“Just put it in rice,” Folds remembered the singer telling him. The encounter between the Top 40 pop star and the piano-rocker inspired a song (“Phone in a Pool”) and cemented an artistic friendship that played out in two highly publicized performances last week.
At the Billboard Music Awards, Folds accompanied Kesha on an emotional cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Days prior, Folds and Kesha performed the song onstage at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles before Dr. Luke’s label Kemosabe Records – which had originally cancelled Kesha’s performance – re-approved Kesha’s Billboard appearance.
Folds is currently touring North America with yMusic ensemble in support of So There, his recent LP composed of eight chamber rock songs and his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra performed with the Nashville Symphony. Folds spoke with Rolling Stone about his performances with Kesha, the absurdity of the North Carolina House Bill 2 and recording a track for the Hamilton mixtape.
How did your ad-hoc performance with Kesha last Wednesday come about?
We were fortunate, musically. When we were told [Kesha’s performance] wasn’t going to be on, I was just like [to Kesha], “Why don’t you come onstage and do it with us tonight, and we’ll arrange something quickly for it?” The song is only piano and vocals, but for that show we created a broader arrangement. I think it gave her a life raft – knowing it had gone over so well at my show.
What did you think of her decision to cover “It Ain’t Me Babe”?
I thought the choice was great. She had a bunch of songs she was deciding between – Bob Dylan, some Beach Boys. This song, I thought, gave her a chance to ride that line so few people ride well, of making something hers and illuminating something different about the song. You have to remember about these things [awards-show performances] – they’re mostly loud program music with choreography, sound effects; even the stripped-down stuff is still heavily choreographed. But in that performance, she played completely stripped-down music. I thought it was a safe place for her to do something gutsy like that because she knows I’ve got her back all down the chain. I’ve helped take care of her. I wouldn’t have shown up [at the Billboard Music Awards] if it wasn’t real.
When did you and Kesha become friends?
I’ve known Kesha for a while. I’m proud of her, personally and musically. She’s the real thing. I met her shortly after she broke through a mutual friend. She told me how she’d sneak into my shows when she was in high school. I’m not sure why she had to sneak in [laughs], but we’ve settled that.