Back in 2003, British author Nick Hornby sang the praises of the Ben Folds Five tune “Smoke” in the pages of his essay collection, Songbook. Today, he and Folds are good buddies and they’ve just released a record, Lonely Avenue, featuring Nick’s lyrics set to Ben’s music. Hornby went from fan boy to collaborator in just seven years. We should all be so lucky.
Anyone who managed to get into Housing Works Bookstore Café in Lower Manhattan Tuesday night must have felt pretty lucky too. There, surrounded by hundreds of fans crammed between bookshelves and still more hanging from the balcony, Hornby and Folds took the audience behind the scenes of their collaboration in a conversation moderated by SPIN deputy editor Steve Kandell, peppered with solo piano performances by Folds of some of Lonely Avenue‘s highlights.
Hornby and Folds’ album is of course very much in the spirit of SPIN’s Liner Notes series, organized by SPIN contributor Emily Zemler, which aims to explore the intersection of music and literature. Tuesday night’s show, which raised $10,000 for the Housing Works AIDS charity, was the fourth installment in the series, following events featuring Tegan Quin, Augusten Burroughs, Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, and Dredg.
On Lonely Avenue, Hornby brings the same sharp eye for pop cultural detail he displayed in his classic novels High Fidelity and About a Boy. And Folds is just as effortless with his melodies and wry with his sense of humor as he’s been since his days with the Ben Folds Five. And yet Hornby isn’t a songwriter — as he admitted Tuesday night, he didn’t even realize songwriters could repeat lines. And Folds has never written an album using someone else’s lyrics. So how did these tunes actually come together, and so seamlessly?
That’s the question the pair spent most of the evening answering. And they did so largely by revealing the intimate details of their collaboration, hatched entirely over email — when a lyric didn’t fit easily into one of Ben’s melodies, or when one of Folds’ songs ended up sounding completely different than the version Nick heard in his head.
Take “Practical Amanda.” Hornby always envisioned the song as an upbeat, scrappy little number similar to Ben Folds Five’s “Kate.” And yet Folds, after ruminating on the lyrics — which Nick had written for his wife, Amanda — decided a ballad would suit them better. Hornby was genuinely touched by the somber treatment. But most of all, as he explained at Housing Works, “I’m extremely happy that even though I wrote a song about my wife, it had the word ‘urinal’ in it.” Right on.
Having Hornby read his lyrics aloud before Folds performed the songs revealed even more of the music’s conversational detail than was apparent on the album. On “Your Dogs,” a liberal urban gentrifier wishes his drug-dealing neighbor, the one with “the tat on [his] neck and the ring through [his] nose,” could just be a little more like him. While on “Picture Window,” a mother who just checked her daughter into the hospital on New Year’s Eve (which actually happened to Hornby’s ex-wife and his daughter), gazes out at the fireworks bursting over London and “the useless luck makes her wanna cry.”
Folds’ virtuoso performances brought Hornby’s vignettes vividly to life. His rambunctious piano-playing on “Levi Johnston’s Blues” — yes, it’s about Bristol Palin’s one-time beau — had Housing Works’ tiny stage visibly shaking, and Hornby, perched precariously on a stool, warning the audience never to share a stage with Folds if they cared about their safety.
Folds reserved his ballsiest performance for “Saskia Hamilton” — an odd little number about a poetically inclined kid who becomes obsessed with an actual poet, Saskia Hamilton, based entirely on the strange beauty of her name. To make things even more surreal, the real Saskia Hamilton happened to be in the audience Tuesday night — meeting Folds and Hornby for the very first time. “Gonna live with her and it’ll be harmonious/ How could it not be when she’s that euphonious,” Folds screamed. Hamilton could do nothing but smile.
With tunes about obscure contemporary poets and the ex-fiancé of a vice-presidential candidate’s daughter, one would be forgiven for thinking that Lonely Avenue might sound a little dated in a year or two. Well that’s just fine with Nick and Ben. At Housing Works, Hornby defended the rights of novelists and songwriters to fill their work with current cultural references, however wacky or fleeting. “It seems to me that one of the values of literature is to describe how people actually lived at the time,” Hornby noted. Posterity is for suckers.
Ben Folds & Nick Hornby’s Liner Notes Setlist:
“Levi Johnston’s Blues”