"Making a tape is like writing a letter," muses Rob, the narrator of Nick Hornby's 1995 novel High Fidelity. "You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention. ... And then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch. ... There are loads of rules."
This week, Hornby comes out with an album of his own, a collaboration with singer-songwriter Ben Folds called Lonely Avenue. Musically speaking, the album follows Rob's rules. Its opening number, "Working Day," is an attention-grabbing flurry of synthesizer notes and cheerful vocals. The energy cools and rises with each new track, shifting from ballad to blues to borderline punk.
But for the most part, Lonely Avenue breaks the rules rather than following them. The lyrics don't sound like lyrics so much as a novelist's character sketches. But Folds brings out their musicality—he croons, he shouts, he syncopates and draws out the words. "Your Dogs," a tune about a scary tattooed neighbor, sounds a bit like the Clash, while "Picture Window," the story of a woman with a sick child, draws on introspective piano and strings. On "Levi Johnston's Blues," Folds uses rhythm to turn the simplest lines into a catchy bridge: "I—say—mother-in-law, nooo—we ain't getting married / They—say—Soon you will, bo-oy—she just announced it."
As artists, Folds and Hornby are no strangers to experimentation. Hornby is not only a fiction writer but a successful screenwriter, and Folds is equally at home arranging his music for rock bands, orchestras, and a capella groups. With Lonely Avenue, both artists took new kinds of risks. Folds relished the challenge of working with a novelist who had no idea how to write lyrics. And Hornby, who emailed lyrics as they came to him, was eager to see what Folds would do with them. The result is an adventure in genre-crossing and a testament to an artistic friendship. It's also a collection of 11 rich and unusual songs.
I spoke to Folds and Hornby over the phone about their collaboration, the freedom of the Internet, and why their songs will never make it onto a romantic comedy soundtrack.
Nick, you've said that the first time you heard Ben's music, it reminded you of yourself. Was it something about the way he wrote lyrics, or was it the sensibility of his music?
HORNBY: It was the sensibility of the music. It just felt like something I could identify with extremely strongly.
When you started sending over lyrics to Ben, did you have any vague idea of what the tunes would sound like?
HORNBY: Not really. I think I might have said something in the last line of an email like, "This might be a ballad." And Ben would cheerfully ignore it. But I didn't feel that it was my place to make those decisions. Part of the pleasure for me was the curiosity of it—seeing which lyrics stuck with Ben and what kind of music he provided for them.
Ben, did you have to edit Nick's lyrics at all to make them more lyric-like?
FOLDS: No. In fact, what I liked about the lyrics is that they were lyric-like enough to fit with music, but they weren't typical lyrics. That's what I'd hoped for—there was something really refreshing about it. Because words that sound like lyrics are just like "Roses are red, violets are blue." Nick's lyrics are like defining moments out of short stories. He's really great at making those moments fit into the length of a lyric. I have a feeling that when he sat down to write, he thought back to the lyrics he'd seen printed on record sleeves: "They're usually about this long, and the chorus might look like this."
HORNBY: Yeah, that's about it. I just figured I'd have four lines in a verse, and if any of them happened to rhyme, so much the better. Not being a lyricist can both help and hinder you. For instance, one thing I never once thought of doing is writing out the same line twice. And of course, every song you ever hear has some line repeated.
FOLDS: Well, you know, a lot of times when a songwriter repeats a line, it's one of the weakest lines in the song. They repeat the line to imply that there's more meaning in it than there actually is. You know, like [sings], "Checkered black and white floor ... Checkered black and whiiiite floor ..."
You mentioned Nick's ability to capture short-story moments in short songs. Some of the characters on this album actually could have been characters from Nick's novels—for example, the woman in the song "Picture Window" could easily have been Maureen from A Long Way Down.
HORNBY: That's right.
But in the novel, we had hundreds of pages to learn Maureen's back story. Is it easier or harder to get across the essence of a character in 200 words than in hundreds of thousands of words?
HORNBY: It's harder to convey a back story when you haven't got as much room to do it. But even if you don't have the room, having more details in mind makes the story you do come up with seem more real. There's a lot of time spent in the imagining, as it were, and that always rubs off somewhere.
How did Levi Johnston end up joining the cast of characters?
HORNBY: I happened to read about Levi Johnston right when we started writing the songs. I thought his story was really interesting. The song wasn't intended as political satire—he just struck me as a young man in both a unique position and a universal position, and that seemed like pretty good material.
FOLDS: I didn't really know who Levi Johnston was when I first got Nick's lyrics. It was the same week as the Republican National Convention, so Levi was in the news, but he wasn't the household name that he's become. I wouldn't have thought he would become a household name, but Nick picked a winner.
Ben, you said you liked it that Nick's words weren't typical lyrics. You have a reputation for doing unpredictable things as a songwriter, from performing with orchestras to making up impromptu songs to strangers on the Internet. What keeps driving you to color outside the lines in that way?
FOLDS: It makes sense to me to apply my musical training and experience to all kinds of things. I've done that a lot at gigs, making up songs on the spot. I've used lyrics from newspaper articles. One of the Ben Folds Five songs, "Cigarette," was a line from a newspaper, a run-on sentence about a man and his wife. I like to have musical reactions to whatever's happening around me. That's what I'm here to do.