Words and Music: Ben Folds and Nick Hornby Make an Album

  • Share
  • Read Later
Eamonn McCabe

Ben Folds, left, with Nick Hornby

I never thought I'd sympathize with Levi Johnston. The 20-year-old ex-fiancé of Bristol Palin and onetime Playgirl cover model and I just don't have very much in common. But then I listened to "Levi Johnston's Blues," a new song by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby, and something in the lyrics reminded me of myself:

"And when I try to tell them I'm 18 years old/
They say, 'Levi, it's too late, you got to do as you're told' "

"Levi seemed like a good metaphor for all the mistakes that we make when we're kids and the price that we pay for them," explains Hornby, the British author of About a Boy and High Fidelity. This is the beauty of Lonely Avenue, an album of 11 songs, all co-written by Hornby and musician Folds. Each track is a story, often told in the first person, about what it's like to be a 9-year-old girl, a washed-up rock star or the world's most famous hockey-playing teen dad. And in every story, there's something relatable. In fact, the album almost comes across as a short-story collection put to music. Perhaps this is the benefit of asking a novelist to co-write the songs.

There are, of course, potential downsides to this scenario — including, in Hornby's case, the fact that he couldn't play an instrument. But at least he knew and appreciated music. In addition to High Fidelity, whose main character is a romantically frustrated record-store owner with a connoisseur's fussiness about rock music, Hornby has also written music criticism, most notably for the New Yorker. He and Folds struck up a friendship after Hornby featured the Ben Folds Five song "Smoke" in Songbook, a collection of essays about his favorite music. They later collaborated on a track for William Shatner's 2004 album Has Been, after the actor requested that Hornby pen him a tune. "I'd never written a song before," he says, "but writing a song for William Shatner? That's obviously an irresistible task."

With Folds' help, Hornby wrote "That's Me Trying," which Shatner speak-sings on his album. The partnership was so successful that eventually Folds and Hornby decided to collaborate on an album. For Lonely Avenue, Hornby e-mailed lyrics to Folds, who turned them into songs. "The process almost goes against what I've learned, which is that songwriting should be a labor," says Folds. "I find it so easy this way. It's natural and quick."

Well, not that quick. The songs on the album took several months to produce, with Hornby writing lyrics in London and sending them to Folds, who arranged and recorded the music in Nashville. An e-mail between the songwriters, reprinted in the liner notes, illustrates the complex process of turning one man's words into another man's music. Hornby wrote a song called "Belinda," about an aging rock star who has to sing his big hit, a love song about someone he no longer loves, at every concert he plays. "You've quoted the chorus of this fabled hit song in the second line of the verse," Folds says to Hornby in the e-mail, before going on to explain the difficulty of writing a song about a song, and the placement of the fake chorus in between the real one. "It was like a hell [of a] crossword puzzle."

For "Levi Johnston's Blues," Hornby deftly couples compassionate, Everyman lyrics about a teenager involuntarily thrust into adulthood with lines paraphrased from Johnston's pre-infamy MySpace page:

"I'm a f___ing redneck, I live to hang out with the boys/
Play some hockey, do some fishin' and kill some moose"

Meanwhile, Folds was tasked with finding the melody for "Practical Amanda," a love song for Hornby's wife. "There's a little bit of responsibility in taking words someone has written and putting your own slant on it," Folds says. For his part, Hornby doesn't seem to mind. "Ben's my Cyrano de Bergerac," he jokes. "If my wife and I have a fight tonight, I'll just bring him round to the house and have him sing a song and resolve it."

Too bad that wasn't an option for Bristol and Levi.