"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. 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.
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.