Two decades after Ben Folds Five made it big, NC native is writing his own story

In conversation with Ben Folds, there are certain phrases that hit him the wrong way. For example, when he is asked whether his shows with the NC Symphony in Raleigh this weekend will be his "standard pops program," his wince is almost audible over the phone.

"Man, I cringe a little at the 'pops' label and don't like calling it that, because it just sounds bad to me," he said. "I work hard at it, and it's with a proper orchestra, no rock band onstage. So, yeah, it's my standard pops show, but I've worked hard all of my adulthood to steer toward a little higher ground than that."

Folds is an old hand at working with orchestras by now, but the Winston-Salem native has a pretty glorious past as one of the Triangle's biggest claims to nationwide fame. In the mid-1990s, he lived in Chapel Hill and led Ben Folds Five, a trio that played smart-alecky pop songs with equal parts punky bravado and whiz-kid virtuosity.

At a time when guitar-based alternative rock ruled the scene, Ben Folds Five was always something of an anomaly. But they resonated far beyond the Triangle.

In 1997-98, both Folds and Squirrel Nut Zippers broke through with million-selling albums. Folds' hit single "Brick" was omnipresent enough to land them on "Saturday Night Live" in January 1998, the first local band to land that coveted spot. And while Folds hasn't lived in Chapel Hill for close to 20 years, he still identifies with the music of his native state.

"We were definitely very lucky to have a lot of examples of troops washing up on the beach," Folds said. "We just kept invading little by little until bands in my era started getting some traction. With Squirrel Nut Zippers and me, it was because we had the example of courageous soldiers before us who had broken down barriers."

Ben Folds Fives broke up in 2000. Drummer Darren Jessee plays in Durham-based Hiss Golden Messenger nowadays and also turned up on The War on Drugs' Grammy-winning 2017 album "A Deeper Understanding." Bassist Robert Sledge plays in a couple of different bands, including Surrender Human.

The trio has reunited a few times over the years, most recently with 2012's "The Sound of the Life of the Mind." But Folds himself has mostly pursued his muse in quirky ways, working with rock bands, orchestras, college a capella groups and recording with everybody from Sara Bareilles to William Shatner.

Folds has also served as judge on NBC's "The Sing-Off," an a capella reality singing competition; developed a growing reputation as a photographer; and was appointed last year to the new post of artistic adviser to the Kennedy Center's National Symphony Orchestra.

"My work at the Kennedy Center is all about bringing in an artist and matching them with Shostakovich or Bartok or whoever," Folds said. "Get them to do it in a way that's believable, tell a story with the orchestra."

Folds is working on telling his own story, too, recently signing a deal to write his first book.

"I hope it will be a memoir that's useful for artists and musicians, embedded with lessons I've learned," he said. "I don't want a self-indulgent book, but it has stories and chapters and thoughts that have been invaluable to me in becoming a musician."

Asked if he would describe it as a "how-to," Folds laughed.

"Maybe more like a 'how did,'" he said. "Or maybe a 'how could,' because how you do it is up to you. Any artist who has had any kind of success has done it with a whole lot of help from circumstance and luck and environment. I feel like it's mostly for artists, but it's not shop-talky. So far it reads like a straight-up memoir. I had a colorful 1970s upbringing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a lot of it was funny. So that's good."

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi


Who: Ben Folds with the North Carolina Symphony

When: 8 p.m. May 4 and 5

Where:Meymandi Concert Hall, 2 E. South St., Raleigh

Cost: $38-$79

Details: 919-996-8700 or ncsymphony.org

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