Ben there, done that

Piano man Ben Folds tinkers with his career on NBC's "The Sing-Off" and a new album with author Nick Hornby.

Ben Folds

He was always a little out there, with playful songs such as the indie-world anti-anthem "Underground" and such off-kilter collaborators as William Shatner. The past couple years, though, Ben Folds has truly gone where no piano-playing pop-rocker has gone before.

After issuing the highest-charting album of his career in 2008, "Way to Normal," the 44-year-old North Carolina native dived headlong away from the charts by teaming up with college a cappella groups for the album "Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!" The record helped land him an unlikely role as a TV judge on NBC's "The Sing-Off," a surprising hit series now in its second season with Nick Lachey as its host.

Between stints on the show, Folds returns to First Avenue on Sunday touring behind "Lonely Avenue," a new album that marks another unusual collaboration. All of the lyrics were written by rock-centric British author Nick Hornby, whose books include "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy" (both made into movies). Musically, it sounds like a standard Folds album, loaded with stories about people that the singer -- in an entertaining phone interview from his home in Nashville -- said "are all self-lacerating characters."

Q What's with all these career curveballs?

A As the music industry falls apart, the rules melt away. People are more willing to let me do whatever I want because they haven't got any better idea how it should be done. People are coming in with ideas like, "Package the record as a joystick" or "Give your album away with boxes of cereal." So my ideas don't seem so wacky. And as my different projects have proven relatively successful, I've earned even more of a creative license.

Q How did you and Nick Hornby originally hook up?

A Basically just through a series of e-mails. I'm not 100 percent sure who first suggested the idea of collaborating on a record, but I'd be willing to bet it was me. We were too like-minded to not work together. But the hard thing was, we're both also very busy, so it really came down to whether we could both get a week or two off to work on it, and we did.

Q So how did the collaboration actually work?

A Originally, I envisioned us working together in the same room, but he was too busy getting awards. So he would just send me lyrics by e-mail. That wound up working fine. I would work up the melodies, reading [the lyrics] straight off the computer screen, mostly on this short-scale bass I keep right behind my computer. I really didn't ever refine his work. He's one of my favorite authors, so I wasn't about to revise his lyrics.

Q The song "Levi Johnston's Blues" is very you, but I'm not sure if you'd have ever actually written it. What do you think?

A The thing you have to realize is Nick wrote that the day after the Republican National Convention [in 2008], long before Levi became a celebrity posing for Playgirl and all that. Maybe it shows the difference between a novelist and a musician: I watched that Republican Convention and thought, "How can all these people be so in favor of off-shore drilling?!" and angry things like that. Nick watched it and saw this poor kid who had knocked up the vice-presidential nominee's daughter, and suddenly he was put in a suit and lined up in front of TV cameras. He immediately saw it as a great human drama about having to grow up and coming-of-age overnight.

Q How did you go from making one a cappella CD to judging it on "The Sing-Off?"

A The producers behind the show were big a cappella geeks, so they heard my CD, and that's when they approached me. They were looking for someone who actually knew a little about making music and, you know, who could hopefully speak OK on camera. I've really enjoyed it. I've become really attached with the groups. When the show is over, I miss seeing them, and I become sort of like a mother hen concerned about their welfare as they venture out into the world.

Q It's not exactly the coolest of TV shows, though. Did you worry about your hipster quotient taking a hit?

A Well, hipster quotients are as much a Titanic as the music business: If I'm getting off that sinking ship, too, then it's probably all for the better. But I think there's something cool about a cappella music. It can be sort of a guilty pleasure, and hipsters get off on guilty pleasures. Also, there's nothing cooler than finding something no one else around you is into and becoming the first to like it.

Q So you truly believe, for the first time in the history of the world, a cappella is becoming cool?

A Why not? I went to see the group that's opening for me on this tour, Street Corner Symphony, when they performed here in Nashville. They sold out two nights at a rock club, and it was pretty much the same kind of crowd you would see at any rock show. There were plenty of coolios in the crowd.

But, you know, I've never been all that much of a coolio myself. I play piano, record for major labels and wear glasses. They used to be uncool glasses, but now some of the hipsters are wearing them. That'll go away in a couple years, though, and I'll be sufficiently uncool again.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

  • BEN FOLDS

    With: Street Corner Symphony.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Sun.

    Where: First Avenue, 701 1st Av. N., Mpls.

    Tickets: $35. 18 & older. 612-338-8388.

    HEAR SAMPLES

    from his CD "Lonely Avenue" at startribune.com/music.

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