See You in the (Orchestra) Pit

Ben Folds has earned bragging rights. His previous band, Ben Folds Five, sold millions of albums and helped make sensitive, singer-songwriter types cool again. Songs like “Brick” and “Whatever and Ever Amen” cemented the band as a cross between melodic pop stars and a rowdy punk group, minus the anarchy. Folds has also enjoyed an equally successful solo career, with albums including “Songs For Silverman” and “Rockin The Suburbs,” from which a new wedding standard was born in “The Luckiest,” a ballad featured on myriad bridal playlists, including mine. Folds has collaborated with folks as varied as William Shatner to “Weird Al” Yankovic, while releasing two dozen releases focusing on the insecurities and heartbreaks of everyday life. Like most of his peers in the singer-songwriter fraternity, Folds is a master of weaving autobiography into his catchy pop tunes. He has also spent the past couple of years as a judge on NBC’s a cappella singing show, “The Sing-Off.”

Yet for all of his accomplishments, the 45-year-old North Carolina native is too busy to bask in the glow of his success. Currently in the studio working on a new album, he’s also gearing up to perform with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. Folds’ songs lend themselves naturally to lush arrangements, and it will be interesting to see the often stool-kicking, sailor-mouthed singer surrounded by tuxes. Ben Folds recently took time out from the studio to talk with Folio Weekly about working with an orchestra, tight leather pants and trying to learn “Freebird” before he gets to town.

F.W.: How’s the new album going?

B.F.: Right now, we are finishing tracking and doing things. Last night, we looped some [vocal sound] “ahhs” — three on one mike. Then we doubled them and assigned them to one part of the console, so we could use it like a keyboard. It can be really rewarding. It’s a little like crack.

F.W.: Sounds complicated. So does getting ready to play with an orchestra. How does playing with one change your perception of your music?

B.F.: You can over-indulge or over-arrange if you aren’t careful. When we first started, I had the tendency to over-score. As you mature, you revise and do it over and over and bring it back. You have to realize every note can’t be heard. They all can’t be played full. I use the orchestra like a rock band.

F.W.: Is this something you always wanted to do, or does it come out of having a bigger budget to play with?

B.F.: I am very ambitious about doing this. This is a fulltime work in progress, not a side project. When I was a kid, I was in an orchestra. I’ve spent a lot of time in that kind of world. I am looking to evolve the experience. I want to tap into the potential of what we can do. It’s another shape for me to make music in. Plus, I would take a smaller guarantee to play with the orchestra than I would to go do a show myself. It means more to me.

F.W.: Playing with an orchestra must be the complete opposite of working with a cappella groups.

B.F.: Well, both are large ensembles. Each piece represents one note, or one part. Until you find me some Tibetan that can sing more than one note at a time, the rest of us only can handle one. There aren’t any divas, either. There are no diva oboe or bassoon players. It’s more of community music, not “dig my shit” music. That’s my business: Tight leather pants and a TV and only green M&M’s in the dressing room.

F.W.: Will there be a TV on the rider?

B.F.: There f*cking better be! And M&M’s, too.

F.W.: What do you have in store for us in Northeast Florida?

B.F.: It will be fairly planned out. I’ll have 30 to 40 charts ready. We’ll set up the strongest charts. That’s usually the best way to do a place I haven’t played in this format. A greatest hits thing. I will also have a giant surfboard that I will ride out over the crowd, probably.

F.W.: You’ll probably need to learn “Freebird.”

B.F.: I will find out if they chart for “Freebird.” Who knows, they may already know it. They can probably learn it in less time than the song actually runs.

Danny Kelly

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