Ben Folds And Nick Hornby: The Limits Of Lyrics High Fidelity author Nick Hornby often writes about music, but has never actually made an album. Hornby provides the lyrical framework for Lonely Avenue, a musical collaboration with singer-songwriter Ben Folds.
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Ben Folds And Nick Hornby: The Limits Of Lyrics

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Ben Folds And Nick Hornby: The Limits Of Lyrics

Ben Folds And Nick Hornby: The Limits Of Lyrics

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The author Nick Hornby often writes about music. One of his most famous novels, "High Fidelity," is about a guy who works in a record store. But Nick never actually made an album until he teamed up with the singer-songwriter Ben Folds. Ben had been writing music for years, and he was looking for a way to make the experience fresh.

Mr. BEN FOLDS (Singer-Songwriter): Anything you can do to make your album sound like the first one, I'm all for it. And doing it this way is a first for me, and it's Nick's first record, so it gives the whole thing a lot of energy.

SHAPIRO: Nick wrote the lyrics. Ben wrote the music. And the result is the new CD, "Lonely Avenue."

I asked Nick Hornby and Ben Folds how they created a song called "Belinda." Here's Nick.

Mr. NICK HORNBY (Songwriter): One of the ideas I'd had was about a guy's relationship with a song. I think I was probably thinking of something like "Layla" when I when I had the original idea. I mean that's the...

SHAPIRO: The famous Eric Clapton's song.

Mr. HORNBY: The famous Eric Clapton's song, which is about the famous relationship which is long since water under the bridge. And I wondered what it would be like to have to sing that song pretty much every night when he didn't have that relationship with the person anymore.

(Soundbite of song, "Belinda")

Mr. FOLDS: (Singing) Every night around this time he has to sing "Belinda." Belinda, I love you...

Mr. HORNBY: So I invented this character who pretty much only has one song, which is a song called "Belinda." And it's about his ex-wife who he treated very badly. And he has to sing it every night of his life.

Mr. FOLDS: (Singing) A one hit wonder with no hits is what he is. Many way, he always...

SHAPIRO: So, Nick, you finished the lyrics and sent them to Ben. And, Ben, when you got this set of lyrics, what was your in-road into the melody?

Mr. FOLDS: Well, it's a feel thing for me. It can be the shape of a sentence. Or the way something just rolls off the tongue that creates a melody really quickly. The melody...

SHAPIRO: Can you give me a specific example on this song?

Mr. FOLDS: The chorus sounded like what I think Nick wanted it to sound like, which was a hit song from the '70s that we're all supposed to know, but actually had never existed.

(Singing) Belinda, I loved you. I'm sorry that I left you. I met somebody younger on a plane. She had...

SHAPIRO: Were there any songs that Ben sent you the melody to that you thought, oh, that wasn't the song I thought I was writing at all?

Mr. HORNBY: I guess the closest to that was "Practical Amanda." There's a song on Ben's second album called "Kate," a beautiful upbeat, sunny pop song. And that was my kind of conscious attempt to write "Kate," I suppose. And Ben wrote this incredibly moving ballad. And Amanda happens to be the name of my wife, so I sort of blushed when I heard it.

(Soundbite of song, "Practical Amanda")

Mr. FOLDS: (Singing) Practical, practical Amanda. Saved one life...

SHAPIRO: So, Ben, why did this song become a ballad?

Mr. FOLDS: I could tell by looking at the phrases that it was probably meant to be upbeat, and that's the way I thought of it when I first opened it. But nothing really came. But then I was on tour - I was doing the Lollapalooza in Chicago - and I was walking and thought, Oh, you know what? That could be a love ballad. Like maybe that's what I'm feeling and the reason that I'm missing it. So I picked it back up again when I got home and that came pretty quickly.

SHAPIRO: Was there ever a moment that you were crafting a tune and you thought: If only he had used the word icicle instead of snowflake, this would be so much easier, or if only this were the chorus instead of that?

Mr. FOLDS: Yeah. Well, I mean I would think those things because when an obstacle comes your way the first thing you want to do is, you know, is fight or flight, sort of. I mean I can get out of my situation pretty easily by changing some words. But that really felt wrong, because what I was asking for was to create something I never would have created before.

I mean Nick's you know, words - he writes words - and everyone likes them. More people read his books than listen to my music, so it doesn't make sense for me to change them.

SHAPIRO: Can you give me an example of one of these obstacles that you wrestled with?

Mr. HORNBY: He hated the word linguini on "Doc Pomus." I remember that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOLDS: Yeah, "Doc Pomus" the word linguini came up and I would wanted to sing any other word. I don't know why. And I would laugh as I was doing my vocals.

(Singing) Eating his linguini.

Oh, God. Okay, let's do it again.

(Singing) Eating his...

And yeah, I could have changed it to penne arrabbiata.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOLDS: Or, I don't know, I could have changed it to something else. But even those kinds of details, the details I really trust. There's a reason that these flowed out of Nick and I was going to go somewhere with the song.

(Soundbite of song, "Doc Pomus")

Mr. FOLDS: (Singing) (Unintelligible) eating his linguini, thinking of a miracle (unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: Ben, you've described all of these challenges that working with Nick's lyrics present you. Ultimately, is this harder or easier than writing your own material to fill an album?

Mr. FOLDS: I mean I think it's easier. It's easier because Nick gives me the framework, the life that I'm responding to with melody. Otherwise I respond to my own life or things that I observe or things that I feel, and melodies come to me constantly.

But sometimes a word will come to my mind but it will be a word like mezzanine over and over again. So I'll just walk around going, mezzanine, mezzanine. Yesterday it was Leopoldo. Leopoldo, and I...

SHAPIRO: Are we going to hear that in a song from a future album.

Mr. FOLDS: Probably not. I have all kinds of garbage in my head that hopefully never gets anywhere. But, you know, the thing about writing to Nick's framework is that, once I'm finished responding to the life that he's sort of created there, we have a finished song.

Mr. HORNBY: I was just going to say about, you know, sending Ben the lyrics and saying, well, this is what they are, works in the same way that if you tell a kid, write something; you can write your story about anything you want, they can't think of anything. But if you say write a story about a crocodile, a pineapple and a stair lift in a hotel, then it will spark something up.

And the same still happens to me, if I'm commissioned to write anything I want for a magazine. I never want to do it. But if somebody comes in with some specific ideas about something, then the limit placed on the limitless actually does spark the imagination a bit better, I think. And may be for this project, it made Ben's process a little easier to know what these songs were going to be about.

(Soundbite of song, "Philosophy")

Mr. FOLDS: (Singing) It's so easy from above. You can really see at all. People who belong together, lost and sad and small...

SHAPIRO: The new CD from Nick Hornby and Ben Folds is called "Lonely Avenue." It's out today and you can hear songs from the album right now at

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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