"I don't know how to brag about this record because I'm not really accustomed to that," says Ben Folds. "Maybe I should just say 'this is one of the best records I've made' and leave it at that."
Quite the declaration considering Folds' wide-ranging, genre-defying canon, but the multi-platinum-selling singer/songwriter/producer is simply that enthused about SO THERE, his debut collaboration with celebrated New York City-based chamber ensemble, yMusic. Produced by Folds with yMusic's Rob Moose and CJ Camerieri, the album flourishes in the overlap between the pop and classical worlds, showcasing new pop songs written, arranged, and recorded by Folds & yMusic, alongside the debut recording of Folds' critically acclaimed "Concerto For Piano and Orchestra," which was produced and recorded by legendary rock engineer Elliot Scheiner. Songs like "Long Way To Go" and the ebullient title track are marked by forward-thinking studio craft and creative spontaneity, combining Folds' vaunted knack for hook and harmony with yMusic's talent for exciting interpretation.
"Every so often it occurs to me how much freedom I have," Folds says. "In this case, it was, 'Oh. I can write pop songs for what's in essence a small orchestra.'"
Having spent much of 2013 composing his "Concerto For Piano and Orchestra," Folds premiered the three-movement concerto in March 2014 to great acclaim, accompanied by the Nashville Symphony (which co-commissioned the piece with the Nashville Ballet and the Minnesota Orchestra).
Though unprecedented in a brilliant career that includes multiple studio albums, a pair documenting his renowned live performances, a remix collection, music for film and TV, an all a capella record, as well as collaborations with artists spanning Sara Bareilles and Amanda Palmer to Nick Hornby and William Shatner, Folds suggests the concerto is not all that dissimilar from his previous work, noting a direct path from Ben Folds Five's 1999 milestone, THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF REINHOLD MESSNER.
"If you knocked the vocals off that record and string together all the instrumental parts, you'll hear something that sounds a lot like the concerto," he says. "It's something I've been doing since the start of my career, it's part of my voice. The best compliments I receive on the concerto are when someone says, 'Man, I knew it was you after eight bars…' That to me, in the context of what I'm trying to do, is success."
Folds spent much of 2014 touring the world, performing "Concerto For Piano and Orchestra" and orchestrations of his classic pop hits with some of the planet's greatest symphony orchestras. He reunited with the Nashville Symphony to record "Concerto For Piano and Orchestra" but having done so, was then unsure how exactly to present the piece.
"It felt alive," he says. "I thought, man, this could be a record. But 21 minutes of music doesn't cover a whole album."
Folds began working on new instrumentals with an idea to enlist different collaborators, "percussion ensembles, small chamber groups, two cellos, that sort of vibe." Among his potential partners were the NYC-based yMusic.
Hailed by NPR as "one of the groups that has really helped to shape the future of classical music," yMusic - Rob Moose, CJ Camerieri, Gabriel Cabezas, Alex Sopp, Hideaki Aomori, and Nadia Sirota - had earned attention as both inventive interpreters and an extraordinary collaborative unit, evinced by partnerships with such bands and songwriters as Dirty Projectors, Blake Mills, Beck and José González. Named by Time Out NY as "The Best Classical Album of 2011," yMusic's breakthrough debut, BEAUTIFUL MECHANICAL was followed by 2014's remarkable BALANCE PROBLEMS, which saw the group performing original works by some of today's foremost composers, including Nico Mulhy, Sufjan Stevens, and Jeremy Turner.
Folds was immediately enthralled by the group's unique configuration - string trio, flute, clarinet, and trumpet - and virtuosic execution.
"When I was introduced to yMusic, it was like, 'Oh, these are my brothers and sisters. We're done,'" Folds says. "I didn't look back. I had a new rock band, basically. I didn't expect to end up in a new band, but that's what happened."
The resulting partnership was fueled by mutual admiration and musical respect, a union in which yMusic's textures and approach were seamlessly woven into Folds' inimitable songs and compositions to create something both true and unprecedented. The group's goal from the jump was to avoid the "compulsory and gratuitous." Even more important was the commitment never to use yMusic as mere ornamentation, an approach they referred to as "…and strings."
Initially their plan was to stick with an inventive instrumentation of piano, cello, viola, violin, flute/piccolo/alto flute, trumpet/French horn, and clarinet/bass clarinet, with the bass clarinet, cello, and Folds' left hand handling bass duties and more often than not, no drums. But when songs like "So There" demanded otherwise, Folds simply got behind the kit and recorded them himself.
"It seemed we could do it without drums but at the end of the day, it just sounded better with drums," Folds says. "We weren't policy driven."
Folds & yMusic spent six months arranging, orchestrating, and generally woodshedding material, allowing them to record the album over the course of a few months, working in studios in New York, Los Angeles, and Folds' own Grand Victor Sound Studio (aka historic RCA Studio A) in Nashville. Folds, Moose, and Camerieri comprised the arrangement/production team on the new songs, meeting a few hours prior to call time to arrange, print, and place charts on stands before the other players showed up to record. Collaborative revisions were then made based on group comments and suggestions, scores reprinted, and tracks quickly recorded in just one or two takes. The concerto was produced and recorded with Scheiner at the engineering helm during a single three-hour session in Folds' studio with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Giancarlo Guerrero.
"I've never worked with anyone I can work with as telepathically as these guys," Folds says. "I know I can get an arrangement to a certain point, leave those guys with it, walk out of the room and it'll be ready to record when I get back. And vice versa. Everyone knows the other is going to do the right thing."
Much of SO THERE was written with the arrangement ideas serving as genesis moment, often forcing Folds to pen lyrics in one corner of the studio as yMusic worked out sheets in the other. The music's forward-facing nature notwithstanding, songs like "Capable of Anything" "follow the same impulses I always do: Here I am, this is what I'm thinking about, and these are the images that are resonating with me."
"I think with this group I had the freedom to be more obvious in a pop songwriter kind of way," he says, "to just write a pop song. We've got our experimental quotient taken care of, now I can be even more obvious."
Folds also found adaptive material among his other recently written songs. Originally written for Al Pacino to sing in the 2015 film, Danny Collins, the self-deprecating "I'm Not The Man" was co-written at the suggestion of actress Alicia Witt, who had previously worked with the legendary star.
"We submitted it," Folds says, "and got an instant rejection. But it was good because since it wasn't me I was writing for, it gave me a lot of freedom."
"Phone In A Pool," the album's lead single, was a surprise addition to SO THERE, having not even been born of the initial sessions. As if Folds weren't busy enough, he somehow found time in early 2015 to cut a "drunken pub record" in Dublin with members of his old touring band, banging out two or three songs a day, amongst them the original version of "Phone In A Pool." Folds got the idea to try out the boisterous tune with yMusic and "it just felt like our song." The band rearranged and re-recorded the original track, retaining drums, guitar and most importantly, Folds' somewhat frayed vocals.
"Quite frankly, I was three sheets to the wind," he says, "so there's a sound about it that I didn't think I could reproduce."
A similar spirit of improvisation and immediacy can be found when Folds & yMusic take to the stage. The band heralded SO THERE with a short run of live dates (including a stellar performance at the 2015 Bonaroo Music & Arts Festival) and plan to spend much of 2016 on the road. Folds - who has spent the past two decades traveling the planet - calls the trek "some of my favorite touring ever. It's a very fresh and happy thing we're doing."
Among Folds' innumerable other future plans are a return to the aforementioned Dublin sessions as well as starting work on a large composition for university orchestras and wind ensembles, "something written for them that is naughty as hell. I want them to feel like they're breaking the law." What's more, Folds & yMusic have already begun plotting out their next collaborative outing, this time with an ear towards delving further into the group's myriad rhythmic and percussive possibilities.
"They're a pretty special group," Folds says, "and I wouldn't have learned all their various superpowers without playing with them.
"This record is just the tip of the iceberg," he adds. "We haven't come close."
Folds hopes the partnership with yMusic will encourage some of his fellow pop artists to attempt involving more classical elements in their music, "to engage in orchestral, symphonic, chamber music in their own way. Not just scoring their hits for strings. Why not try composing an aria?
"Innovations in pop music come slower and slower each year," Folds says. "I think one awesome door to walk through is this, the world of classical music from whence all our ideas of composition grew. That world is hurting right now and it could use pop musicians. And pop musicians could use the classical world because it's so full of possibility and sounds. It's endless."