Nearly two years ago, in June 2014, Ben Folds visited Houston to perform with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. During the show, he spoke of his background within such an ensemble, specifically as a percussionist.
But despite his upbringing, Folds is best known for his endeavors in rock music. His career has flourished even after the disbanding of his former group, Ben Folds Five, thanks to wide-ranging musical offerings that include collaborative records with the likes of author Nick Hornby and the young ensemble yMusic, the latter of whom joins Folds Saturday night at UH's Cullen Performance Hall.
“It’s all the same thing to me, really,” he says of the different kinds of music he has played in his lifetime. “There are different methods to every kind of music, but I think they all kind of come from the same place.”
Likening musicians to athletes, Folds says that different kinds of music require different training. Some musicians are runners — they need to stretch and do a little weightlifting, and they’re good to go. Others are part of a team, and the additional size requires a kind of discipline that isn’t necessary for runners.
“Both of them are making music,” Folds says, adding that he’s grateful for everything the orchestra taught him. “I would have learned more but I just couldn’t. Some people can learn more; it’s about how much can you learn before it gets in the way of your creativity? It’s like talking and listening. Eventually it’s time to talk.”
And talk he has. With three solo albums, another three EPs, four records with his former band and three collaborative releases, including with yMusic on last year's So There, Folds has been quite prolific. Success notwithstanding, he remains driven to create new, interesting music for both his fans and himself. Because he has to be.
“It’s my job,” Folds says of music, “and everyone wants to quit their job at some point. But I can’t, really. And I’m thankful for that. Because there are times when it’s really difficult, and I might want to give up. It’s hard to tour, and it’s hard to keep coming up with something that’s exciting for me.
“But once you’ve passed that barrier, something new comes up," he adds. "And I’m thankful for that. Had I made crazy millions and didn’t need it at all, maybe I wouldn’t be trying as hard. I think it’s good to think, ‘Oh shit, I need to get going.’”
After 21 years in the spotlight, Folds remains mindful of his influence when writing. He claims, in jest, to be willing to run over Randy Newman’s grandmother for a song, but expounding on the subject, he sounds more thoughtful.
“Music is communication, and you have to be responsible,” Fold says. “I’ve got a microphone, and I could definitely say some crazy shit. But I tend to do it through character studies.”
Alluding to “Capable of Anything,” the opening track from his latest album, Folds speaks of using characters to explore the world with fresh eyes.
“So many things are expressed out there that could be a part of you, and all characters are a part of the people who wrote them. They have to be,” he says. “The idea is that anyone is capable of any behavior — like really nasty stuff. And I think that recognizing that for people lifts quite a bit of judgment.”
When writing these kinds of songs, Folds says he is mitigating the notion of doing something bad through exploring the possibility.
“Better to sing it than to do it,” he says. “It’s great to put positive notions out there too, but those songs are sometimes so righteous that it’s creepy.”
Jumping from one musical genre to the next and exploring new songwriting techniques has been no easy task for Folds, who claims that no music he has ever made was effortless.
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“It’s work to really make something,” he says. “If I have available to me at this moment lots of musicians to play with in orchestras, then I’m using it. Because that’s what I’ve got. And I’m inspired to do it. I don’t know in what world I would throw that opportunity away.”
At the end of the day, however, Folds says that it all comes down to the path of least resistance.
“I could go play in a heavy metal band, I suppose, but that would be a lot more work.”
Ben Folds and yMusic will perform at 8 p.m. this Saturday, April 16 at UH's Cullen Performance Hall, 4800 Calhoun. See entertainhouston.com for more information.