Ben Folds seems right at home in the quirkier territories of pop music. He has described his music as “punk rock for sissies,” collaborated with partners as diverse as William Shatner, Regina Spektor and “Weird Al” Yankovic, and recorded a melodic, piano-driven cover of a profanity-laced Dr. Dre rap.
“I don’t like to take myself too seriously,” said Folds, who is known for piano-driven rock music with ironic, introspective and occasionally foul-mouthed lyrics. “If something’s kind of funny and informal, I’ll just go with it.”
Folds will perform a solo show at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston tonight, part of a lengthy tour promoting his latest album “Way to Normal,” which was released last September. During some performances on the tour, Folds, who is a classically trained percussionist, will perform with the backing of a full orchestra, including the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra. Sandwiching his solo show in Kingston, for instance, Folds was set to perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Thursday and will perform with the Rhode Island Philharmonic on Saturday.
“What I really like about this current tour is going back and forth between the orchestra and solo shows,” Folds said. “That’s a real brain expander, because you couldn’t get any further apart.”
When performing with the orchestras, Folds said he’ll play the same songs as he would if he were performing alone. “It’s a solo show, add 90 people. They’re acting as the rock band.”
Folds came up with the “punk rock for sissies” description when he was trying to get his trio, Ben Folds Five, booked for shows in 1994.
“It really wasn’t very cool to be a piano rock band in the middle of the grunge era,” he said. “We were playing a lot of punk rock clubs, or clubs that had punk rocks bands playing … so we called it ‘punk rock for sissies’ and I think that made it easier for us to get booked. And I think it showed that we didn’t take ourselves too damn seriously.”
Even though he’s playing the same material in dozens of shows this year, he said that each performance is a unique experience for him.
“Music is repetitive, but it doesn’t have to feel repetitive. As Gertrude Stein pointed out, there’s really no such thing as repetition. Because once you’ve done something once, the next time you do it it’s different because you did it once before,” he said.
“There are musical moments that happened and you think, ‘That was amazing; that was unique.’ It’s a combination of the audience, the vibe of the place, the night, just the way it felt.”
Originally more known for lyrics that mixed melancholy and self-reflection with sarcastic humor, Folds said he’s recently become known as “the ‘bitch’ guy” after recording a melodic version of “Bitches Ain’t S–t,” from Dr. Dre’s 1992 album “Chronic.” He also sang the word in “Song for the Dumped” on Ben Folds Five’s 1997 album, “Whatever and Ever Amen,” and his latest album includes an exuberantly upbeat song called “The Bitch Went Nuts.”
Although he wrote the melody and music for his version of Dr. Dre’s song, Folds said he considered his version to be a cover of the original. “I’ve never seen a cent for it because I didn’t ask for it,” he said. The song has generally been retired from live performances, but he said he might perform it in cities where he hasn’t played in a while.
Folds became friends with William Shatner after Shatner recorded vocals for a song from Folds’ experimental solo act, “Fear of Pop,” in 1998. He then produced Shatner’s 2004 spoken-word album, “Has Been,” writing music for Shatner’s monologues.
Folds called “Has Been” “one of the best records I’ve ever had anything to do with.”
“(Shatner) was completely professional, and exciting and excitable and naïve and experienced and just perfect to work with. Every take was different. He would do something absolutely f—ed up and different each time. And his voice is so good,” Folds said.
Folds seemed irked by criticism of Shatner’s singing.
“I mean, he’s not singing. We never pretended he sang. He doesn’t think he sings,” Folds said. “There’s no singing on the f—ing record. It’s like a book on tape or something.”
After the release of “Has Been,” Folds and Shatner collaborated again for the 2006 animated film “Over the Hedge.” Shatner co-starred as the voice of Ozzie the opossum, and Folds wrote much of the film’s soundtrack, including a version of “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” the title track from his 2001 solo album, with vocals by Shatner.
“Rockin’ the Suburbs” was Folds’ first solo record after the breakup of Ben Folds Five. For the album, Folds played all the parts and instruments himself and mixed them into a finished album.
“When you’re going back and forth between those instruments …. you’re literally putting the energy into the band that five people do, so at the end of the day you’ve been five people,” Folds said. “At the end of the day I’m just f—ing wiped out.”
That album was the first time Folds worked with the parody songwriter “Weird Al” Yankovic, who directed and appeared in the “Rockin’ the Suburbs” video. Folds, in turn, played piano on Yankovic’s 2003 album, “Poodle Hat.”
“He’s a very thoughtful man,” Folds said. “I just got a birthday card from him.”
When asked for any last words or advice for readers, Folds said “Just tell everyone to floss. You’ll keep your teeth longer that way.”
Published by the Daily Freeman