Day 133: Of Folds And Smith

originally published May 12, 2012

It’s never easy writing about someone I admire. I run the risk of babbling, and sounding like a gushing fanboy, instead of the award-winning journalist that I’d rather pretend to be. A couple days ago I found a unique take on the Beatles, which allowed me to write intelligently about their work, and avoid falling into the trap of, “Isn’t that chord just before the vocals come in on ‘Sun King’ so frickin’ awesome?!”

Today I’m tackling the Ben Folds Five. First, allow me to expunge the giddy music nerd inside me: I’ll go on record that I believe Folds to be among the finest songwriters and musical minds in the business today. He is also one of only a half-dozen celebrities around whom I would be truly fan-struck and tongue-dumb to meet. Which I did (though briefly), and I totally was.

Ben Folds Five have reunited for a new album, and they’ve opted to grab their marketing machetes and slash a new path through the distribution wilderness for the disc’s release. Using, they are offering a free download of their new track, and upgrading each of their fans to Vice President of Promotions for the BF5’s de facto label. In short, they’re shirking traditional marketing methods (which makes sense, since their music hardly meshes with the bilious pap record companies like to promote these days), and turning to their fans to inspire their friends and family to come to their senses and check out the new record.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it was done before – sort of – in a different realm. Last year, filmmaker Kevin Smith released his brilliantly Tarantinonian Red State through the word-of-mouth of his fans, a tour, and by harnessing our culture’s new lifeforce: social media.

Apart from the fact that Smith is another one of those six or so art-makers with whom I’d love to sit down and brain-pick, there are a surprising number of similarities I’ve noticed in the career and artistic arcs of both Smith and Folds.

First of all, they’re both drop-outs. Not drop-outs in the lazy slacker sense (no offense meant to myself), but they both left post-secondary schooling in their chosen field to chase success, degree be damned. Smith dropped out of the Vancouver Film School, though he has said as recently as an April, 2012 podcast that he would still encourage people to experience the school if that’s where their passion lies. Folds dropped out of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, though he has always been a vocal advocate of arts-based education. I think the lesson here is to pursue and embrace it, but don’t count on an art-based degree to be the velvet ropes that will necessarily guide you to your career.

Both artists emerged around 1994-95, Smith with Clerks and Folds with Ben Folds Five. Both surrounded themselves with talented people (Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, etc, for Smith, and bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee for Folds), yet around the turn of the century, they altered their familiar surroundings. Folds left his group and went solo, while Smith abandoned his tales of Jersey relationships in order to tell bigger stories.

While neither artist has stormed the charts and made them their bitch, both have enjoyed exactly the right amount of success to maintain a rabid and loyal following (and I’m not rabid or loyal to much else, apart from bacon and the smooth, delicious taste of Rogue Ales). They have both adhered to their artistic whims, creating what they want, rather than ladling the sticky broth of what trend analysts promise will sell. Also, they’ve remained connected with the public world through Facebook and Twitter; Smith can boast over two million Twittizens, Folds is right around 500k. For those of us who hover in a significantly lower Twit-bracket, that’s pretty much Twitter-deity status.

Both are quirky, humanist story-tellers. On the surface, a Kevin Smith movie is a bucketful of dick and fart jokes, just as a Ben Folds album seems to contain as much profanity as a Tupac record. But underneath, they reveal a mastery of narrative. Be honest, isn’t it about time someone dropped the C-word into a breakup pop song?

The two of them have also ported their skills into new realms. While Folds’ foray into reality show judging on the NBC a cappella competition The Sing-Off has embarrassed the abundance of tepid yammering found on other talent TV, Smith has twirled his gift of gab into the stockpile of complimentary mirth he calls the Smodcast Network of podcasts.

Even the ‘flops’ line up, and somehow fail to disappoint. Folds’ least accessible work may be his composing/producing stint on William Shatner’s 2004 album Has Been. Yet as much as it still sounds like a punchline to consider the Shat’s delivery as a vocal performance, the album is astoundingly clever and interesting. As for the films Smith himself dismisses, Jersey Girl was funnier than most rom-coms from 2004 (plus, George Carlin’s in it), and Cop-Out is a funny homage to 80’s buddy-cop movies, complete with a cunningly retro soundtrack by Harold Faltermeyer.

Speaking of soundtracks, Ben Folds’ “Wandering” can be heard in Jersey Girl, so yes, these worlds have already collided.

What else? For at least a little while, they both lived in New Jersey – Smith was born and raised Garden-State-style, and Folds spent a chunk of 1993 in Montclair, just an hour away from Red Bank and the Quick Stop. They have both featured their kids in their work – Smith casting his daughter in just-above-an-extra roles, and Folds having penned two of his finest tunes, “Still Fighting It” and “Gracie”, in honor of two of his progeny. Also, they’re huge in non-England Commonwealth nations – Smith’s love of hockey has made him a de facto Canadian, while Folds lived in Australia for a number of years.

Oh, and Canada loves Ben Folds too. He just played his first Edmonton show six weeks ago, and his fans want him back. Soon. Please.

Most importantly, both Kevin Smith and Ben Folds have recently embraced a new approach to the distribution of their art. Perhaps they are setting an example more for the established artist than the struggling one – after all, it’s their loyal fanbase that will determine their success – but who cares? They are actively seeking to change the system from within, to purify the connection between art and spectator.

Closing with an ad is in poor taste, I know, but I’ll let it slide today. These are two artists who deserve your attention, and while I won’t invest my words in promotion of many other things (apart from the refreshing, invigorating flavors of Rogue Ales, including bacon!), I will drop my flag deep into the porous Earth here, and insist everyone give a listen to Ben’s new song, pledge for a copy of his group’s new album, and check out Red State on Blu-ray and DVD.

Also, if your dream lies in that fickle field of fine art, follow their advice. Make your movie, record your album, write a thousand words a day like no one’s reading (because maybe they aren’t).

And if you’re really good, come to Edmonton. We get a lot of snow here, and we’d welcome the pick-me-up.

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