Image Credit: Eamonn McCabeThis Tuesday saw the release of Lonely Avenue, the inaugural collaboration between musician Ben Folds and music-loving novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy, last year’s Juliet, Naked).
EW caught up with the cross-continental collaborators—via conference call, naturally—to find out how they made an album across three thousand miles, and why they can’t wait to work together again.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So Nick you’re in London and Ben, where are you?
BEN FOLDS: I’m in Nashville, just sitting at home.
So did you guys put this together the way Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello did with the Postal Service, sending things back and forth through the mail, or did you Skype?
NICK HORNBY: No, we didn’t even look at each other, did we? We pretty much did it all on email. I would send the lyric, and then Ben would send back an MP3, and then obviously as the recording process went on, he sent me more and more MP3s with bits added to them.
So say that Nick, you sent lyrics, Ben, would you give him back one option, or would you give him a buffet, like, “this a ballad,” or “this is a rockier song,” or did you take one approach and hone it?
BF: His lyrics were pretty much completed. They were complete—there was one song that got a couple lines cut out of it—but they didn’t come with instructions like “this is a ballad,” they sort of implied that themselves.
NH: As I understand it, the way Ben works anyway, he’d look at the words and more or less either a song came to his mind or it didn’t come to his mind, so I ended up writing a lot more sets of lyrics than he actually used, it was a kind of instantaneous hit thing for him, either a tune came or it didn’t, so in terms of options, I think the melody comes more or less fully formed and with it’s own feel. Is that right, Ben?
BH: Yeah, usually there’s some sort of math problem to work out, just a matter of syllables and how something’s going to be set up. But for the most part the melody of what’s the chorus and what’s the verse and what the general framework is comes pretty quickly. You know I might figure out something two or three weeks later just out and about or sitting at the piano or at some point it occurs to me and I go “Ohhh, OK, that’s what I do, I rest a couple bars.” Those sort of things, the last 2% came much slower, but the basics of it, most of the time I could have gone out and just played the song at a gig the night of or the next night, most of it’s obvious.
OK, Nick, how is this different than say, the stuff you’ve done with Marah?
NH: Uhm, well I don’t… there was never any mix of words and music directly when I was with those guys, that was more of a thing where we were friends and I read some stuff that I had written and that was punctuated by their music more or less, so it just became a kind of music and words evening, but we didn’t actually collaborate on anything.
And Ben, how was Nick to work with compared to, say, William Shatner?
BF: [Laughs] Eerily similar. [Both laugh]
BF: Yeah, same cadence, same em-PHA-sis on the proper syl-LAHB-les. [Turning serious again] Well, there are two different kind of collaborations I suppose, one is, Shatner was going to be speaking, it’s all spoken word, so that’s pretty close to his comfort zone since he speaks in movies and on the radio, it doesn’t put him in that position, so his lyrics he was writing, they weren’t so much lyrics—just short pieces about his life. And I wanted to make sure that he didn’t try to rhyme too much, and I was more of an editor when it came to what he did, he gave me 50 pieces that I honed down and rewrote and played with. With Nick I was just taking his lyrics exactly as they were and turning them into music, so that’s a much bigger thing, I think.
Nick for you, if you’re writing a song, is it just like writing a really really short story, where you just do the line breaks a certain way, or did you have to get yourself in a whole different headspace?
NH: No, I think the big challenges are really smaller technical challenges about construction and the occasional rhyme and stuff I hadn’t done before, but it felt remarkably similar, yes, to writing a piece of prose, to writing a short story. Mostly I just thought up some sort of narrative arc, and I didn’t have much space to tell those stories, so there were challenges but it’s sort of part of my day job, as it were. The thing that happens is that they get transformed into something else, which is really a lot more fun, I guess.
The song “From Above,” with Martha and Tom, that seems almost like an O.Henry story or something, these lovers that never meet…
NH: Yeah, it was definitely a story that I had, that I wanted to use in some form or another, and I’d thought of it as some kind of movie before, with the camera being above so that you could see how close these two people got without ever actually meeting, but I think it’s better as a song [laughs].
Ben, I read where you said that it takes some of the pressure off of you because you didn’t write these lyrics, you don’t have to explain them. But do you feel like you’re just Nick Hornby’s puppet then?
[Both laugh] BF: Nick Hornby’s bitch? We did consider that as a title for the album.
Aside from what you’ve written here, is there anything you guys thought you might want to cover together, or something you would like to adapt?
NH: you mean future projects? I still have dreams of a stage musical? It’s something I’d be interested in at some stage, and Ben would a brilliant person to write the music I think. I mean it’s an idea that’s come up before, and Ben and I have talked about it.
BF: Yeah, at one time I thought he could write a book and we could make songs to the book, and there would be a CD of songs to the book that went with it, and that could be made into a musical, and then a Broadway musical…
NH: And eventually, a TV show.
So basically, it all ends in jazz hands?
BF: It starts in jazz hands! And then it goes from there.
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