High fidelity of Hornby and Folds


They collaborated by e-mail, and they didn’t always agree on the results, but novelist Nick Hornby and musician Ben Folds have made a cracking album

BEN FOLDS isn’t so much a highly rated and smart singer-songwriter – think Randy Newman crossed with Neil Hannon – as a very naughty boy. Known to be something of a prankster, the fortysomething has released fake albums, overseen records consisting of college students singing a cappella versions of his songs, gone on YouTube to improvise songs about people he has checked out on the occasionally controversial social-networking site Chatroulette and, in possibly his most Brian Eno-esque moment, conducted members of his audience as they simultaneously played their mobile-phone ringtones.

“Does my reputation as a bit of a joker diminish my standing as a songwriter?” he asks. “Probably, but as long as I still have a career that’s not too important. There will always be those who will judge people’s work based on really silly, superfluous stuff. For me, I think people love surprises, and in music, as in most other areas of life, you don’t get surprised too often. We’re in such a rigid business right now, in that songwriters have to act and look and work inside a small confined area. If you steer outside of that you’re accused of writing a novelty song, or of playing a practical joke, but I think they’re quite human things to do. What is a novelty song, anyway?”

Folds used to be the main attraction in his band Ben Folds Five, but latterly he has taken the solo and collaborative route. His latest work, the whip-crack-clever Lonely Avenue, features songs with music by Folds and lyrics by Nick Hornby, the English novelist and writer who channels his love of pop music through his writing.

“We didn’t meet up until some backstage thing,” Folds says. “We had already worked together before, where he had provided some words on the William Shatner album Has Been, an autobiographical record that I had produced and contributed to. I felt when I was writing with Bill Shatner that his stories were very compelling and real, but that somewhere on the album we really needed a couple of truly literary moments that would make you understand the remainder of the record. So I called up Nick about it. I didn’t really know any other writers, and he’s also one of the few writers that I’ve read pretty much everything he’s done.”

Like any decent transatlantic collaboration these days, the work was done piecemeal and by e-mail. “We never sat down together, because he was too busy getting awards. I’d wake up and e-mails would be there for me with his lyrics, and by the end of my day I’d have an MP3 ready for him. That was pretty much our routine.”

For someone who’s good at writing his own lyrics, was Folds at ease with Hornby’s words or were there phrases and words that he thought needed changing? “There would have been sometimes,” he says, “but I didn’t do it. I knew they’d be truer if I left them alone. Sometimes I’d see stuff that I didn’t quite agree with, and maybe I would have thought he was overthinking things, or that some people referenced within his lyrics wouldn’t do this or say that. I know that musically this was my turf, but Nick wrote the words for a reason. Similarly, there were a couple of times where Nick didn’t think the music I’d written fitted the words, but there had to be mutual respect.”

Yet as anyone who has read Hornby’s 31 Songs, a superlative collection of essays on some of his favourite pop and rock songs, will tell you, he knows his music. (“If I could write music,” he tells us in that book, “I’d never have bothered with books.”)

So did Folds see where Hornby’s concerns were coming from? “It only happened twice: Saskia Hamilton,which hurt his ears, he said, and Practical Amanda. But he gets them now, in the same way I now get the words I had trouble with at the start. In some ways sitting across from each other at a table or at a piano, thinking these things out, negotiating, wouldn’t have worked. We were restricted in that way, yes, but I’d never have been able to sit down with someone and make a song. I like being in my own space, and I like to be able to have complete control over what I’m doing. Nick had to have that as well. No compromise is the way to go; you can’t have someone across a table changing bits here and there. I like it the way we did it.” And still having the ability to catch the listener off guard? “There needs to be more of that in life,” says Folds. “People need to loosen up. I’m actually a serious person, but I like surprises.”

Lonely Avenueis released through Nonesuch/Warner. Ben Folds plays Dublins Vicar St on Feb 18 2011

Authors who have written lyrics

* Michael MoorcockThis British sci-fi/fantasy author has written lyrics for the US rock act Blue Oyster Cult and collaborated many times with the British space-rock band Hawkwind.

* Irvine WelshThe controversial Scottish writer collaborated with Primal Scream on their 1994 single The Big Man the Scream Team Meet the Barmy Army Uptown. Welsh was also planning to co-write a punk-rock musical some years ago.

* Eoin ColferThe Irish author co-wrote The Lords of Love, a musical that was staged at Wexford Opera House in June, and is being workshopped around Ireland before travelling to England next year.