Ben Folds

Way To Normal

Over the last 15 years, Ben Folds’ first-class melodic gifts, irony-laced lyrics, and punk-rock tendency to play piano as it were a contact sport have earned the North Carolina native a legion of devoted fans of all ages. These people, quite simply, are going to go nuts for Way To Normal. The album, Folds’ third solo studio release, is dominated by the kind of irresistible hooks and piano-pounding pandemonium that listeners haven’t been treated to since Folds’ years with his previous band, the platinum-selling Ben Folds Five. Way To Normal is an exuberant, raucous, and sometimes profane mix of sure-fire crowd-pleasers (“Hiroshima,” “Bitch Went Nuts,” and the frenetically fuzzed-out “Dr. Yang”), cheerful snark-fests (“The Frown Song,” “Brainwascht”), and thoughtful, moving ballads (“Cologne,” “Kylie From Connecticut”) that Folds wrote at the end of 2007.

“This new album is really about me being free, which is why it feels cathartic and expressive,” Folds says. “It’s about me coming back to being myself.” (Hence the title.) The album’s buoyant mood could also be due to the fact that Folds recorded the majority of it at his own studio near his home in Nashville, with his friends, long-time bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Sam Smith. “We were just having a good time,” Folds says. “This was the most fun I’ve ever had recording.” Here are some of the album’s highlights:

“Hiroshima” — “I fell off the stage and landed on my head during a show in Japan,” Folds explains. “I had a concussion and got x-rays of my head. I just wanted to recount it literally, because when you are that literal, it can produce a surreal effect. The song is kind of about public failure, or perceived public failure. The video could almost consist of famous shots of important people at their worst moments where everyone’s watching.”

“The Frown Song” — “That’s about nouveau riche, bourgeois motherfuckers who forget how close they are to being the servant,” Folds says, acknowledging that it’s one of the more sharply acerbic songs on the album. (The lyrics skewer faux New-Age types who gossip about which of their friends is “fucking the guru.”) “I’ve seen so many people like that in spas, fancy shops, and yoga studios,” Folds says, “people who don’t tip their waitress and walk around bumming out baristas when they’re supposed to be in some kind of spiritual place.”

“You Don’t Know Me” (featuring Regina Spektor) — “One of the things that’s not often said in pop songs, or in real life for that matter, is how sad it is to spend significant time with someone and realize that you just don’t know each other because the most important things are completely off-limits,” Folds says. “That’s a failure not many people are happy to admit.” Folds recruited singer-songwriter Regina Spektor to sing breathy back-up on the track. “She gave it more life,” he says. “I think she’s one of the best singers out there, she’s just so talented.”

“Cologne” — “It’s both a love song and a break-up song,” says Folds. “The ‘4-3-2-1‘ chorus comes out of two people on the phone not wanting to hang up, like when you finally go, ‘Okay, we’ve gotta hang up, we’ll count it down, and then we’ll both hang up.’” The emotional centerpiece of the album, “Cologne” features imagery that meant something to Folds regardless of how universal he felt it to be, like the reference to former astronaut Lisa Nowak who “put on a pair of diapers and drove 18 hours to kill her boyfriend,” as Folds puts it in the song. “That was exactly what was going on in my mind when I wrote it, so I left it in. You do a song a real disservice by going too wide sometimes.”

“Bitch Went Nuts” — “First off, can I just point out that this is the first time I’ve ever personally written the word ‘bitch’ into a song?” Folds says. “[Ex-Ben Folds Five drummer] Darren Jessee wrote the ‘Give me my money back, you bitch’ line on [Whatever and Ever Amen’s] ‘Song for the Dumped’ and then we covered Dr. Dre’s ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit,’ so I’ve become the ‘bitch’ guy, which is one reason I didn’t want this song on the record.” But producer Dennis Herring convinced Folds to keep the track by telling him it was one of the most fun songs on the album. “I agreed and so we’re stuck with it,” Folds says brightly. “But no one ever ‘stabbed a basketball.’ That’s silly.”

Several things keep the mood light on Way To Normal: the sheer musical virtuosity, the joyful melodies, the laugh-out-loud humor, and Folds’ heart-breaking tenor voice. “We wanted to keep the smile in the record,” Folds says. That job fell to its producer, Herring (Elvis Costello, Modest Mouse, The Hives), who was also tasked with getting Folds to stop stalling and get to work.

“Not only did I need to work with someone who knew more about record-making than I did, which Dennis does, but I really needed someone to just kick me in the ass,” Folds says. “Before, we’d play for two hours then I’d decide we should all go get coffee, then come back and sit around and watch YouTube. It was pathetic. So this guy came in and made me work. He didn’t want to see an idea rot on the vine, he wanted to see it done.”

The 41-year-old Folds has been going pretty much non-stop since the 2001 release of his debut solo album Rockin’ the Suburbs, which has sold more than half a million copies worldwide. In short order, Folds has released a live album (2002’s aptly titled Ben Folds Live) and a pioneering series of three Internet-only digital EP’s: Speed Graphic (which topped the Billboard Internet Album, iTunes, and Soundscan Downloadable Tracks charts), Sunny 16, and Super D in 2003-2004; co-wrote and produced William Shatner’s 2004 solo album Has Been; released 2005’s pensive Songs for Silverman (which featured the Adult Top 40 hit “Landed”); contributed three original songs to the soundtrack for the 2006 film Over the Hedge; and produced a forthcoming solo album by Dresden Dolls frontwoman Amanda Palmer.

In 2006, Folds released Supersunnyspeedgraphic, The LP — a compilation of tracks from the Internet-only EP’s and B-sides, including an inspired cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” which climbed to No. 71 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has now sold 132,000 digital singles at iTunes. “It’s my biggest hit,” jokes Folds.

Along the way, there have been numerous tours, including a few with The Bens, a “supergroup” Folds formed with fellow singer-songwriters Ben Kweller and Ben Lee in 2003, as well tours with Rufus Wainwright and Guster in 2004, and John Mayer in 2007. A classically trained percussionist, Folds has also gone back to his roots by performing with various orchestras over the years, including the West Australian Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony in 2005 and the Boston Pops in 2007. In September 2008, Folds will perform with the Nashville Symphony, opening their 2008-2009 season.

Beginning in May 2008, Folds began to give songs from Way To Normal their first public airings as he made the rounds of several outdoor festivals, including the legendary Glastonbury Festival in England and the annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee. His electrifying performance at the latter led one critic to call Folds’ performance “pop music at its most satisfying.”

“The songs have been getting a great reaction,” Folds says. “It makes me look forward to having a new album out there because it’s been a while. This feels like a really free period in my life and I’m really enjoying it.”

Way To Normal will be released by Epic Records on September 30th, 2008.