Leave it to Ben Folds to put out what is essentially a greatest-hits album…sung by college a cappella groups. On April 28, the North Carolina-born singer/songwriter/pianist/cutup will release Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!, which features more than a dozen undergraduate groups (and even one high-school act) performing instrument-free versions of some of his best-known songs. After soliciting applicants for the project, Folds spent hours watching contenders on YouTube and traveled the country to record the lucky “winners” himself, without the use of the technological trickery (notably programs like Auto-Tune or Pro Tools) that most groups utilize these days. The result isn’t perfect—there’s a bum note here and there—but it’s quite charming. Folds even gets in on the act, performing a cappella versions of his tracks “Boxing” and “Effington.” We quizzed Folds, from his home in Nashville, on his peculiar new project. Read the full Q&A after the jump.
Music Mix It’s interesting that you’ve chosen to spotlight college a cappella groups, since so many of them sing your songs without ever sending you a red cent of royalty money.
Ben Folds That doesn’t bother me. When people are out there doing your music, it’s like when you’re mowing lawns. People see you mowing the lawn, and they come up and you get more lawn-mowing work. People hear the music, enjoy it, and then those who can afford it pay for it, then it comes around. I guess it’s what we call value added. It’s really fine with me.
Music Mix I was in an a cappella group in college 15 years ago, and I would have had a heart attack if the artist whose song I was singing was standing right there. Were the groups nervous to sing in front of you?
Folds They all did a really good job of not letting that get in the way of anything. Before I showed up, I considered a lot of strategies: Maybe I’m going to need to leave the room. Maybe I’m going to need to be a little more stern. But what I found was that they just needed to be treated like professionals. Lots of these groups have opened up for us on the road, and one girl had been totally cool while we were recording. We took some pictures, she still seemed fine. After the show, I guess all was clear, and then she went ahead and cut loose with the fan stuff. And I thought that was really cool! She had me fooled!
Music Mix Was there one song that you didn’t think would work a cappella but did?
Folds The “Jesusland” arrangement that the University of North Carolina Loreleis did was pretty impressive because, one, they’re an all-female group, and that makes it more difficult because they don’t have the range. And then it’s just a hell of a tempo to have to work out. And it came out better on the record than I even anticipated.
Music Mix There’s a group from the University of Chicago called Voices in Your Head that sings “Magic” on the record, and to me they’re in a different league from the rest of the groups.
Folds That is a different animal. I allowed representation of a computer-generated, tuned one, and that’s it. It was significantly tweaked in Pro Tools. That doesn’t make it less, but I feel like the genre is about the event at the moment. But this version of”Magic” is an example of state-of-the-art a cappella recording. That’s the only one I heard of that ilk that didn’t turn me off.
Music Mix Ten years ago you turned me on to Grandaddy. What’s floating your boat musically right now?
Folds Well, I’m finally living in one place in a manner that I can have all my vinyl in one place. So I’ve got my turntable set up and I’ve been going through my classical records to see which ones sound good. I’m kinda nerdy. I’ll listen to two versions of a Beethoven symphony and one sounds better than the other. And that one I’ll give away. The last new thing I’ve had going through my head is The Bird and The Bee.
Music Mix So now that you’ve worked with college a cappella groups and William Shatner, what’s your next bizarre musical collaboration going to be?
Folds I’m working on an album with Nick Hornby. He’s writing the lyrics and I’m doing the music. His cadencing is really different because he’s not a musician. He’s sent me about 18 sets of lyrics. He’s disciplined. And I suspect that as he hears them, that’s going to spur more writing too. So I’m always going to be keeping up with Nick.