When great minds think alike

WHETHER it’s David Bowie and Bing Crosby bonding beneath the mistletoe or Shane MacGowan sharing a recording booth with those three warbling priests, odd couples are by no means a rarity in the music business.

Few alliances, though, feel as far-fetched as that of ‘bloke lit’ doyen Nick Hornby and ironic singer-songwriter Ben Folds, who recently got together to record an album worth of wistful piano pop entitled Lonely Avenue.

“We’ve been talking about doing something for years,” says Folds. “I was working on a record with William Shatner and I met Nick backstage at one of the shows. That’s where it started. I always guessed he’d do something like this. I was honoured he chose to do it with me.”

It would be a stretch to describe Hornby as a musician. He is, however, obsessed with music. His novel High Fidelity may be the finest ever written about men and their fixation with obscure rock bands. His columns for literary journal The Believer were frequently devoted to extolling his favourite new records. In 2003 he wrote a book called 31 Songs, in which he deconstructed, with scholarly acumen, the pop singles that meant the most to him.

“When the subject came up I was surprised that he hadn’t been involved in writing songs already,” says Folds, in his rich North Carolina twang. “I had assumed he’d been approached like... a thousand times.”

As far as Folds is concerned, the best thing about the collaboration was that he was able to step outside the four walls of his own personality. “When you’re writing the lyrics and the melodies... after a while you inevitably get into a pattern. This was different. Nick gave me a new insight into my own songs, in a funny way.”

Living either side of the Atlantic, they came up with a novel means of working together. From London, Hornby would e-mail Folds reams of lyrics. “If something struck me as promising I’d sit at a piano and if, boom, a tune came out, I’d call up my band and we’d knock something together. We’d record and send it back to Nick. From that basic structure, he’d suggest changes and we’d go back and forth.”

A cult star since the '90s, first with his band Ben Folds Five and then as a solo artist, Folds is well known for his sardonic songwriting. The title track of his first solo album, Rockin’ The Suburbs, for instance is an almost Woody Allen-esque contemplation of male middle-class angst — profound but also hilarious. Some see the same sharp humour at play on Lonely Avenue, especially on the song Levi Johnston’s Blues, inspired by Sarah Palin’s sometime son-in-law. “That was Nick’s idea. He saw him being dragged on stage at the Republic national convention and thought ‘who is that kid? What’s he going through?’”

The problem from Fold’s perspective is that Levi has turned out to have had Palin-esque talent for self-promotion. He has a blossoming career as an actor and model and is set to star in his own reality TV show. Because of this what started out as an observational ballad about a relatively obscure young man now has the distinct whiff of a novelty hit. “It’s kind of a pity that everyone thinks we tried to write a funny song,” says Folds. “It’s not meant to be funny.”

Some of the material is more personal. On Working Day, for instance, Hornby ruminates on the outpourings of hate successful people tend to receive on the internet (“Some guy on the net thinks I suck/and he should know, he has his own blog,” go the lyrics).

“Anyone who works on one’s own has to battle with one’s own ego,” expanded the writer in a recent interview. “Within a five-minute period, you win and you lose and you’re brilliant and you’re terrible. Reading something on the internet is exactly the sort of thing that can send you into a spiral. In the end, the song isn’t so much about what’s out there as about what’s in us.”

Though Hornby at 53, is 10 years older than Folds, they have many things in common. Both have been on the marital merry-go-round (Hornby is on his second wife, Folds his fourth) and have families (between them seven kids). Above all, they share the same grounded sensibility. Still, for all his affability you sense Folds takes a not-so-secret delight in flying in the face of music industry convention. To promote the new record, for example, he decided to limit the amount of interviews he would give. Rather than trying to win over the press, he arranged for famous friends — such as comic book writer Neil Gaiman — to drop by his studio for a chat, to be broadcast live on his website. What did his record label make of this unusual arrangement?

“Fitting into the music business was something I struggled with for a very large chunk of my career,” he says. “Most of the time, it felt people were telling me what wasn’t going to work. Well now the model has fallen apart and the ship is going down. So they come back to people like me, who seem to be making a go of things, and the approach is ‘what can you do?’ Sometimes I get things wrong. At least I get them wrong on my own terms. I take the responsibility and go on.”

Of all the strange things he’s done in his career surely nothing compares to recording an entire album with the aforementioned Shatner. “He’s a great guy. The person you see on screen is the same person you get in real life,” he says. “I remember when we were writing the record together, I was staying on a guesthouse on his property and mentioned something about needing a table to work on. One night, there’s a knock on the door and it’s William Shatner with this huge table over his shoulder. He said, ‘Hey Ben, where do you want this?’ This is a man in his eighties! He’s larger than life, that’s for sure.”

* Ben Folds plays Vicar Street Dublin February 18. Lonely Avenue is out now.

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