Songwriter and The Sing-Off judge Ben Folds recently reunited with his old Ben Folds Five bandmates to record a handful of new tunes for Best Imitation of Myself, a retrospective set collecting his best-known hits and assorted rarities, spanning the last 15 years. In the video above, Folds talks about “Stumblin’ Home Winter Blues,” a new Ben Folds Five song penned by drummer Darren Jessee. Rolling Stone also caught up with the songwriter to discuss the making of the anthology, dealing with fan expectations, and plans to record a new album with his group early next year.
When did you start combing through your vaults for this retrospective?
I think it was about an eight-month period. Of course I was on tour, it was stopping and starting, but there were a few of us that went through a lot of old tapes. The excitement about it started when it graduated from being like a “best of,” which anyone can make as a mixtape, to something that had tracks that hadn’t been heard, much less released.
Was there anything you didn’t remember writing or recording?
There were a couple of – a few versions – of songs that I knew the song but just didn’t remember making the recording, and then there were a few songs that I didn’t remember. There was a video of the Royal Albert Hall with Ben Folds Five. I remembered it being crap, and it’s really good. It’s exceptional. It’s just ’cause it’s a live recording in almost every way. I turned it down at the time to broadcast on BBC, and pissed everyone off, I think, but I just didn’t think it was very good. There was a string section and a horn section, and we really did it right.
When you were putting this together, was there any type of a narrative thread?
No, I was trying to let it unfold like it was supposed to. When I decided to make the live disc in chronological order, it all sorted itself out. But I didn’t want to sort it so early that I was having to hear recordings that I just wasn’t comfortable with at all. I think putting that on a record and asking people to listen to that as track one over and over again doesn’t make sense, so I started it at the point where I felt like I’d gotten my sea legs. And then I wanted something representing every era. And I’m well aware, as any artist that’s been making records for 15 years, that a lot of people that liked your first few records have violent reactions to what you do after, and a lot of people who discover you later listen to the old stuff and don’t like it as much, or don’t even know it. So I just wanted to span the whole thing, because I was there for it all, and I think it’s all valid.
Why do you think there is that difference between the people who respond better to Ben Folds Five versus your solo work?
That’s just normal. It’s almost cliché. Fans have a predictable trajectory just like artists do, and people associate with one thing and [then] they move onto another direction, and a lot of them claim ownership and will try to make you feel like you’ve lost your shit. You just have to keep doing your thing. And then there are others – I mean, when I play a gig, I’m looking at people who were mostly introduced to my music through the album Rocking the Suburbs. People who were introduced through the Ben Folds Five records probably have kids in high school now. You know, they don’t go out to shows. So I just think that’s totally normal. I think you’re doing something right if that’s the case, even though it always doesn’t feel like it. I’m sure Bob Dylan would say the same thing, and he’s been doing it a lot longer than I have.
For this new compilation, you went back with the Ben Folds Five and recorded a few new songs.
I think it’d been 12 years since we made a record together. And yeah, it was cool. It took a little while to try to get back into our place because, you know, Robert [Sledge], for instance, doesn’t play a lot of sessions, and he’s become adept at fitting in with people who play at normal time, because that’s what you do to complement a record. He tried that, and it wasn’t really working, and then he just kinda went back to, “We need to play like jackasses and I think we’ll be fine.” And we did, and it was fine.
I wrote the songs for the retrospective having in mind that it was a retrospective record and that we were sort of not gonna be blazing trails. Lyrically, it needed to be reflective in some way, and the sound of the music didn’t need to be something that was going to jar the record. Otherwise that’s sort of false advertising.
What’s the timetable for the new record?
I don’t know. The cool thing is we don’t really have to have one. Before any record we made, I’d have to take a month and really sit down and sift through my ideas, and finish songs and write. I’m taking December to do that, and I think we’ll start recording in January. And if we get on a roll, I would predict it to be finished by February, because that would’ve been pretty normal for us regularly – take about six weeks.
One of your first hits was “Underground,” which was a bit defensive and funny about being a misfit in the music scene of the early Nineties. Do you feel like the world has come around to you more over the years?
Yeah, I mean I think that, you know, the miniskirt is back in style, then it’s not in style, then it’s in style. The one sort of social shift that might’ve happened was that rock & roll had played through its sort of “hero-heroes” and was probably ready for some more vulnerable voices in music. So the nerd, as opposed to the shirtless guy with the big dick on stage and long hair.
The thing with “Underground” and my point in doing that first record was that most people, even those that are actually popular or cool, they don’t feel like it. They feel more like they are standing on the edges and an outcast. People feel vulnerable. Seeing Robert Plant, people go, “Wow, I wanna be like that! That’s what I’d like to be like.” But then there’s the other side, which is the kind of artist that’s like, “Oh, that’s what I am like, and if that guy can do it, then I can do it.” And I think that was something that full-on came into rock music in my era.
So did you guys feel like misfits in the early days?
Back when we started, we didn’t fit, period. Believe me. I played piano. There was none of that, unless it was maybe a couple of girls playing piano that, it wasn’t rock & roll. I think Tori Amos specifically was totally an island unto herself, but she wasn’t playing rock clubs. Yeah, we just didn’t fit, but we just didn’t care. We just went and did it.
Was this compilation intended in some way for the audience you’re reaching as a judge on The Sing-Off?
No, it’s intended to be a history of my career in one place. It’s good for the people who watch The Sing-Off, but if you just see someone talking about music on TV, that’s not a very compelling reason to listen to their music, you know what I mean? I don’t anticipate selling a lot of records to people that watch that. I’m totally happy being someone who’s the listener and sounding board. I think that’s fine. I’m not sure that if I were a college professor I’d feel the need to go roam over to the piano to show people that I was a rock star one time.