Ben Folds performs live at Kennedy Center, reflects on being first NSO Artistic Advisor

Hear the full conversation in our podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Ben Folds at Kennedy Center (Part 1)

The past two years have brought virtual concerts to provide music during a pandemic.

Now, acclaimed musician Ben Folds brings his aptly-titled “In Actual Person Live for Real Tour” to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to celebrate next Monday, Nov. 15 at 8 p.m.

“I’m on the lucky side of the pandemic,” Folds told WTOP. “My son got COVID and was pretty sick for a while. … I’m trying to cram in all the stuff I didn’t do over the last 18 months. … When you look out and see this audience of people who some of them have really been through it, they’re the happiest ones there. We’re for real, in actual person!”

It’s a homecoming of sorts for Folds, who became the first NSO artistic advisor in 2017.

“The Kennedy Center is a super special place for me because I’ve spent so much time there … putting together shows,” Folds said. “Backstage is like another home for me now. Playing an actual show where I’m just a musician playing my songs energizes the show.”

He’s curated and hosted the regular Kennedy Center series “Declassified: Ben Folds Presents,” featuring live crossover concerts between the NSO and famous radio artists of all genres, including Jamey Johnson, Sara Bareilles, Regina Spektor and Jon Batiste.

“In an era where our tribes are going to their corners, taking off the gloves and spitting in each other’s faces, any fault line is a big deal,” Folds said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got a country guy, he must be a Republican, oh the concert master, she must be a Democrat, we’re going to hate each other,’ it really feels that way if you don’t address it musically.”

His peacemaking roots began growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

“When I was a kid, it was pretty much all R&B, those were the records I was hearing,” Folds said. “When I was a kid growing up in North Carolina, there’s a really good public school system and really good teachers and a lot of arts in my upbringing. … I had great access to play percussion in a youth symphony … when I was 9 or 10 years old.”

He earned a full-ride percussion scholarship to the University of Miami, but quickly transferred to finish is studies at UNC Greensboro. He bounced around from North Carolina to Nashville to New York City, playing with three-piece bands throughout his 20s.

How did he ultimately form the trio ironically called the Ben Folds Five?

“A piano trio with this fuzz grungy element underneath it is what makes me the happiest,” Folds said. “When I met Robert Sledge, I realized this guy is the best bass player in the world at that, then we met the drummer, Darren [Jessee]. It happened really quick. … Let’s let Robert and Darren rock like it’s 1994 and I’ll just play Broadway crap overtop of it.”

After the self-titled debut album “Ben Folds Five” (1995), they found massive success with their second album “Whatever and Ever Amen” (1997), including the hit song “Brick,” which sparked plenty of controversy over its autobiographical story of his girlfriend’s abortion.

“This is a first-person account of what happened to me and my girlfriend,” Folds said. “People can misunderstand stuff really quickly and get up in arms about it. … I was pacing around a parking lot, worrying about what was happening because they don’t let you in. I’m not saying politically whether this should be allowed, it’s just that it actually happens.”

He went solo for “Rockin’ the Suburbs” (2001), which was coincidentally released on 9/11, followed by “Supersunnyspeedgraphic” (2006) and “Way to Normal” (2008).

“My kids were born roughly the time I went into my solo period,” Folds said. “What you learn about the second twin, the first one is born and comes out really straight because there’s not any space to mess up. … The second child, who’s never experienced space, choices and room to stretch out, always comes out spinning. That was my solo career.”

Younger audiences remember his music from DreamWorks’ “Over the Hedge” (2006).

“It was an animated movie that should have been an important one … but it came out the same week as ‘Cars,’ so that pretty much sealed its fate,” Folds said. “I get so many audience members that know those songs that started their Folds journey then. That’s crazy to me. … Young people come out and they’re like, ‘I grew up with ‘Over the Hedge!'”

Since then, he’s served as a judge on NBC’s “The Sing-Off” (2009-2013) and published the memoir “A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons” (2019), but few things have been as rewarding as working with the Kennedy Center.

“I’m going to be like a little kid,” Folds said. “I’m going to be on fire about that one.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Ben Folds at Kennedy Center (Part 2)

Hear the full conversation in our podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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