The Conversation

Ben Folds and Nick HornbyPhoto: Eamonn McCabe

Piano-pounding, hyperliterate singer-songwriter Ben Folds and prolific British novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) have developed their friendship over many years with surprisingly little face time, but their shared sensibilities—dry humor, a love of melody, and a preference for oddballs acutely observed—begged an artistic collaboration. The result is Lonely Avenue, for which Hornby wrote the lyrics and Folds the music, all via e-mail. The two spoke with Rebecca Milzoff.

How did the collaboration come about?
Nick Hornby: I wrote a lyric for Ben’s William Shatner album, Has Been.
Ben Folds: He just showed up at the studio.
NH: Waving a piece of paper. I wanted to see if I could write a lyric, and Ben happened to like it enough to use it. I’m into collaborating with whoever I can at this stage in my career. I spend enough time sitting on my own in a room.
BF: That’s a hidden message to the National and Vampire Weekend.
NH: And J.Lo! [Laughs.] Eh, we’d do it.

What is it about Ben’s music, and Nick’s writing, that felt right for each of you?
NH: Tonally, Ben’s albums have not been dissimilar to my books. His songs are like short stories. And he can go from being witty to sincere and sad, sometimes in a single song.
BF: It’s also about use of humor in life. The humor Nick uses is the built-in humor of the situation; it’s not punch lines and wackiness. And similar to my songs, Nick is not writing something that’s overly personal—though in some ways that’s when things become more personal.

What do you think of each other’s musical tastes?
BF: Anything Nick likes is pretty safe; he spends passionate time listening.
NH: Ben has a very curious musical mind. We were swapping tracks back and forth, and he just threw Rachmaninoff into the mix, in a very unfussy way. I’ve been enjoying it. And he got me hooked on the theme to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Is it difficult for either of you to give up creative control?
BF: Oh, no. It’s all the same to me because it’s still putting music and words together, and that’s the part I like. There are a couple of words Nick used, like linguini, that I just didn’t want to sing at first—it’s not very rock and roll. But it’s also why I like his lyrics, because he’s not writing for the sound of the word and how it’s going to roll out of the music; he’s just writing words.
NH: At least there’s blood dripping on the linguini.
BF: Something really rock and roll was happening to the linguini.

Where did the song “Levi Johnston’s Blues” come from?
BF: I saw the RNC and was horrified, and Nick was watching the boy in the back who was having to get married for the theater of American politics.
NH: He looked really uncomfortable in his suit.
BF: That’s what’s so cool about Nick—he’s empathetic. When I read the lyrics, I related it to me—I remembered being 18 and things I had to do and just didn’t know how I was going to do them.
NH: It wasn’t ever intended as a joke.

Have you been able to hang out now that the album’s done?
NH: We’re hanging out quite a lot, usually with a journalist. It’s like a Victorian courtship; someone else has to be in the room.

Lonely Avenue
Ben Folds and Nick Hornby.
Nonesuch. $15.98.

The Conversation