Born on September 12, 1967; son of a painter and a carpenter; married Kate Rosen, 1999; children: two. Education: Graduated from University of North Carolina. Addresses: Record company--Sony Records, 20 West 55th St., New York, NY 10019, website: http://www.sonymusic.com. Website--Ben Folds Official Website: http://www.benfolds.com.
Ben Folds was one of the first commercially successful artists to give the piano its rock credibility in the 1990s. The son of a carpenter father and a painter mother, Ben Folds formed a trio consisting of a piano, bass, and drums that he playfully named the Ben Folds Five (he claimed the name would maintain "alliteration"). Formed in 1993 in Folds's native state of North Carolina, Ben Folds Five was a fun, piano-driven pop/alternative rock group that was playfully dubbed a "nerd rock" group by the media, and garnered a substantial fan base and a cult following on college campuses and radio stations across the country.
Folds was born on September 12, 1967, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He learned to play bass, drums, guitar, and piano at a young age. "Since I was real little I've been kind of directed, and when everyone else was out playing Army, or whatever, I was at home playing piano or drums or bass or guitar, or something," Folds told National Public Radio (NPR) in a interview. He took a year of formal piano training and then, "After that it was Little Richard kind of, beating the hell out of the piano," he recalled.
After flunking out of the music program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (where he quickly traded the drums for piano), Folds moved around the United States, trying his hand as a songwriter in Nashville, starring in the off-Broadway show The Buddy Holly Story, and playing gigs in Miami, before returning home to North Carolina. There Folds developed the concept for Ben Fold Five, which would consist of himself on piano and as singer/songwriter, with Darren Jesse on drums and Robert Sledge on bass.
"Playing piano pop sounded like a kick to me," Folds told the San Antonio Express-News. The absence of a guitar did not frighten the rock group. "One of my ambitions is to make the piano feel like a rock instrument again. I want the challenge of taking the format we use--piano, bass and drums--into rock arena territory," Folds told the New York Times. When the NPR interviewer asked Folds why he never signed on a guitarist, he replied, "It really didn't occur to us at first. Now it's become a challenge to see what we can do with the piano to bring it up to guitar energy.... We have to put out a lot more to get that much out if it."
After playing the local circuit, Ben Folds Five released their indie debut album in 1995. Ben Folds Five went gold in Japan and sold more than 195,000 copies, and the song "Underground" from the album became a major hit. That same year Rolling Stone magazine named Ben Folds Five as one of their "12 Artists on the Edge." The group played the second stage at Lollapalooza in 1996 and appeared on the bill for the H.O.R.D.E. festival and the Reading Festival in England, quickly developing a celebrity following. The alternative rock group The Counting Crows referred to the group in their song "A Long December" with their lyric, "listening to Ben Folds on the radio." Author Nick Hornby dedicated a chapter of his book Songbook to the group's song "Smoke."
In 1996 Ben Folds Five signed a deal with Sony's 550 Music/Epic Records label and released Whatever and Ever Amen in 1997, a project they recorded in Folds's living room. The critically acclaimed album went on to sell more than 946,000 copies. In 1999 they released The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Folds believed that the character of Messner was fictional, but later discovered that Messner had been the first man to climb Mt. Everest without using oxygen. That same year Folds married Kate Rosen, the daughter of film director/producer Martin Rosen (and subject of the song "Kate" on the group's first album). The couple had twins, and the family later relocated to Australia, his wife's home.
The Ben Folds Five had several career hits, including "Army," "Battle of Who Could Care Less," and "Fair." They scored a substantially commercial hit with "Brick," a song Folds wrote about a young girl's abortion. "Brick" received heavy rotation on MTV and on Top 40 radio. In 1998 the group released Naked Baby Photos, a compilation of live tracks and previously unreleased songs.
Ever the professional jokester, Folds has called the group's sound "punk rock for sissies." Folds himself has earned comparisons to Elton John and Billy Joel, the latter of whom Folds cites as a musical influence. Other musical influences include Cole Porter, the Clash, Joe Jackson, and Queen. But Folds's stage presence, on-stage antics and playing style are all his own. He plays the piano wildly and has been known to play with his feet or bang the keys with his head.
Ready for a professional change, Folds amicably split from his band mates in 2001 to pursue a solo career. He began releasing his solo work through his website, including the EPs Sunny 16 and Speed Graphic. According to the Argus Ledger, Folds posted a statement on his website: "Quietly releasing my music as EPs allows me to get it out there as I finish it. With minimum hype. It won't be sold in the big chains, because that puts the price up and starts the big machinery--press, radio, etc."
Folds has remained in contact with his former band mates, but he's happy to be captain of his own ship. "It was good to record with a band, but we were together 24 hours a day for six years. We just couldn't do it anymore," Folds told Billboard in August of 2001. He released his first solo album, Rockin' the Suburbs, in 2001, playing all the instruments on the record himself. Weird Al Yankovic directed the video for the title track on the album, and Folds described the album to the New York Times as "a lot of sad old man songs." The well-known ballad on the album, "The Luckiest," was written as a valentine to his wife. Folds toured in support of the album with just a piano, saying that he did it because he didn't feel right playing Ben Folds Five songs with a different band.
Folds seemed to find what he was looking for in his solo outing. "I'm actually finding myself in the most successful position that I've ever been in," he told the Herald Sun. "Right when I quit the band and did Rockin' the Suburbs, that was a miserable period for me, because I'm very stubborn and I decided it was going to make a very slick album. I should have just done what I was doing naturally--my demos were just done literally in the garage and they sounded amazing."
Folds's solo tour was so successful that it prompted the release of a live album, Ben Folds Live, in 2002. Folds delayed the release date of his sophomore solo album in order to produce a music collection by William Shatner called Has Been. In 2004 he formed a super group with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller called The Bens. The trio released a four-song EP to sell at their shows, writing and recording the songs together in just four days. The group has toured extensively in the United States.
Fans of Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five have embraced the group as much for their energetic live performances as for the personal truths in their music and lyrics. Many of Folds's songs are tiny tales of personal loss and longing or comical anecdotes. "When I write, I kind of take a part of my character that I can exaggerate," he told NPR.
by Kerry L. Smith
Ben Folds's Career
Formed group Ben Folds Five in North Carolina, 1993; released self-titled debut album, 1995; signed to Sony 500/Epic Rrecords and released Whatever and Ever Amen, 1997; released The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, 1999; Folds went solo, released Rockin' the Suburbs on Epic, 2001; released Ben Folds Live, 2002; produced album for actor Williim Shatner, 2004; released several EPs on his own website.
Ben Folds's Awards
Pop Awards, BMI Citation of Achievement for Brick, 1999.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- (As Fear of Pop) Volume 1 550 Records, 1998.
- Rockin' the Suburbs Epic, 2001.
- Ben Folds Live Sony, 2002.
- With Ben Folds Five
- Ben Folds Five Passenger, 1995.
- Whatever and Ever Amen 550 Records, 1997.
- Naked Baby Photos (compilation), Caroline, 1998.
- The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner Sony, 1999.
- Argus Ledger, April 16, 2004.
- Billboard, December 11, 1999; August 11, 2001.
- Entertainment Weekly, March 21, 1997.
- Herald Sun, March 6, 2003.
- New York Times, November 26, 2001.
- Newsday, November 6, 1997.
- Newsweek, January 9, 2003.
- Providence Journal-Bulletin, May 25, 1997.
- San Antonio Express-News, April 11, 1997.
- San Diego Union-Tribune, August 1, 2003.
- Washington Post, May 15, 1997; February 20, 1998; March 15, 1998; April 13, 2000; September 23, 2001.
- "Ben Folds," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 13, 2004).
- "Ben Folds, doing his own thing," CNN, http://www.cnn.com (April 12, 2004).
- Additional information was obtained from an interview on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, January 28, 1996.