Ben Folds Goes A Cappella, With Help Pianist Ben Folds has crafted a series of alt-rock hits over the past 15 years. For his pseudo-"greatest-hits" package, he's commissioned new arrangements of those songs from university a cappella groups across the country. Folds and host Jacki Lyden compare and contrast the various versions of his songs.

Ben Folds Goes A Cappella, With Help

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Ben Folds first got the country to sing along with his music back in 1997 with the hit "Brick."

(Sound bite of song, "Brick")

Mr. BEN FOLDS (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) 6:00 A.M. day after Christmas, I throw some clothes on in the dark.

LYDEN: Now, Ben Folds is harnessing the power of sing-alongs in a different way.

(Soundbite of song, ("Brick")

Mr. FOLDS: (singing) The world is sleeping and I am numb.

LYDEN: For his latest CD, he's commissioned arrangements of his music from some of the country's best college vocal troupes. The CD is called "Ben Folds Presents University A Cappella."

And he joins me now from Nashville, Tennessee.

Hello, Ben Folds.

Mr. FOLDS: Hello.

LYDEN: Well, this has got to be one of the quirkiest, greatest hits albums, ever.

Mr. FOLDS: Hmm.

LYDEN: How did you come up with this idea?

Mr. FOLDS: Saw a link to a YouTube of some university students singing one of my songs. This was actually one of them that's in the background right now. There were a few of them. And I haven't been covered that much, so I was fascinated to hear all these people's interpretations.

(Soundbite of song, "Brick)

LEADING TONES (A Cappella Group, Ohio University): (Singing) She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly off the coast and I'm headed nowhere. She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly.

LYDEN: Tell me about the group that we're hearing covering your song "Brick." This group is called the Leading Tones from Ohio University.

Mr. FOLDS: Yeah. I intervened and asked them to get their original singer back for us, was not the original singer but the guy who I saw on YouTube a couple of years ago singing. He had graduated. They were great. I mean they're sort of a more of a modern pop group, really. Some, like the Princeton group, are more like almost glee club, like old fashion.

(Sound bite of song, "Time")

PRINCETON GROUP (A Cappella, Princeton University): (Singing) Time takes time, you know. Time takes time, you know.

LYDEN: I want to hear a little bit more about how you did research for this.

Mr. FOLDS: We eventually just put the word out to post them on YouTube and send them into management and we'll listen and make a record. We got about 250 submissions in just a few weeks.

LYDEN: Music?

Mr. FOLDS: Yeah, it was a lot. And there were a lot of, you know, I wasn't necessarily interested in a cappella so much as, well, I just began to realize it's a real movement, you know? And I'd never listened to a cappella records before. but I love it because, one: these kids are doing this with no class credit, generally; it's really involved, it's difficult to do; and requires, you know, three, five days a week practice sometimes and it's very disciplined. And I think it's really cool.

LYDEN: Yeah. And in this frenetic time it's really kind of an old fashioned method of singing, it seems to me.

Mr. FOLDS: Its old fashion and it's really from the inside out, and requires you to learn some theory to do it.

LYDEN: What do you mean from the inside out, when they're singing from the inside out?

Mr. FOLDS: You know, I can play a chord on the guitar or on the piano that can fall under my hands, but I don't necessarily know what I'm doing. I just know what the shape is. You pretty well have to arrange and understand the voice leading and the chords and the theory, as you arrange it. It's not haphazard. And everyone has to sort of understand that in the group. So it's cerebral on some level. And then it's all live. You know, it's an event, as music should be.

(Soundbite of song, "Prison Food")

PRINCETON GROUP: (Singing) We walk the Earth. We talked and never spoke a word. She wonders who will be the first to go.

LYDEN: Now, you've experimented with a cappella performance in the past. And this being NPR, I remember a story from a few years ago. You were coaching your audiences into multi-part harmonies. Let's pull one from the vault here.

(Soundbite of past recording)

Mr. FOLDS: Let's cut, the line is down the middle. This side: saxophones. This side: trumpets.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. FOLDS: This side goes...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FOLDS: (Singing) Ba ba ba. A ba ba ba ba. A ba ba ba ba. Ba ba bah.

Mr. FOLDS: This side...

(Singing) Ba ba ba. A ba ba ba ba. A ba ba ba ba. Ba ba bah.

(Soundbite of an audience singing)

LYDEN: Well, that's sweet. That has to give you chills.

Mr. FOLDS: Yeah...

LYDEN: Sitting in front of thousands of people like that, belting out your music.

Mr. FOLDS: Yeah. And I tell you I love to hear sing together. I think it's great. And - but I found playing in smaller places, just solo piano, people were so willing to sing. And it was a very church-like, just without the preacher part, you know? So, yeah, I started to sort of conduct and encourage the stuff that I thought was the most musical. And now it's stuck to this day, people still do it and people, I think, are meant to sing. That's just something that just comes up. It's in every culture.

LYDEN: Yeah.

Mr. FOLDS: And here we're doing it.

LYDEN: Let's listen to another track. There's one I found just hypnotizing. Let's play a little bit of a Loreleis from the University of North Carolina.

Mr. FOLDS: Hmm, that's a good one.

LYDEN: And this track is called "Jesusland."

(Soundbite of song, "Jesusland")

LYDEN: you know, I may be sleep deprived today but to me that song is almost dizzying, especially if you're listening with headphones, as we are. Are the Loreleis all girls?

Mr. FOLDS: Yeah.

LYDEN: How many are there?

Mr. FOLDS: I think there were about between 15 and 18 of them. The piano in that song is going pretty fast. It's like almost like Appalachian banjo or something. So it's flying through there. And these girls have figured out how to make that work in their favor. So that once they've cracked the code, they're doing something that is unique. Some of this isn't going to happen spontaneously. Rock bands happen spontaneously. And rock bands brag of this. You know, like we just got together, man. And, you know, we jammed and had this song and it's, like, about my mom...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOLDS: But this has to be very old school, you know? It's all got to be there.

(Soundbite of song, "Jesusland")

LORELEIS (A Cappella group, University of North Carolina): (Singing) There's riverboat casinos and you still have yet to see a soul. Jesusland, Jesusland.

LYDEN: Well, there's (unintelligible) about the fact that some people are going to hear an album entitled "Ben Fold Presents University A Cappella" and say, heh, great novelty record. Do you care?

Mr. FOLDS: Mm hmm. Nay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOLDS: I mean I think my other, I mean I really feel the same way about this record as I did about the William Shatner record I produced and wrote most of it, that it felt right. It just felt good. How often do you get to make a record that's never been made before?

LYDEN: Well, I'm glad you've boldly gone where no songwriter has arranged before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Ben Folds. His new CD is called "Ben Fold Presents University A Cappella," and it's released Tuesday on Epic Records.

Ben Folds, it's been a great pleasure. Thanks so much.

Mr. FOLDS: Thanks for having me.

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