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Ben Folds on Kesha: ‘She’s the Real Deal’

Singer-songwriter talks “gutsy” Billboard Music Awards performance, weighs in on “absurd” HB2 bill.

When Ben Folds played New York’s Beacon Theater in May, he shared a long anecdote with the crowd about the time he threw his phone in a hotel pool. The woman who jumped in and retrieved it for him was Kesha.

“Just put it in rice,” Folds remembered the singer telling him. The encounter between the Top 40 pop star and the piano-rocker inspired a song (“Phone in a Pool”) and cemented an artistic friendship, which played out in two highly publicized performances last week.

At the Billboard Music Awards, Folds accompanied Kesha on an emotional cover of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Days prior, Folds and Kesha performed the song onstage at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles before Dr. Luke’s label Kemosabe Records – which had originally cancelled Kesha’s performance – re-approved Kesha’s Billboard appearance.

Folds is currently touring North America with yMusic ensemble in support of So There, his recent LP composed of eight chamber rock songs and his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra performed with the Nashville Symphony. Folds spoke with Rolling Stone about his performances with Kesha, the absurdity of the North Carolina House Bill 2 and recording a track for the Hamilton mixtape.

How did your ad-hoc performance with Kesha last Wednesday come about?
We were fortunate, musically. When we were told [Kesha’s performance] wasn’t going to be on, I was just like [to Kesha], “Why don’t you come onstage and do it with us tonight, and we’ll arrange something quickly for it?” The song is only piano and vocals, but for that show we created a broader arrangement. I think it gave her a life raft – knowing it had gone over so well at my show.


What did you think of her decision to cover “It Ain’t Me Babe”?
I thought the choice was great. She had a bunch of songs she was deciding between – Bob Dylan, some Beach Boys. This song, I thought, gave her a chance to ride that line so few people ride well, of making something hers and illuminating something different about the song. You have to remember about these things [awards-show performances] – they’re mostly loud program music with choreography, sound effects; even the stripped-down stuff is still heavily choreographed. But in that performance, she played completely stripped-down music. I thought it was a safe place for her to do something gutsy like that because she knows I’ve got her back all down the chain. I’ve helped take care of her. I wouldn’t have shown up [at the Billboard Music Awards] if it wasn’t real.

When did you and Kesha become friends?
I’ve known Kesha for a while. I’m proud of her, personally and musically. She’s the real thing. I met her shortly after she broke through a mutual friend. She told me how she’d sneak into my shows when she was in high school. I’m not sure why she had to sneak in [laughs], but we’ve settled that.

Has she told you what her favorite Ben Folds album is?
I think it’s Rockin’ the Suburbs, for sure. It’s amazing the amount of female pop stars of her age and ilk that gravitated towards that album.

“I’ve helped take care of [Kesha]. I wouldn’t have shown up if it wasn’t real.”

When you invited her to perform, that was a crucial and rare moment for pop music. It flew in the face of artistic censorship, which is a huge topic right now.
It’s so complicated. I’m mostly interested in the artistic part of this, but the artistic part is tied to the personal part, which is tied into the legal part. The main thing is that Kesha has had the same choice as everyone: take the tough road and stick up for herself or just get in line. The fact that her personal and artistic growth is so important to her that she’s willing to be kicked off television shows and not put a record out – that’s what people are responding to. It takes guts to develop your voice, reinvent and be yourself like David Bowie or any other great artist. She just took a big risk. Plus, she’s fuckin’ way good.

HB2 is also in the news right now. You’re from Winston-Salem originally – what do you think about the bill?
It’s just absurd. I mean, it’s truly absurd. What are you gonna do? Bring your fucking birth certificate in the bathroom? The whole thing is ridiculous.

Would you say you’re a political artist?
I’m not really. Well, I am to the extent that my manager was Al Gore’s press secretary for 15 years.

Yeah, he’s very political. And he’s very well connected. But as a traveling musician, for instance, I’ve never done jury duty. I’m fuckin’ 50 years old and I’ve never done jury duty. And I voted in some elections, but sometimes it’s difficult to get an absentee ballot when I happen to be in Australia touring or something like that. I don’t have an excuse.

Where do you stand on playing or not playing concerts in North Carolina in response to the bathroom bill, like Springsteen and other artists?
I’m not going to have a gig in North Carolina then cancel the gig. Then a bunch of people took off work, bought tickets, planned to drive to my show. Then they can’t, because I canceled the show. Some of those people may have actually been the ones that voted down HB2.

Your music has resonated with college-aged people across multiple generations at this point. How have the mentalities of that group changed?
I’ve been playing for college kids for nearly 30 years – that’s insane – 30 years? In my experience, the group coming along now is distinctly different from the ones who used to pick me up from the airports, take me to the gigs years ago. They’re different today. You’ll see the way they react with, for instance, authority. I’ve noticed kids who are coming through college now are very calm and empathetic about authority.

I was watching that new Netflix series Characters the other day and was delighted the first episode uses your song “Brick.” Have you seen the clip?
No! I haven’t seen it. I heard it’s with somebody doing a pole dance to it? That’s amazing.


Can you tell me how you got involved in the Hamilton mixtape? There’s a pretty eclectic mix of artists on there with you, Regina Spektor, Busta Rhymes, Chance the Rapper.That’s it [laughs]. Have you ever had qualms about other people using your songs in commercials and in TV?
No, never. I think it’s like, if someone thinks this song is about me taking my dog to the vet, there’s nothing I can do to change how they feel about it. How a song is characterized or how it’s [perceived] – it’s like you’re sending your kids off. You can’t spend all your time worrying about who they’re going to marry, or what decisions they’ll make. I’m amazed when a song is used in a way I wouldn’t have thought.

It was more [Spektor’s] thing than mine. I just came in and sang with her. And then we went and had margaritas and I forgot [laughs]. I thought it was interesting to hear such historical words in a heartfelt song. I think it’s cool that the words don’t have the vernacular of pop music, which is really narrow. It’s like: “baby” this and “baby” that. Whoever says “I cried for you” in public? I sing that shit all the time and no one says that. Pop music sounds good rolling off the tongue, but it doesn’t necessarily sound normal singing stuff about our great nation. You know what I mean? It’s unusual. So I love that it’s unusual.

Are you into American history?
I don’t know. I mean, I like history when it can be presented in a human way. That’s interesting to me. I live in a house that was a 19th-century women’s department store. I love it because some walls have old gas lines coming out of the wall, before electricity. My house was built in 1890, the same year that Edison wired Wabash, Indiana, with the first incandescent lightbulbs.

That’s fascinating.
Right, then it’s like you feel it. But the other thing about history, is nobody can seem to be able to correctly report what happened yesterday, so I’m not sure how we get 150 years right [laughs]. I think what Hamilton got right was to investigate the human part. So it all felt like a surprise. Like, “Are they going to win that war?” Of course! You know that they won the war, but there was the sense of newness. When someone can present history like that, that’s great. That happens so rarely. But that’s why Lin-Manuel Miranda won the Pulitzer Prize – as he should have – because he actually taught people some fucking history.