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On new album, Ben Folds reflects on 'What Matters Most'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The beginning of the pandemic brought lots of new things into our lives. For musician Ben Folds, it was anonymity.

BEN FOLDS: Because, you know, I was wearing a mask everywhere, I was recognized less. And it was really nice, actually. And I started realizing everyone was like that. I was running into people I knew, and they were like, hello, who are you? Oh, it's Fred. How's it going, Fred? Didn't recognize you without the cleft chin.

SUMMERS: Folds took the simple observation and wrote a song about it called "Back To Anonymous."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK TO ANONYMOUS")

FOLDS: (Singing) These days, it doesn't matter. I can let myself go. No disguise, just go for a stroll...

SUMMERS: Ben Folds keeps busy. He plays with orchestras. He's got a nonprofit. So he wasn't planning on making a new album.

FOLDS: But I started feeling like some of the ways I had felt that I could musically express and package the ideas and feelings I'd been having over all the lockdown time was something that required a lot of craft and experience. You know, I was like, I can make something no one else could make - I mean, in the same way as no one else has my face - you know? - like, not Superman stuff.

SUMMERS: The result is his first album in eight years. It's called "What Matters Most."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK TO ANONYMOUS")

FOLDS: (Singing) It's a big world with unfamous (ph) people who deserve the grand applause...

SUMMERS: Folds says that out of all of the albums he's made in more than 25 years in the spotlight, this one is his favorite. I asked him what he loves about it.

FOLDS: Well, I love that I don't hate it, you know?

SUMMERS: (Laughter) Fair.

FOLDS: I think that's the main thing. And, you know, it's a series of choices you're making in the dark the whole time when you create something. To speak about it later, it would be like you had a master plan. It's harder to speak of it in the honest terms that it's a mess, and you're in the dark. But I feel like, you know, oh, I kind of went through all the right doors, luckily, somehow, for me. That's how I feel about it. I - it's - it just feels fine to me, so I'm not ashamed of it, thank God.

SUMMERS: Is there a song on this album that kind of exemplifies that precision of craft that you've been talking about - that you've been able to hone in after all these years of creating?

FOLDS: I think "Kristine From The 7th Grade" is sort of what I try to do lyrically and musically in a song every time out.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN FOLDS SONG, "KRISTINE FROM THE 7TH GRADE")

FOLDS: During that time I was giving piano lessons to kids over Zoom and Patreon, and I was teaching songwriting lessons. And in the songwriting lessons, I started to do something I thought was a good way to teach people what a song is, essentially, by having them find headlines of the day and decide which was a song. And in this particular case, it was a Wall Street Journal piece. The woman's name was Kris - who wrote the piece - with a K. And it was an Op-Ed piece, and it was called something like "Why I Won't Be Taking Off My Shoes In Your Shoeless Home." And I thought, I see what that writer's doing and why it's going to get clicks and, you know, what the cultural wedge is of this. But I'm not that interested in the story itself. I'm more interested in why people write crap like that. So I imagined Kris to be Kristine, who I knew from seventh grade.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KRISTINE FROM THE 7TH GRADE")

FOLDS: (Singing) Someone who laughed a lot is what I remember the most...

And now it seems that Kristine doesn't look happy on Facebook anymore. She used to look happy when she was in seventh grade. But she looks angry. She's posing with pictures of guns, and she's sending me conspiracy theories over email. And now we can't be friends because we can't find a common ground. And I thought, that's sad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KRISTINE FROM THE 7TH GRADE")

FOLDS: (Singing) And I just don't reply because I'm not really sure what to say.

So I'm going to try to make it about the sadness of that divide and of the split and not so much about, oh, you're wrong, and I'm right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KRISTINE FROM THE 7TH GRADE")

FOLDS: (Singing) ...Seventh grade.

SUMMERS: I mean, that - the empathy that you were talking about there is what really resonated to me because we're all navigating this world that's full of disinformation and misinformation.

FOLDS: Yeah.

SUMMERS: But it felt like you came away thinking it was really sad, but there wasn't necessarily an air of judgment in the song, at least to me.

FOLDS: I really appreciate that. I think that someone who would relate more to Kristine's perspective would probably take it as judgmental. Before the record was finished, we premiered it at the Kennedy Center, and it was interesting because everyone laughed. And, you know, seeing a lot of the comments on YouTube, it occurred to me that there were people who thought that they were being laughed at by an elite crowd sitting at the symphony orchestra. And I can understand that. But sometimes if you're misunderstood - and I always expect to be misunderstood. I have to take 50% of the blame for that because you say a thing and then it's heard by the other side. I mean, you can only say what you think is true. And, you know, you can't control the other side, but you're a part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN FOLDS SONG, "WHAT MATTERS MOST")

SUMMERS: OK, so I have to ask - you wrote on Instagram that you don't plan on making more rock records, that you want to move on to musicals, to other types of writing. I think a lot of people, if you look through the comments on there, they want you to write a musical, but they also want to know why no more rock albums. So why?

FOLDS: Well, first of all, we don't need any new albums. We don't. And there are new artists every five minutes who are coming out of the - just the pores of society, who are expressing things like the one-cell organisms that we want. So I feel like I'm not trying to be relevant. I'm just trying to make a well-crafted piece of music, and that's my genre. But I can do that in musicals. Like, I would like to now take time and take that craft that I've spent so long thinking about and apply it to musicals. And I could make albums to that, you know, and put it out. But I'm not - I don't need to get played on the radio and stuff like that. There's not so much room on the shelf. We're in an exciting time right now where it's encouraged - I know a lot of people are probably upset with this, but it's encouraged for us all to take on board and maybe even favor music that's not, like, you know, a white dude. And I think that that's exciting - not for any other reason than I just want to hear what's on everyone's mind.

SUMMERS: You know, I want to end this conversation with a note of uplift, if we can.

FOLDS: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: Right now, what is inspiring you? What's bringing you joy?

FOLDS: I'm inspired by minute details and routine and observation. So I love for my day to be about plugging in wires, which it was for this morning. I loved looking out the window and seeing that the cherry tree is - either got too much water or not enough water. I just think life is inspiring, but I'm more inspired by it if I can lock into routine and details for me. And I'm realizing more and more that I'm happier if I have something that I've never had before, which is discipline. And if I could do it all over again, up to my 55 years, I would have more discipline earlier - not harder work but more discipline.

SUMMERS: Ben Folds - his new album is "What Matters Most." Thank you so much for talking with us.

FOLDS: Thank you. It really is an honor. I'm such a fan. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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