Music News & Reviews

Ben Folds tries to write songs that draw you into a moment

Ben Folds is regarded by his fans as one of the most clever, amusing performers in pop-rock.

The vocalist-pianist, who will perform Sunday at the Cotillion, talked recently during a phone interview about what's missing in pop music and his approach to songwriting.

You've always been adept at painting a vivid musical short story. In that regard, you have more in common with Billy Joel and Neil Young than many of your contemporaries.

I've always liked writing stories you can step into and listen to. I like writing songs that make you remember a moment or a song, which makes you feel cool. A lot of people who do this today do it differently but I like doing it my way. Songs today don't all have to be modern furniture.

Speaking of Neil Young, what was it like touring with him a few years ago?

What was great about Neil Young is that I don't think he cares (what anyone thinks). It's important not to care about anything except what you think. I toured with Neil for 40 days and he's just amazing.

Much like Young, you've never been afraid to make different-sounding albums.

When I made "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner," a lot of my fans didn't know what to make of it. I went on this chat (line) to connect with them. The fan base was so upset about the record. I just wanted to tell them why I made it. The consensus early on was that they hated it and I found myself saying if this is a commercial success you'll love it later on. I just told them it would take a while for it to sink in. I never tried to say that it was a work of art genius. Now I find the fan base uses that album as the gold standard of my writing. That disc was different from what I had done. I'm not going to make the same album again and again. I'll grow and I hope my fans can grow with me.

When you told them that if it were to become a commercial success that they would love it, you're right on the money. If a song gets played enough it sinks into the listener's subconscious. Radio can manufacture hits. Wouldn't it be great if there was some independent thought?

Wouldn't it? That would make everything better. But there isn't much independent thought. That's why it's a risk to do something different.

Much of your audience is composed of college-aged fans, which is good since they're open to music that's atypical.

What's great about college students is that they still listen to music. It's important to them. They haven't gone off and gotten married and had kids yet. They're at the peak of their observational powers since they have few distractions and some disposable cash.

You have a nice touch with covers. You put a nice spin on the Cure's "In Between Days."

It's a great song. I've always liked that song and that album ("Head on the Door"). (Cure leader) Robert Smith really liked my version a lot. The interesting thing is that he was being urged to let recording artists cover songs for a Cure tribute album and from what I hear he wasn't crazy about the idea. I'm told my version of "In Between Days" changed his mind about that. His approval of my version of his song is the highlight of my career.

What is there a shortage of in pop music?

There's no shortage of people telling you how real they are. There's a shortage of people being themselves.

The lyric you wrote for "All Is Fair in Love and War" sounds a lot like "All Liz Phair in Love and War."

(Laughs) Yeah, yeah. I almost called the song that as a joke. I didn't want the girl (Phair) to think I was stalking her.

So you did write it that way intentionally.

No, I discovered it that way after the fact. Hey, that's what it is. Sometimes that happens when you write a song.

If you go

ben folds

Where: The Cotillion, 11120 W. Kellogg

When: 8 p.m. Sun.

How much: Tickets $35 in advance; $38 day of show. Tickets available at Select-A-Seat outlets and the Cotillion. Credit card orders, 316-722-4201 or