When the rock 'n' roll pianist and former Ben Folds Five frontman recorded his new solo album, Way to Normal, he knew it would get leaked to the Internet, so he went ahead and did it himself well, sort of. This summer, Folds released six "fake" songs on the Internet and pretended that they were tracks off his album. The fake songs bore the same titles as tracks on the album, but contained completely different lyrics and music. The real Way to Normal dropped on Sept. 30; the fake versions are available wherever music is freely downloaded. Folds talked to TIME about his divorce, writing songs about diapers, and his recent reunion with the other Five.
You made an album, but you also made a fake album. What's the deal with that?
It was just fun. In the music business, people make one album every two to three years. But in the 60s and 70s, people were making things much faster two or three albums a year. I wanted to try that. I had an album that was anticipated, and I knew that if something got released people would think it was that. We wrote, recorded, mixed, and mastered a bunch of songs within about 48 hours and then shipped it on the Internet and people thought it was the album. Everyone's like, "Oh, this is the new album, we got it." Then they go download it and go, "Wait a minute, something's wrong. This isn't an album but it's still really good music."
So did you like any of the fake songs better than the original versions?
It wouldn't be wise for me to say since I'm promoting a new album. But I really do like the fake songs a lot, some of them rival what's on the record. It's just that the ones on the record are the ones the promotion beast is concentrating on.
You got divorced between your last album, Songs for Silverman, and this one. Yet this album is very lighthearted and comedic. Are you suppressing it all or do you really feel this carefree?
I was a little concerned when people started calling it a "divorce record" and I thought God, if I'm a good enough songwriter, and I hope that I am, and I nailed the feeling of divorce, it'd be a really depressing album. I know it's cool to be depressing, but there comes a point where you're just basically walking into someone's house and s___ting on their floor.
So you decided not to write about it.
There are some things that just don't need to be expressed, not on a record. Go back to Songs for Silverman, if you want to hear an album with 6 breakup songs. A lot of people didn't notice it at the time, but listen to the lyrics. I would have heard that and gone, "There's this big glowing dedication to this guy's wife on the cover, but listen to the center of it, there's something going on here."
You do have one sweeping break-up song on the album, "Cologne." In the middle of the song you mention the NASA astronaut who wore diapers and drove 18 hours to murder her ex-boyfriend. Why did you put such a weird story in the middle of an otherwise sweet song?
That diaper line is about those moments when you're pondering things, and you look down at the paper and you see something absurd, and even absorbed in your thoughts you still notice it. It's about having the same experiences during the time you're apart, and the imaginary conversations you would have if you were still together. Like, "God, did you see that thing too? I know you would have noticed this, you certainly would have picked up the paper and had a laugh at this."
But...you sing about diapers...
I always want to push the barrier a little bit with lyrics. In songs we're supposed to say, "Girl, uh huh, you done me wrong, you did." But you've got to break out of that. People are so shocked to hear the word "Diapers," it just really freaks them out. And to them I say, get used to it.
Do you think people will get used to it?
The way songwriting is going, it's possible. If you take it back 30 years or so, people were just talking about holding hands. Now lyrics have gotten so frank and so graphic and honest, and often very literal. Some of the stuff that goes down in R&B lyrics, to the 1980 ear it'd be absolutely unthinkable. I'm not saying that I'm ahead of my time, but it wouldn't surprise me if that line actually found more of a home in 20 years than it does now.
You recently played a show with your old band, Ben Folds Five. What was it like?
It was just a great, great, great experience. It was awesome. They played their asses off and I played better than I ever had with them. We didn't rehearse at all when we were a band, we just went and played. We didn't even do soundchecks! But for this show we did a three-day rehearsal. 8 hours a day for three days. It was the most I've ever done and it was as tight as it was going to get.
Will you play with Ben Folds Five again?
It was planned as a one-time deal, through MySpace. We're not going to do any tours or anything, but I'm sure that something else will come up. But not any time soon. I've got my next three years booked.