By Joe Sugarman
Ben Folds has always chosen unlikely bedfellows. So the fact that he’s been teaming up with symphony orchestras these days isn’t that surprising. In March, he debuted a three-movement, 25-minute piano concerto with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, which he’ll perform along with his well-known pop hits when he joins the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerhoff on July 17. “I was a little resistant at first, because I didn't like how rock bands sounded with orchestras,” Folds has admitted in interviews. “But the orchestra is the rock band, and my songs are scored so they work with them. That's why I believe it works so well. The orchestra shouldn't be relegated to playing whole notes while rock stars make noise and look good.”
OK, so classical orchestras make sense. But what about these previous collaborators?
A Starship Captain
Not once but twice did Folds work with the former Captain Kirk. First, in 1998, Folds invited William Shatner to contribute lead vocals to “In Love,” a song on his solo project Fear of Pop. Then, six years later, Folds co-wrote, arranged and produced Shatner’s 2004 spoken-word album Has Been. How the two met, we’re not sure, but we bet the “geeky-and-proud” Folds watched a lot of “Star Trek” as a kid.
A Guy with Crazy Hair
“Weird Al” Yankovic and Ben Folds? Oh, yeah. The two have enjoyed multiple collaborations over the years. Yankovic directed and appeared in Folds’ 2009 video for “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” which sort of looks like a Weird Al video without Weird Al actually in it.
Yankovic also contributed backing vocals on Folds’ “Time” and Folds returned the favor by playing piano on Yankovic’s “Why Does This Always Happen to Me?” from his Poodle Hat album.
Angie Dickinson’s Ex-Husband
Not really a collaboration per se, but Folds performed “Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head” for Burt Bacharach’s 70th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden. Bacharach, who was married to actress Dickinson for 15 years, “conducted” as Folds and his band ripped into one of the more energetic renditions of the song.
Bonus: Folds’ performance with Rufus Wainwright wasn’t that hard to imagine, but a duet of George Michael’s “Carless Whisper”? Wham!
A Couple of British Authors
“You write all the lyrics, I’ll write the melodies.” That’s essentially what Folds told author Nick Hornby when the two collaborated on 2010’s “Lonely Avenue.” And Folds, reportedly, didn’t alter any of Hornby’s words. "More people read his books than listen to my music, so it doesn't make sense for me to change them,” Folds told NPR in an interview that year.
The following year, Folds collaborated with another British writer, Neil Gaiman, along with his wife, singer Amanda Palmer (for whom Folds has produced), and OK Go vocalist Damain Kulash on 8in8, a band that formed for a day with the goal of recording an album of eight songs in eight hours. Alas, they were only able to churn out six in 12.
Folds reunited his old bandmates for 2012’s “The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” and the video for the first single, “Do It Anyway,” featured comedian Rob Corddry, singer/actress Anna Kendrick, comedian/musician Chris Hardwick, and most significantly a bunch of puppets from Fraggle Rock. “We had lots of fun,” said Red Fraggle in an “interview” on Nerdist.com, which premiered the video. “It would be wonderful to have them come play more music in the caves with us, but I am not sure they can fit through the hole in the floor."