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Ben Folds goes back to school

  • Story Highlights
  • Ben Folds' new album consists of a cappella groups doing Folds songs
  • Versatile pianist and songwriter best known for hit "Brick"
  • Folds put out fake version of 2008 album as joke
By Shanon Cook
CNN
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Ben Folds didn't realize how great his music was until he heard a bunch of college students singing it.

Ben Folds was so impressed by a cappella groups' performances of his songs, he made a record with them.

Ben Folds was so impressed by a cappella groups' performances of his songs, he made a record with them.

The singer-songwriter says he was beyond impressed when he stumbled across videos of university a cappella groups singing covers of his songs on YouTube.

"I was really moved," he says. "I thought it was better than what I had done when I first heard it. That's how it struck me because it was so fresh."

And so an idea was born: Folds would travel to university campuses around the country and record an entire album of a cappella covers.

The North Carolina native picked 15 ensembles from 250 submissions for "Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!" (Epic), which came out Tuesday. And to give the music a "field recording" feel, he kept the process simple: Each performance was recorded using six wide-range microphones, and most of the groups got it down in one or two takes.

"It's a completely different point of view," says Folds, 42, of the students' renderings of his tunes. "They're not signed singers and artists that have their egos to contend with. And sometimes they're not thinking about the song that much, which I think is kind of cool."

But not wanting to have the thunder completely stolen from him (and probably to entice his loyal fans to shell out for the album) Folds sings two a cappella tracks himself: "Boxing" from his Ben Folds Five days, and "Effington" from his 2008 solo album "Way To Normal."

"It was really difficult because we were doing my tracks from the bottom up," he says. "We didn't have a bunch of people to work with and I just about gave up."

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Ben Folds spoke to CNN about his youthful-sounding new release, why being married four times isn't much of a drama and why he faked an album leak. The following is an edited version of the interview.

CNN: Is this the one and only Ben Folds greatest hits album?

Ben Folds: I think it naturally kind of is. I mean I was looking for something like that -- to possibly do a live orchestral album where the best material would kind of float to the top.

But then again, someone's going to want to release a greatest hits soon, so this is the other greatest hits.

CNN: Did you learn anything from the students?

Folds: Yeah. I relearned a lot of stuff. ... This is all so old school. I mean these guys, they'd just do a live take and they just don't know that the pros don't do it that way. I mean, professional singers are a nightmare. You've gotta tune every syllable, they have to do it 10,000 times. These guys just did it.

CNN: And you went around each campus to record each track?

Folds: We kept them in what I would say is their natural habitat. I was really into the field recording idea. When you start messing with it and putting everyone on separate tracks you've lost the event and you've gained some sense of maybe perfection, but when it comes to the human voice, even-tempered piano tuning sounds incorrect to me. I think that people have a natural tuning mechanism.

CNN: You've always been very Internet savvy. You've embraced MySpace. Do you Twitter?

Folds: I'm not sure what that is.

There's always something new. I think that my fans knew how to use computers before most people's fans. I remember when everybody was talking about the possibility of downloading, and I was already having kids walk up with CDs they had burned for me to sign. This was like 1999. I was signing burned CDs more than I was signing my own. So I think they get it.

CNN: Why did you decide to leak a fake version of your 2008 album "Way To Normal?"

Folds: Well, I think that we get very uptight when it comes time to record because there's a process, an imminent process that has to do with just selling the record, mostly. And it also has to do with people's general take on music and how it's framed. I felt if something went out that was a joke and it was riding on the press of a new album, that we would be forced to go in and do something so quickly that we couldn't monitor ourselves.

So while I thought it was funny, I really liked the idea of going into the studio and making six songs in one day. So we wrote and recorded six songs in a day, mixed that day while we played our gig that night. And then it was mastered the next day. And then we leaked it the third day.

So in three days we wrote, recorded, mixed, mastered, distributed and did press on an album. I think things were kind of cool.

CNN: You've been married four times. Is that helpful for singer-songwriter purposes? I mean, that's a lot of drama.

Folds: Well, it wasn't a lot of drama, really. ... Everyone's life is different and I think the pace at which I've lived and the way that I tend to take a risk all contributes to the way that I write. ...

If you've got kids it is a drama. But it's the kind of drama you want to not write a song about. Because one, the kids will hear it and secondly, I don't like country music.

CNN: How has having kids changed your outlook on music?

Folds: I have to work more quickly and more efficiently.

CNN: Who are you listening to at the moment?

Folds: I'm in a habit of buying old 78 [rpm] records and I've got a little record player I'm carrying with me.

CNN: That's heavy.

Folds: Yeah, that's heavy, dude.

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CNN: I meant physically heavy -- to carry around a record player.

Folds: Oh, that too. I wouldn't know about that with my (jokingly flexes muscles) -- it doesn't really occur to me, those things.

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