Ben Folds: ‘It’s nice to walk onstage a little bit scared’

Ben Folds’ solo shows are the stuff of legend, one man on a stage hammering the living daylights out of a piano as he works his way through a 30 year career. Beloved for coaxing both laughs and huge three part harmonies from his audiences, for his latest tour he’s crowdsourcing something else: the setlist.

“When I play a solo piano tour which I do every few years it’s informal and people request songs,” Folds explains. “When they’re all shouting you can’t understand any of it, [so] I was headed to a show one day a few years ago and I thought ‘this would be a good idea to just get people to throw paper aeroplanes with their requests on it’. It keeps me on my toes because I have to remember all my songs.”

The result is a mix of hits from the Ben Folds Five era right through his deep discography of solo albums, EPs and collaborations. “It’s all over the shop,” he says. “From people who want to hear their favourites and the most popular, right down to the guy who wants to throw the most obscure thing onstage. There’s a place for both, but it makes for a set that will never happen twice the same way – and I gotta paddle ferociously beneath all that to keep up.

“It’s nice to walk onstage a little bit scared,” he says, before admitting sometimes particularly dedicated fans offer up a request that’s obscure even to him. “It’s the songs I wrote when I was 16,” he laughs. “[They] show up on some BitTorrent site somewhere that two guys have, just demos and I’m like ‘Oh Jesus, I know I wrote that I just don’t even know what it sounds like’. Then I peck around until I can find it, and I’m kinda glad to be reminded of it!”

Folds hasn’t issued a straight up solo album since 2008’s Way To Normal, instead pursuing varied projects from orchestral works to acapella collaborations. But, like his current tour, Folds’ latest passion project sees him delve into memory in a different way. “Right now I’m writing a book, it’s almost my new album,” he says. “It’s really about stories, and to me [writing’s] always been about characters and stories, being inside other people’s shoes to commiserate or just recognise the absurdity of everyday life.”

A work in progress, Folds describes it as a mix of memoir and “bizarre interstitial stuff”. “I’m trying to do it in a way that’s useful, writing stories from my life about learning music or growing up, or about the band or anything that I feel illuminates something for people who haven’t done it yet.

“That’s the first order of business,” he says, before adding with a hint of self-deprecation; “The next is to speak to people my age who were either along with me for the trip or perhaps thought my music sucked and would prefer to take the stories in without hearing my music.”

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Adelaide readers will undoubtedly be reading keenly for references to his onetime home town. And despite moving away over a decade ago, the man behind the one unequivocally positive song about Adelaide is still big on the city.

“It’s changed a bit, built up a little bit, but still has that feel; slightly slower in its pace, loads of creative people. I found so many creative and unusual thinkers and part of their vibe was ‘I could move to the big city but I’d rather do it here’. I respect that, and there’s a standard of living and dignity in Adelaide that’s rare. I’ve been a few places, and Adelaide’s a standout. I’ve always really loved it.”

Although publishing is a short term goal, Folds seems only ever a heartbeat away from returning to music and adding to the canon currently being pelted at him in paper form around the country. “It’s spurring thoughts for songs,” he says. “And I have so much music and pieces of songs I’ve started that once I’ve finished that book… I’m definitely going to be shittin’ out a lot of songs.”

Ben Folds: Paper Aeroplane Request Tour with special guest Lucy Rose
Festival Theatre
February 9
adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au

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