Interview With Ben Folds

I think Simon Cowell is great. He’s a bit of a genius. When you look at 21st Century popular music history, he’ll be a very important part of the music industry, the filters of the music industry, how people hear music and how it’s integrated into the rest of the popular culture, he’s got a whole chapter. _Ben Folds : Judge on Sing-Off/Season 3

Ben Folds

Ben Folds : Judge on Sing-Off/Season 3
Singer/songwriter | Pianist | Musician
Group: Ben Folds Five
Albums: Rockin’ the Suburbs | Ben Folds Live | Songs for Silverman | Way to Normal Lonely Avenue
By: Daedrian McNaughton

The Sing-Off scours the country in search of the best a cappella groups and this year competition has expanded to the 16 very best groups who will perform popular songs in a weekly competition that will culminate with a live finale revealing the grand prize winner. The groups will be competing for a chance to walk away with the ultimate prize, a Sony Music recording contract and $200,000.

Celebrity judges who will critique the singing groups, using their musical expertise, are Ben Folds (Ben Folds Five), Shawn Stockman (Boyz II Men) and Sara Bareilles (“Love Song” and “King of Anything”).
“The Sing-Off” is produced by Joel Gallen’s (“America’s Best Dance Crew”) Tenth Planet Productions, Outlaw Entertainment and Sony Pictures Television. Gallen, Deb Newmyer (“The Ugly Truth”) Sam Weisman (“George of the Jungle”) and Josh Greenberg (“America’s Best Dance Crew”) are executive producers.

The Sing-Off airs Mondays on NBC

Have you had a chance to see Glee or the other talent shows?

Ben Folds: I haven’t seen Glee yet. I saw about a five-minute clip of American Idol because people kept on asking about Simon Cowell, so I wanted to see what he did. And I will watch Glee. I’m not proud of being ignorant. I just don’t really stop to watch TV it’s not something I normally do. But I’ll get to it.

And what are your thoughts on Simon?

Ben Folds: I think he’s great. He’s a bit of a genius. When you look at 21st Century popular music history, he’ll be a very important part of how the music industry, how the filters of the music industry, how people hear music and how it’s integrated into the rest of the popular culture, he’s got a whole chapter. This world that he’s created is not what we really do. We live in the form. But that form has probably gone back to the gong show and Star Search and (Euro Vision). It’s been done before but the form that we do, the current form, I think he partially invested that. But we’re really very different because the show itself, the heart of the show is about harmony. We might have a lot in common with Glee. I haven’t seen it yet. I know that people singing together has become more and more popular over the 20th Century until now it’s really reaching a boil. There were a cappella groups in universities and small numbers at the turn of the century, the 20th Century. And by the end, there is six, eight groups in every university. That’s a lot of students singing all of their own motivation. And so some of these shows are just springing out of a cultural versioning of vocal music. And if you think about it it’s very timely because we’re not going to be able to afford instruments pretty soon if the economy keeps going that way and you can always afford your voice.


What was your initial reaction when you were first asked to do the show?

Ben Folds: When they first asked me I told my manager no. But it hadn’t run yet, so I didn’t know much about the show. I just thought, I don’t want to be a judge. But what convinced me to do it was that it was a cappella and that it was unique and could be very musical. And I just worked with some a cappella groups. I’ve never been in an a cappella group myself but I thought this is something I regularly do anyway. I listen to music and I have an opinion about it and I know the inside of music, so I can talk about it a little bit. It turned out to be a really good decision. I’ve really enjoyed it.

How difficult is it for you to judge these talented groups?

Ben Folds: It is more of a range this year than the last two years and that does make it hard because if you have an amazing German Polka group and they’re up against an amazing industrial noise group, what might make one work more than the other you should take personal preferences aside, which I think we’ve done, and just really try to hone in on what they’re attempting to do, how effective it is to the people, what it is that they do and could this make a record. I don’t like all records but a record is a record. And so it is really hard because you try not to make it personal. You try to make it about how they’re working together, how well they’re doing and how effective it might be for their audience and leave the preference to the apple or the orange out of it. But it’s difficult to do. But I feel like we’re doing it.

What are you really looking for in these singers?

Ben Folds: Like any other kind of music in some ways in that you just go, well, is this moving me or is it not moving me? Then the next question is if it is or if it isn’t, why? Then it’s our job because we supposedly know music is why would that be? It could be so many things but there are rules. You start with pitch and time and then you can move into things about their arrangement or is their whole stack of parallel thirds? Is the bass one thin? Is it well arranged, the voice leading working, all that stuff that I’m sure they think about on all the other reality music TV shows. I’ve heard a lot of talk about the voice leading on other shows. But when it comes to why acappella works as an art form, one thing that occurs to me is that if I were sitting through two hours a night of different instrumental groups, I would be tired. I would listen to two hours of different groups and really feel moved the whole time. There’s something about all voices that’s almost hits a primal. I’m sure they could have electrodes to the audience’s head and there would be something that lights up uniquely for people singing together. And cameramen who have been annoyed that while they’re rehearsing that they get chills. Every time they start singing I kind of get a chill. I don’t even like this shit. There’s something about that kind of music, about singing that’s just really I think essential and so it just works.

Why do you think they have been selected for more than the limited series and such a success?

Ben Folds: I think the show is successful because there is a lot of talent on it. The singers, even the ones that go home early in the seasons they’re really talented and they’re really dedicated and they’re all singing together really well. It makes people feel really good to see people working together. That’s been my main theory about this show is that you can tune into television everywhere else and see people not getting along or people not working together well or something that’s really not that artfully put together. The show doesn’t have to be artfully put together. There’s really a lot of art and craft in that it’s sort of counter to what we’re told about our culture now, that everything is dumbed down, that everything is all reality shows and off the cuff and just dumb. That’s the way people feel about the way things are going. If you look at groups sometimes high school kids and they’re doing this amazing thing and you think, oh, it’s going to be okay. And that’s what you get for a couple hours of Sing-Off . Then you can go back to kicking each others’ asses and that’s fine too. I like to see some ass kicking myself. But for a couple hours it’s nice to see some harmony and I think that’s what this show provides.


What do you think the biggest challenge for an a cappella group is when they are looking for materials to perform on the show?

Ben Folds: It’s different for every group. What’s interesting about it is the story behind every group. If you have an obvious one, which is being surmounted like really effectively, is an all female group. You don’t have a base. So if you’re an all female group, you’ve got to find ways of making it work and there are plenty of ways but you have to find them. They’re off the beaten path. And if you’re a group of 18 guys then you might have intimacy issues. It might be difficult to find like a star, a one-person that can act in the middle of essentially a football team. Some people might be technically challenged but have just total star power. So I think for each group it’s how they surmount their challenge and their difficulties. It’s their Achilles heel as (always there). It’s interesting for us to watch. Sometimes you keep a group in because you can see that they’re on the verge of a revelation. And they may not have done their best show but we make the judgment that if they stay on another show we’re going to see something that’s going to develop and it’s going to surprise us and that is what I think is most exciting about the show.

Why is this season more important or different from the rest?

Ben Folds: I think this is the season of innovation. As it evolves everyone will see the innovation be second nature. In other words, you begin to take it for granted and everyone will look for heart. But I think that’s what marks this season and my theory is because these groups watched this television show and they thought what can I do to stand out? And so we have a lot of standout groups. The first season was much more conventional acappella and they were very good. Second season, more of that and now all of a sudden it’s more about how they can stand out and be different and that’s a nice thing to see.

Do you rehearse for this gig and how do you prepare? What is your ritual before the show?

Ben Folds: Yes, I look in the mirror and I tell myself you can.

What do you do?

Ben Folds: I drink three protein shakes and I run around the block. I try to get my endorphins up. Really what I do is before the show we have our little sit down and listen to the songs that the groups are going to be singing. Now, we don’t listen to their versions. We listen to the original versions. And we know who is going to be singing what. And then we all probably take some mental notes of what we might expect to happen and that provides some framework. So if the group comes up and completely surprises you, then you had what you expected and then what they did and that gives me a range of what to do and also reminds me where the group has come since the week before, which is really important to me. Like last week they did this. Are they going to be stagnant every week and give you more of the same or is there something going to happen because, as I’ve been saying, there’s nothing better on the show than seeing a group develop? From a personal point of view to think that you might have helped them in their learning and their development is a great feeling, probably like what it feels like to be a good teacher. And then as an audience member, it’s just a wonderful surprise to see someone grow. So that’s kind of I think what the preparation is.


Will you be collaborating with Sara Bareilles?

Ben Folds: Let’s do it. We were going to do that anyway before Sara got the call for Sing-Off .


What impact do you think Sing Off has on school groups?

Ben Folds: If you’re a professional musician or if you’re a musician especially the era that I grow up in, we were lucky enough to have music programs. And I’ve got kids now and I can see that it’s been slashed. The way I got into this show was doing an acappella record with university a appella groups and the money went to music education charities. And what I think is great about the show — I can’t tell you about a specific affect it might have had but what you’re seeing is that despite the cut, the de-emphasis of music in schools, you’re seeing an increased number of kids getting together on their own dime, on their own time with absolutely no class credit in universities. It’s becoming a big social thing but it’s easier to just get together and drink. It’s more than just a social occasion. They’re having to learn harmony and voice leading and they have various levels of education understanding. But by the time they put themselves through this they really know the insides of harmony. In some ways it’s like studying Bach Fugues because every person has to be really aware of what their specific voice leading is. So it’s a lot of music education. I don’t know if what this means is that the privatization of everything, if what this means is people aren’t going to learn music in school, therefore we’re going to pick up the slack and NBC will be playing music that inspires people to sing together and then kids will be singing together and learning music without the structure of school. That’s heartening but I also think that that’s depressing that we can’t pick up the ball and run with it. So it’s hard to know. I haven’ heard anything specifically. But I feel like it’s part of a movement that it’s basically our culture saying, actually, music is very important and we’re going to do it even if it’s not in the school system and I think that’s all we really know at this moment.

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