Ben Folds cleared his schedule, dropped all other projects and dedicated this month to focusing on writing songs for what will be the first Ben Folds Five record in 13 years.
Then the call came from Ron Barber's Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, requesting a benefit performance. Without hesitating, Folds put the long-awaited reunion album on hold for a bit.
"I'm writing a record, and I want to be completely present for it. But this is special," Folds says. "When something that horrible happens, anybody with any soul certainly wants to see something positive out of it. You can't twist it into a positive thing, but you certainly can dig in and find out how you can help other people with it."
Barber, the district director for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot twice on Jan. 8, 2011, and continues to recover. His first go at a benefit concert for the fund he dreamed up while still in a hospital bed brought Jackson Browne, Alice Cooper, David Crosby, Graham Nash and a host of other performers to the Tucson Convention Center in March.
"When we put together the fund, we deliberately included music and other performance arts as part of our mission," says Barber, a regular concertgoer and avid music fan. "It's fair to say that music and other kinds of entertainment really do bring people together. For us, my family and the fund, it's an essential part of what we're about."
Barber chose Folds—after a suggestion from Browne's manager—as an artist who appeals to a different generation. Barber envisions the Civility concerts as an ongoing series of smaller performances, perhaps two or three a year. He'd like to spotlight several singer-songwriters next.
"There's abundant evidence that music has a healing power and a unifying power," Barber says.
Folds is of the same mind.
"Anthropologists, scientists, priests—the whole lot of them would agree. It is the ultimate together thing," he says. "There's a harmony about the whole thing that does seem to be very disarming. I don't really know why, but it seems to be a basic human function. People seem to, for whatever reason, generally forget differences. There's a ritual about it. Time can kind of stand still—and it's a real responsibility for a musician, especially right now when politics are so extremely mindlessly volatile. Music disarms that."
Known for his physical brand of piano rock and frequently humorous lyrics, Folds carved out a niche quite unusual in the alternative-rock world with the self-titled debut album, Ben Folds Five, in 1995.
The piano "was a help and a hindrance, too. I see other bands that have taken the piano since we opened that door at that moment. They understand how to do it and drive it home, and I'm not sure we ever got the memo on that one, but we did it the way we knew how," Folds says. "It was just natural, because that's what I did as a kid. But (piano) was so far out of style by the time I was of age that I just took it as good luck."
After three well-regarded albums, Ben Folds Five broke up, and Folds himself went on to release three full-length solo albums and several EPs.
But the next dozen years also saw him perform, record and produce in a wide variety of collaborative projects, joining with Joe Jackson, William Shatner, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Amanda Palmer, Sara Bareilles, novelist Nick Hornby, college a cappella groups and symphony orchestras across the United States and Australia.
"It's certainly entertaining, and it must be teaching me something. I like to see the way people work," Folds says. "It's always affirming, because even the masters don't know much; they don't know how they do it exactly. So often, their process can appear as if it's fucking hackery, just like they're swinging in the dark. What separates the mice from the men is that some of the hacks can put it together and find a voice and come through that process."
Collaboration and longevity have given Folds a close view of the music industry's rapid changes. An artist comfortable going against the grain, Folds appreciates a more-direct connection with his audience that technology affords.
"The balance has changed as far as what is expected of an artist, commercially and remaining creative in the middle of all of that," he says. "There was the distraction for about 30 years that musicians could well become millionaires, and many did in a time period that's really just a blip on the map. It's not going to happen again for a while. Now the distraction is the fact that we can't become millionaires, and I think a healthy thing is coming of it.
"Musicians are now coming up understanding and believing they will not likely get rich doing what they do, so it becomes more about what they can offer. That's always been the musician on the street busking, and the musicians in the churches. You should get back enough to live, and that's what musicians are heading toward now."
Folds, 45, spent much of the last year combing through his own archives to compile the career-spanning The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective. The project grew to three distinct formats aimed to please die-hard fans and newbies alike: an 18-song single disc release; a three-disc version with 43 additional live songs, rarities and outtakes; and a vault-clearing 56-track digital collection of rarities.
"It was a shitload of tapes. It was kind of weird to hear hours and hours, days and weeks of shit you don't remember doing—and I wasn't even on drugs. I just did so much," Folds says. "It's also interesting to hear my development as a person versus my development as an artist. I could hear the person speaking between the songs on the tape, and I'd think he's a child, and then I'd hear the songs and hear somebody who knew a lot more than the person who was speaking."
Now Folds is going back to the band that first broke him big, with Darren Jessee on drums and Robert Sledge on bass. The trio recorded three new songs for The Best Imitation of Myself and will start new recording sessions late this month.