BY DAVID RIVA
Daily Arts Writer
Published November 3, 2010
It started more simply than one might expect.
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“He had been listening to my records and I had been reading his books,” Ben Folds said of his relationship with British novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby in an interview with the Daily. “Our paths were crossing more and more and we just finally decided to make a record.”
Lonely Avenue — that resulting record — was released in September and includes lyrics written by Hornby for Folds's arrangements. The new songs will be premiered on Folds’s current tour alongside tunes from his extensive back catalogue. Both can be heard in Detroit at the Fillmore tomorrow night.
The veteran singer-songwriter claims his compatibility with Hornby stems from their similar tendency to look at all situations with a certain degree of complexity. Mixing things that don’t often go together is a difficult endeavor for creative types, but it's something both Folds and Hornby embrace.
“When it’s time to make a book or a movie or a photograph or a song, people tend to just choose a tone,” Folds said.
He explained that most artists are not likely to combine an opposing sentiment with that tone, but asserts that he and Hornby both reject this one-dimensional approach to storytelling.
“When it comes to art, people don’t necessarily reflect the reality that there are funny moments in the saddest times and there are sad moments in the funniest (times),” Folds said.
This fusion of sad and funny can be heard throughout on Lonely Avenue. For example, the introspective ballad “Picture Window” tells the story of a girl in the hospital during the holiday season. After describing an undeniably bleak situation, the narrator personifies the concept of hope and begins to comically insult it.
“Hope is a liar / a cheat and a tease / Hope comes near you / kick its backside,” Folds sings as Hornby’s words inject a wry bit of humor into the dreary scenario.
On the flipside of the coin, “Levi Johnston’s Blues” presents a funny premise in the face of a truly tragic tale. The song is told from the first-person perspective of a hard-nosed Alaskan teenager who just so happened to knock up Bristol Palin during the 2008 election season, when her mother was the vice president candidate on the Republican ticket.
Folds explained Hornby’s thought process for writing the song: “This is Nick watching the Republican National Convention and going ‘Wow, look at that kid up there. That kid stuffed into a suit looks really uncomfortable. Oh, he has to get married to the daughter. Oh, I see what’s going on. Poor kid. Wow, he had to grow up fast.’ ”
“Then he looks him up on the Internet and sees the MySpace page that says … ‘I’m a fucking redneck, I live to hang out with boys (and) shoot moose,' ” Folds continued. “So he saw that and he thought, ‘Well there’s a chorus.’ ”
Though Johnston became a regular in the tabloids whose story is familiar to most Americans, Folds would like listeners to relate to this story on a broader level.
“The story is about growing up. It’s not about Levi Johnston,” he said. “Nick looks for those symbols that resonate, a moment that resonates.”
Folds continued by saying that everyone can think of a time when they got into trouble as a kid, but no single story is compelling enough to capture a large audience’s imagination. Levi Johnston’s ordeal was public enough and rare enough that it would be hard not to be drawn in by the song.
With the song’s killer melody compounded by Folds’s knowledgeable and savvy audience, “Levi Johnston’s Blues” seems to be on the fast track to instant-classic status.
Folds will often acknowledge the fact that he plays to what he calls an “intelligent audience,” which is something he is particularly proud of.
“Over the years you sift out a little part of the population that is sort of your people,” he said. “You understand each other on a certain level.”
“I don’t really like calling people fans, because I kind of feel like we’re not really that dissimilar,” he explained. “I’ve spent my time honing the craft of music and that is the reason that I’m sharing that thing that I do. There are people in the audience … that are great locksmiths … and they don’t get applauded for when they finish their job. And I just sort of like to recognize all that.”
Overall, touring continues to be a positive experience for Folds.
“There’s something really positive about being lucky enough to bring together people who aren’t fuckin’ idiots,” he said. “What’s really kind of nice is to go play one of my gigs and everyone that’s there is smart and gets it. And they might not all be one political party or the other — I don’t give a shit. But they’re on it and they’re smart and they get it and I think that’s a good reason to tour.”