Ben Folds’ favourite songs and what we can learn from them
Each month we set a challenge for our Artist in Residence; take us on a journey into the music that moves you, and the music that makes you think differently about being an artist or just a human. And tell us something we didn’t know.
In February, Ben Folds picked some of his favourite songs to play for us as Artist in Residence on Double J. We knew we’d be in for a treat, but he really impressed us with the quality of his selections. And some of the insights he shared with us about songwriting craft, production and performance are worth repeating.
So here we have some of the highlights of his month of radio shows, with Ben’s stories and thoughts on each song and artist.
Joni Mitchell – ‘Free Man In Paris’
Joni Mitchell is a damned genius. I didn’t know which song to pick, because I could have picked 74 of them.
I picked ‘Free Man In Paris’ because it had a big impact on my songwriting. Because of the point of view. And because of the character study in it, and the empathy that I had with the singer and narrator in the song. Which it turns out is record producer David Geffen.
When he became a record executive, he didn’t have any free space, he didn’t know who cared him about him or not. Everyone just wanted his time. This is called ‘Free Man In Paris’ because, when he went to Paris, suddenly no one cared anymore and he had his anonymity. Like he had when he was younger.
Something about it is very moving. It’s an up-tempo song, and I like the idea of a moving song that is up-tempo.
Liz Phair – ‘Canary’
Liz is a big inspiration for me. Liz Phair’s music, to me, is absolutely informal. That is what I look up to in a song. That feeling that there is nothing between you and the artist. It’s rare. Many people try to do it. But Liz does it better than anybody.
I also think her lyrics are good. And there aren’t many good lyrics in pop music. Sometimes that doesn’t matter. But there’s a real implicit irony, sadness and absurdity and a true voice in her songs. She is, in my opinion, a poet.
Glen Campbell – ‘Wichita Lineman’
The late, great Glen Campbell was an incredibly talented musician. And one of my favourite songs written by Jimmy Webb was a Glen Campbell classic.
Really, everything you need to know about songwriting – the point of view of a song, the cadence of a song and what a song can do – is wrapped in a nice package on ‘Wichita Lineman’. Get ready if you’ve never heard it, kids. You’re listening for the moment where suddenly this guy – who is a lineman, whatever the hell that is – drops this shit that just makes you want to cry.
Earth, Wind & Fire – ‘Reasons’
This brings me back to childhood. I love this song. I love this band.
I sound nothing like this music, I could never sound like this music. My music is filed under “birth control music” in the States. Lots of babies were not born to my music. But this song is the opposite.
This song has everything you need to procreate. harmonically, lyrically and sonically. This my favourite song from the 70s. You would never have guessed it!
Elliott Smith – ‘Say Yes’
Touring with Elliott Smith was one of the highlights of my career.
Once, I walked backstage and heard someone playing Rachmaninov in one of the practice rooms on a piano. So, I open the door, and Elliott was at the piano. He had his hands down and he wasn’t moving. Just sitting.
I asked, ‘Is that you playing Rachmaninov?’ And he’s like, ‘No, that wasn’t me’. I said ‘Seriously? Because there is one piano here and just you, and I just heard Rachmaninov coming out of here and I think that’s great’. And he said, ‘No, that wasn’t me’.
Years later, after he died, I was on YouTube having an Elliott Smith film festival type moment, and there he was playing that Rachmaninov piece! On the piano! And I felt like I had been punked over a decade, like the punchline didn’t happen until years after the man was gone.
Anyway, he was a brilliant songwriter. And I think ‘Say Yes’ should have been a hit. It is an unusual, happy sounding song from Elliott.
Neil Young – ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’
One of my band’s first opening gigs was a summer’s worth of touring with Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
That was a crash course in how to be an artist. How to actually be a performer without being a ‘performer’. how to make a stadium feel like a living room, rather than the other way around.
Because [before then] we were performing in places with 40 people in the audience and going ‘Thank you! Good night! Thank you, Cleveland!” And all 40 people from Cleveland are standing in front of you.
Then Neil Young would get up on stage and play in front of 15,000 people as if everyone was the only one in the room. No one does it quite like that.
Anyway, this song is a brilliant song, and quite an inspiration on all counts.
Stevie Wonder – ‘I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It’
This is a Stevie Wonder song, but not one you would have heard a lot.
It’s supposed to be a country song. It makes me laugh, and it is extremely funky.
Stevie Wonder is one of those artists who made it okay for everyone to play all the instruments on an album. So, if you are like me and you’ve made an album where you play all the instruments, you can thank Stevie Wonder.
Our song ‘Rockin’ the Suburbs’ was also partially inspired by Stevie Wonder. In the 90s, there were all these radio stations dedicated to angry white guys playing angry funk-metal. And they were obviously upset about something.
But I was thinking about Stevie Wonder, who grew up arguably pretty rough. He was black – before the civil rights movement happened – blind, and not terribly well off. And he played songs that were happy, sad, sometimes angry. And just fun songs.
Arguably, if anyone should be pissed off, it might be Stevie. Over all this litany of American middle class white boys screaming.
So, I wrote a song about them because I thought it was funny.