BEVERLY HILLS, California — If only iTunes charts meant as much as Billboard charts.
"I'd be on the front of People magazine every week," Ben Folds joked. "I have a real disproportionate Internet fanbase. On iTunes, it's me and the Boss."
In "the real world," a.k.a. record stores, though, Folds has pretty much tossed in the towel.
"You don't have to walk in the mall for very long to realize I'm not really in that world," Folds said during a promotional trip to Los Angeles last week that included, of all things, an in-store performance at Virgin Records. "The misconception is that because I write accessible music that I must be mainstream, but there's nothing mainstream anymore about being accessible. ... There has to be a story, and I got no story. Maybe I need to go out and date an actress or something."
Instead, Folds embraces his un-hipness outside of the Internet. For instance, the only known collaborator on his new album, Songs for Silverman, is parody specialist "Weird Al" Yankovic, who harmonizes with Folds on the ballad "Time."
"I love Al, but I know that doesn't add credibility in the indie world to have Al Yankovic singing on backup vocals," confessed Folds, who has been friends with Yankovic since the comedian directed his "Rockin' the Suburbs" video. "I don't give a sh--. He's a great singer. I don't collaborate with anyone for profile or cross-pollination marketing or whatever it is they call it. If I know someone that's talented, whether they're famous or not, then yeah."
Folds certainly demonstrated this philosophy last year, when he co-wrote and produced William Shatner's first album in 36 years and then toured with the actor. At the same time, he also won indie credibility by forming the Bens with Ben Kweller and Ben Lee — although he was careful to end the project before it became too big.
The singer/songwriter is taking the same downplayed approach to "Late," a heartfelt tribute to Elliott Smith on Songs for Silverman that could easily garner the same type of cred.
"I'm going to hit a period pretty soon where I don't talk about that song and let it explain itself," Folds said. "I've always had an allergy to someone who goes, 'Oh, I don't want to explain my songs,' but in this case, he's got friends and family, and I don't need to be the multimedia spokesman for the death of someone I knew for a couple of weeks. I really loved his music and I thought he was a great guy. And I was moved to write a song for him."
Aside from "Late," Songs for Silverman, like the Ben Folds Five records and Folds' debut solo album, Rockin' the Suburbs, mostly chronicles his conventional suburban life. Although he has covered Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Sh--" (an iTunes favorite), Folds is about as gangsta as, well, Yankovic.
"You don't sell sh-- for records by saying, 'Yeah, I'm 38 years old and I've got kids,' " Folds said. "That's death. But if it's the truth, then which death do you want to die? The bullsh-- death that's like, 'I'm going to be 25 years old for the rest of my life,' or the truth death. I'll take the truth death. And they can all f--- themselves."
The truth is that Folds loves his kids. He wrote "Still Fighting It" on Rockin' the Suburbs for his son, Louie, and "Gracie" from Songs for Silverman for his daughter.
"I write songs for a very small audience. In that case it was for one," Folds said. "A lot of times it's for no one; it's for me. Everyone has similar experiences, so I don't really write to the universal. 'Gracie' is a good example of that. It's just for Gracie. The first line is, 'I saw you when you came out.' That's a pretty graphic line for a kid, but I knew she'd think that is funny."
"Landed," the first single from Songs for Silverman — Folds' first album with a band since Ben Folds Five broke up — is about a close friend's divorce.
"He went through a really, really rough time with his horrible witch of a wife and then he got out of it," Folds explained. " 'Landing' just refers to his flight back to his hometown and so him coming back to being himself."
Don't expect to hear the song on the radio, though, Folds said, even if it is a top download on the Internet. Fans can also hear the track and others from Songs for Silverman live this summer on a tour with Rufus Wainwright.
The title of the trek? The Odd Men Out Tour.