When last we heard from Ben Folds, the singer/pianist wasn't busting the keys of his Baldwin like he had on the insouciant hits — "Philosophy," "Song for the Dumped" — that had first brought him fame. In fact, his last solo album, Songs for Silverman, was replete with sad ballads that seemed to place him more in the dread category of Adult Contemporary. So it's encouraging to see that on Way to Normal, out today, Folds has returned to the pounding roof-raisers he became famous for in the nineties. He's also reunited recently with the other two members of Ben Folds Five for a one-time performance of their last album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, to be broadcast in October on MySpace; Folds will play two solo shows, tonight and Wednesday, at Terminal 5. He took a moment at his first tour stop in Providence to talk to Vulture about the critics that have misread the new album, his own slow road to recovery from the horror of Silverman, and fielding phone calls from Billy Joel and Elton John.
It sounds like you're just kind of going for broke and having fun on this album — a big contrast with the last one.
You know, it's funny how often the new record has been interpreted as angry and bitter. It's always nice when someone can tell it was actually fun. It's no good doing something like, "Wow, okay, this is great!" and the next day someone goes, "You sure were pissed off."
Did you get the "we only like him when he's funny and loud and angry" reaction from your fans after Silverman?
I have to admit that every single thing I do seems to upset a certain portion of the fan base. But Silverman, yeah, I think there's a whole message board that pretty much unanimously considers it the worst record of all time.
Is it strange to go back to the Ben Folds Five songs? Do you recognize the guy you were when you wrote them?
When I play my older material, it’s almost like someone else wrote them; it sounds like I'm covering material. I remember writing them kind of, but the time has passed. The Reinhold record with the guys was such a concentrated experience, and I haven't seen them in literally eight years. Some of the songs, I'm like, "What fuckin' planet was I on with that?" And then other things, I go, "Wow, that was really clever. Nice work. Who did that shit?" Some of the lyrics were naive in a way that I don't remember them being. But I didn't cringe at them, which was nice.
You've amassed a sort of following of quirky old guys in your career: Burt Bacharach, Weird Al, William Shatner. Are you still in touch with them?
Burt, that was a one-off, and I've never heard from him since — but he was really nice and, considering his age, so open-minded to the quirks of what we were doing. With "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head," we were basically distorting our way through it, and he'd be just laughing and conducting the orchestra. Al and Shatner, definitely, they're both really good friends. What's really cool is they're both islands — they're not part of anything at all. Al writes songs too, you know, and he's not interested in showing them to anyone, he doesn't want to confuse anyone, but Bill? He doesn't mind confusing people, he doesn't give a shit! Sometimes you look around and it can be a pretty lonely business, so those are my two showbiz friends. Though Billy Joel called yesterday, which was pretty nice.
Um, Billy Joel?
Yeah, it was so nice! He just called and said he really liked what I did, he understood I'd been compared to him again and again, and he was sorry to hear that. It was random — I didn't know if he was calling to yell at me. Cause when I started out, every other review was about Billy Joel. So I've said things to separate myself from Billy Joel that weren't flattering.
Does he frequently call?
No, that was out of the blue. I'd never spoken to him before. Elton [John] had done that eight or ten years ago, and I've always kept in light contact with him. He's a really sweet guy — all these newer younger artists, he feels like he should look after us all. He calls, "Darling, how are you?" I guess Robert Downey Jr. gets the next phone call. He actually made me call Ryan Adams once. "You guys are from the same neck of the woods, why don't you call him?" "Well, uh, I don't know..." "Well here's his phone number, call him." So I called him, and it was like, "Uh, hey Ryan, didn't I see you in Raleigh in like, 1991?" "Yeah, yeah." "Uh, Elton wanted me to call." "Yeah, that's cool. All right." That was pretty much it.