Six years after bursting on to the music scene with the melancholy ballad "Brick," Ben Folds is back in the rotation with a new album, new band and new hit, "Rockin' The Suburbs."
The first recording since the breakup of Ben Folds Five, Rockin' The Suburbs was released Sept. 11 to an eagerly waiting audience. Folds said that like earlier works, the album does not follow any clear evolutionary pattern. It simply mirrors the personality of its creator.
"I think every one of the albums I've made has been a good reflection of where I am at the moment," he said in a recent interview with The Daily Tar Heel.
Now after almost a decade of musical and personal changes, a solo Folds is in the midst of a month-and-a-half-long promotional tour. On Sept. 7 and 8 he returned to Cat's Cradle, where he played his first gigs, to kick it off.
Having nurtured his talents in the womb of Chapel Hill, thus being born unto the ranks of "Late Show" performers, Folds is the quintessential homegrown boy who made it big. Born in Winston-Salem, Folds began studying music at an early age. After only two years of formal piano lessons, he went on to study music in school, including percussion and orchestra, but focused mostly on improving his keyboard and composition skills.
Folds moved to Chapel Hill and formed the trio known as Ben Folds Five in the mid-1990s. Hailed as a departure from typically cluttered, trite rock, the trio developed a loyal local following. Two years after their self-titled debut album, Ben Folds Five signed on to Epic/550 Records and released Whatever and Ever Amen with the single "Brick."
A song about a teenage couple who chose to have an abortion, "Brick" garnered much media attention and speculation as to whether the song was a glimpse into Folds' autobiographical history.
"Almost everything I've ever written was (autobiographical) to some extent," Folds said.
And "Brick" was no exception.
Speaking of his girlfriend at the time, Folds said, "I was 16 years old and we were in high school and we made the decision to have an abortion."
Hence, the song was a result of Folds' desire to dedicate a song to that girlfriend, memorialize the event and cope with his own emotions.
"Brick" became as popular as it was compelling, and national audiences took notice of Folds and his work. Amid the success of Whatever and Ever, Folds decided to try something on his own. Recording under the name Fear of Pop, Folds began solo work on Volume I.
"At the time that I recorded that, I knew that we were having a big hit with `Brick' and I wanted some studio time to experiment and put out something completely different," he said.
Volume I was released in 1998, signifying the first step in Folds' journey toward going solo. Though the album was disregarded as a mediocre departure from Ben Folds Five rock, Folds was not discouraged.
As the glow from Whatever and Ever wore off, the trio released a handful of recordings, including the live album Naked Baby Photos and the LP The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. While Biography received good reviews, no single album became as vastly popular as Whatever and Ever. And soon the fabric holding Ben Folds Five together began to wear at the seams.
After several years of playing together, Ben Folds Five decided to go their separate ways. "We broke up because we had been playing together for six years and it had become unnatural," Folds said. "It was time to move on."
In March of 2001 Ben Folds Five formally disbanded, changing Folds' musical history forever.
But change isn't a thing Folds seems to mind. Married and in the process of settling down, Folds moved to Australia in 1999 to be with his wife, Frally Hynes, who appears on Volume I, and raise a family. "It seems like a nice slow place to raise kids," he said.
After getting back into the recording groove, Folds rounded up Chapel Hill buddies Jim Bogios (drums), Millard (guitar) and Snuzz (bass) and conformed to a more traditional rock band setup to keep the music coming. The new group recorded Folds' first full album minus the Five, Rockin' The Suburbs.
That's when Folds opened his tour stateside with two consecutive nights at the Cat's Cradle in early September. The sold-out shows provided Folds an opportunity to get back to his roots and visit old friends including Frank Heath, owner of the Cradle. Folds said Heath had always been good to him, even in the early days, and a large part of his desire to begin his tour in Chapel Hill was based on sentimentality and loyalty.
"It's great. I love playing in Chapel Hill," he said.
Rumors that Folds had switched to playing guitar on Rockin' The Suburbs are unfounded. While Folds dabbles with several instruments, he has no intentions of leaving the piano behind. "I play a lot of instruments, but I'm most comfortable getting my songs across on the piano," he said. "Switching around to different instruments becomes a kind of freak show."
Folds is uncertain what the future holds and has no immediate plans other than finishing out his tour, which ends in Los Angeles on October 16.
Until then, Folds encourages everyone to "hold on to your hats."
The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at email@example.com.
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