Adventures in High Fidelity: Nick Hornby and Ben Folds Record an Album

The two of you made a YouTube video for your song "The Things That You Think." The Internet is a great platform for new artists, but you two don't need to rely on YouTube or MySpace to get your work out there. What is it that draws you to the Web?

FOLDS: It's the freedom. Doing television is a great opportunity when you've got a record out, and I don't sneeze at that at all. But, God, there are so many rules and it's so difficult to be musical. On the Internet, you just do it. I'm not as concerned about the number of people who are watching because we do have a platform.

The Internet is also a theme in Nick's new book, Juliet, Naked. The main characters are ordinary people who write long posts on a website and sort of become famous because of it. Has the Internet leveled the playing field for artists and writers?

HORNBY: I think we're not yet fully aware of what the Internet means for art. Music is being affected, writing is being affected, movies are certainly being affected, and we're right in the middle of these changes. We can't really tell whether there will be any income for anybody at the end of it. It could turn out to be that these last 70, 80, 90 years were the only time people made money from music and writing. Which is a strange feeling. That's what I wanted to write about in Juliet.

It also comes up in "Working Day," the first song on Lonely Avenue. The character in the song is an artist who sings, "Some guy on the net thinks I suck, and he should know, he has his own blog." Is that a challenge even for successful artists, getting so much instant reaction to everything you do?

HORNBY: Anyone who works on one's own has to battle with one's own ego. Within a five-minute period, you win and you lose and you're brilliant and you're terrible. Reading something on the Internet is exactly the sort of thing that can send you into a spiral. In the end, the song isn't so much about what's out there as about what's in us.

On the other end of the media spectrum, I've read that this album was produced with vinyl in mind.

FOLDS: Yeah, that was my vision—a side of music, 20 minutes, and someone has to decide who's going to decide who's going to get up and change the record over while the other person grabs a beer. Because people still do sometimes like to be a captive audience for music. It doesn't happen as much, because we can click on an MP3 and just listen to one song. I don't think that's a problem—I like being able to choose just one song. Most of the musicians who are bitching that the art of the album has been lost don't make good albums. But in this case, I thought the framework was nice, and I like the sound of vinyl. So we recorded on analog tape, which is a whole different experience.

Vinyl also seems like an appropriate medium for Nick, since people associate him with the record-collecting character in High Fidelity.

FOLDS: That did occur to me, too, that this is a good opportunity because people are going to associate Nick with large volumes of vinyl that he doesn't own.

HORNBY: I don't listen to vinyl at all. I only listen to MP3s. But I'm proud to be involved in something that might help restore the art.

Nick, is there any similarity between having your lyrics set to music and having your screenplays turned into films?

HORNBY: The obvious point of comparison is that a script is nothing until it's a movie and a lyric is nothing until it's music. When you write screenplays, people ask you if it isn't hard to give it over and have somebody else mess around with it. But a screenplay isn't anything. It only becomes something once the director gets involved. It's exactly the same with lyrics. It wasn't me giving something over to Ben. It was me doing the first part so Ben could do the second.

FOLDS: And I think the magic of it is that when I write music to one of Nick's lyrics, that's not a melody I would ever have written otherwise. That melody is written based on the rhythms and the cadences of what Nick wrote. There might be musical things embedded in Nick's lyrics that he didn't notice or didn't even mean. So in that way, he is actually involved in the music. The music and the lyrics become one, and you don't separate them anymore.

I wanted to ask you about the tone of the album. The Observer wrote, "This is music for the generation that has seen it all, done most of it, and is now sitting in the kitchen with a half-empty bottle, wondering what it all meant." Juliet, Naked has a similar feeling—it's about having been there and done that. Even the cult musician in the book ends up just being some guy living a normal life.

HORNBY: Right.

Do you think that loss of glamour is specific to Generation X? Or is it a natural part of getting older?

HORNBY: I think it's absolutely a natural part of getting older. There are things I couldn't write now that I wrote at 35 and vice-versa. I couldn't write High Fidelity now. The most important thing is to try and keep your curiosity levels up and keep the freshness up. For me, doing stuff like this album really helps.

The song "Practical Amanda" is about Nick's wife. It's not a typical romantic ode, but that lack of glamour makes it affecting in a different way.

HORNBY: I'm very proud that a song about my wife has the word "urinal" in it. She's not so pleased.

FOLDS: Yeah, when I'm the one writing the lyrics, that's the point where I feel good about a song. It's where the formality breaks down and just a little bit of the human being comes through. One of the most common questions I get is why I feel the need to say dirty words in my songs. It's because that's what people do in real life.

HORNBY: I don't know how you feel about this as a theory, Ben, but I'm beginning to notice that so many songs are generic. They don't contain the details of life. I'm wondering if more and more people are writing because they want to get their songs placed on movies and TV shows. If you've got urinals in there, that's highly unlikely to happen.

FOLDS: That never occurred to me, but it's not a bad theory. I know that's been a big problem for me with song placement—people will say, "We want to put this song in a movie, but it's just too opinionated or has too many details." What they want is the Hallmark card to play across a scene. And that does make sense.

HORNBY: I think it's a badge of honor for this album that more or less every song would be useless for a romantic comedy.

Nick, do you think you'll use any of the characters on Lonely Avenue in future novels? Or are they going to stay within the world of the album?

HORNBY: I think they're just for the album. I have problems with many, many aspects of my professional life, but ideas are not particularly a problem, in the same way that I don't think tunes are a problem for Ben. So I'm quite happy to spend my characters, as it were, on an album. Some new people will be along in a minute.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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