaks the law. Maybe playing loud rock chords and being all pissed off, that’s what looks old now. Someone coming on stage with a laptop and an oboe and a timpani drum and rapping over it: that’s breaking the law.”
On stage in the evening, Folds stresses again why he’s doing this: “It’s probably more lucrative for me to do solo gigs, but this is really important to me.” Next up, he wants to write more classical pieces and give them to university orchestras. He’s found his calling and it sounds great.
So There is released on Sept 11 on New West