New Music Experience: Ben Folds ‘What Matters Most’ Listening Party

Bully “How Will I Know”
Becca Mancari “Over and Over”
Corook “CGI”
Ben Folds “What Matters Most”
Ben Folds “Kristine From the 7th Grade”
Ben Folds “But Wait, There’s More”
Ben Folds “Back to Anonymous”
W.I.T.C.H. “Stop the Rot”
Catalina “Paradise”
Tommy Stinson’s Cowboys in the Campfire “Here We Go Again”
Middle Kids “Bootleg Firecracker”

This week on the show, we have a “Listening Party” for Ben Folds and his new album What Matters Most. The longtime Nashville-based artist is one of the great songwriters of his generation, a master storyteller and a compelling conversationalist. As you’ll see/hear in our conversation (listen link above), Folds is a deep thinker on many topics and we used the album sometimes simply as a jumping off point.

On his “musical” future (and Randy Newman hanging out with Don Henley)

Ben Folds: I’m happy with my record. I planned on it being my last record. I’m thinking that I’m not going to be able to write musicals and operas if I’m still dabbling in being a 56 year old dude trying to be a rock star. Really, what I need to do is promise myself that I’ll get off of that and I’ll spend all my time on musical or opera. And when I do that, that I promise myself that it will be my best work, period. Otherwise, I won’t be interested in doing it, you know? And that’s scary. That kind of promise to yourself is super scary, especially at the expense of going well, ‘I make a better living at this,.’ But I have to stop in order to do that. And so I don’t know, maybe I’ll go talk to Yusuf Cat Stevens and ask him how he did that.

Jason Moon Wilkins: Well, he does have a new Cat Stevens-style single coming out.

BF: All right. Well, I won’t talk to him then (laughs). I don’t deserve to talk to him, because it’s sort of like I’m saying, okay, now, in my twilight years, I’m going to quit and do this (versus Stevens quitting in his prime). Actually, you know, I’ll drop a name for you. Pete Townsend told me to write a musical before I was irrelevant. While I was still young. I didn’t know him. He just came across the BBC studio floor to tell me that. It was when I was doing my very first radio shows with my band in in London, and I was like, ‘That’s Pete Townsend. He’s walking this way. He’s still walking this way. He’s opening his mouth. Is he talking to me?’ And then he’s like, ‘You need to write a musical and you need to do it now, not later. Don’t do it later. Do it now.’ And then he walked away and apparently told Elton John that, too, because when Elton first called me, he was like, ‘Pete Townsend still thinks you need to write a musical and you need to hurry up before you get old.’

That made me so happy when I started hearing crazy stories like that. I think it was Randy Newman who was telling me he was talking to Don Henley and they decided that I had the best left hand on the piano in the music business. Which, I don’t know if he was being funny or he really meant it. And he hangs out with Don Henley!?! I don’t know either one of them. I don’t know Randy Newman. I just met him once and. Anyway buy my new album, it’s called What Matters Most. (laughs)

On why you shouldn’t call his new album “pop”

BF: I don’t see the record really as pop music. Relevant, pop music is for kids. And it’s until they mate. And once they’ve mated and procreated, it’s not for them anymore. It’s now for their kids. And they can try to act cool if they want to relive the glory years. But the kids are already writing code into the music to make sure they don’t understand it. That’s just the way it works. So if you’re my age and you want to keep making a living doing what you’re doing, you can be a ‘heritage artis’  and go out and play your old sh*t and that’s fine. Heritage Artist is bruising, but it’s true. Or you can do something that’s just what can you do, that people can’t do anymore. So, in essence, there’s something sort of Steely Dan about this record in a small way. I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s as good as what Steely Dan did. But the point is, to me was that it was craft at the edge of my ability. To get the least amount of credit for the craft. Because great craft shouldn’t be like ‘This is great craft!’ because that means that you’re paying attention to the wrong thing. It needs to be seamless. Humble. Space between the notes. Good voice leading. Economical lyrics. Impeccable timing of lines. And then a beauty about a record that is not there to say ‘I hurt, therefore I make you hurt.’ That was a very 90’s thing. Like this is a screeching sound. I hurt. When you hear this. You’ll hurt too. That’s fine. But my thing was like, what can I offer? How can this be generous? I’m making something that once my generation, and I’m one of the few that do it, are gone then people have a new craft. Ansel Adams was still printing up until a certain point. And at that point he was printing, it was the state of the art. And once his printers who worked for him died, it didn’t exist that way anymore. You know, that’s fine. We just move on. But I feel like that guy now, so I wanted to make an album that did that.

On the audio affliction that gets in the way of his songwriting

Ben Folds: (when asked if there was a song that’s been looping in his head lately) There’s not really one. The problem with me is that most of my life I’ve had random music running through my head, even in my sleep. So, I’ll go to bed and I will have heard something on television and by the morning I’ve morphed it into something else. And when I was really little, it brought tears because I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get away from it and it wouldn’t stop. (Folds says he first realized it was an actual condition when reading Oliver Sacks Musicophilia). It’s called something but I’m not really that interested in it as a condition. Just to say that, if you were like that, you’ll know it. I’ll get something on my head just for a moment. Like someone might have mentioned something about a drum machine. It might bubble for a while and then pretty soon it’s mixed up in my head. And I don’t mean it’s good. It’s not good. What I mean is, it’s not quality. It doesn’t help my songwriting. It’s completely separate of it. It’s a pain in the ass and it’s terrible music. It’s a good question. Like, why would some little stupid theme to the Burger King burger bundles or something stick in your head. But that just doesn’t happen for me because it can’t get in. Like there’s something going on (already) that is truly not good. I don’t make up songs that way. It gets in my way.

On AI coming for your job

Ben Folds: (After recalling how he’d been talking with a journalist in a previous interview who was worried about AI taking their job) If A.I. is going to write stuff. Awesome. It’ll start by writing the sh*tty stuff, right? So if you write sh*tty stuff, rethink your job. And I know that’s tough. I mean, look, I waited tables for an extra, seven years into my twenties because I wanted to make sure that if I was playing music, it was music that I wrote and that I meant to do it and I wanted to do it. I do understand how dire it is to suddenly not have income. I’ve had kids. I’ve been through stuff too. I also make really good money now. But I do understand that. But I feel like what I wanted to say is ‘Look, it’s going to suck and you might lose a little income, or you might figure out a way to manage 18 articles at once instead of one which might drive you crazy. But in the meantime, you can consider doing what the machines can’t do.’ Like now is your free time. It’s a forced thing that you’ll have to do. Secondly, I was like, ‘Why don’t you be the first person to write a treaty for 50 years from now? From parent to child to AI. So, AI it has this built into its genetics, so that in 50 years it’s incapable of killing its parents. Because it had a treaty. If it’s going to grow feelings and kill us all then it needs to have child development now. Psychologists need to be writing into its code. It’s like a dog. You know this dog is a lap dog now, but it’s going to be 200 pounds. So let’s get this dog on your side (laughs). Anyway, I’m sorry. My album is not about that (laughs). Although I thought about writing a song called Dear AI and it would be like Dear Anna.. I, the last name and it’s like writing to the child. One day maybe I’ll write that. I don’t know. Don’t ever write that song. It’s mine. I’ll sue your ass. (laughs)