June 23, 2015

[Interview] Singer, Songwriter, and Producer Ben Folds on Why He Saves Places

Singer and songwriter Ben Folds launched the Save Studio A Campaign last year and has joined the National Trust in naming Music Row a National Treasure.

In the upcoming Summer 2015 issue of Preservation, the multi-talented Ben Folds talks with us about his fight to save Nashville’s RCA Studio A, the iconic 1960s recording studio he has leased for more than a decade. After learning last summer that it was being sold to a developer, the singer, songwriter, and producer launched the Save Studio A Campaign. And earlier this year, he joined the National Trust in naming Music Row a National Treasure. Read on for more from our interview.

Why did you want to get involved with saving Studio A?

Well, that’s a tough one, because I think in all fairness, everyone has different interests. I guess my job in the world is putting my interests out there. So my feeling was, put what’s happening [to the studio] out there and see if enough of us are interested to make sure that it remains. I think it’s important. But I realize to some people, it’s not. And in that way, it’s sort of a democracy.

But I do feel it’s really important to tap into where we’ve been. I also feel like in my travels, I talk to a lot of people who are really concerned about the things that they grew up with, that they consider important. We all have to decide what those things are. What are the important places?

So I put [RCA Studio A] out there. This building and this space have a real place in recorded music history. And I feel like when a studio that’s made so much music, and so much has happened there that’s affected a lot of people, people will come together and see that this is something that’s important to save. And it’s living history. It’s still making relevant records. It’s such a gem, and it should be kept.

RCA Studio A was saved from demolition in 2014 by a preservation-minded buyer.

What I was really trying to do was make sure that everyone who knew about the studio could take a moment and think about it and support it, because these things are going away. What I wanted was a pause for the community to really make sure, before we made a move toward wiping all that [history] out, that this was exactly what everyone wanted. And overwhelmingly, it’s not what everyone wanted. I couldn’t believe how important it was to people.

What has been your favorite recording experience at Studio A?

I don’t really have one. I’ve just gotten such joy out of being there and being part of the continuum. My crew and I have taken great pride in the room and what’s come before it. I like to think that the things that I have done one day will be held in such care and reverence as we have held for [this studio].

To me, it’s just that it’s there -- that I can walk in and write and record in a place that’s been such a fertile, creative space. And I was also really happy to give others the opportunity to do the same.

Everyone who walks in there has that reaction to it. There’s usually some conversation about how wonderful and grand and historic and special it is. It’s a conversation you hear with every single client and artist who comes into the room. That’s pretty cool.

Inside Studio A.

How does being in a place with that kind of history impact your music?

It’s really interesting. I think in general, you know where you stand, sort of, in recent history. And people who are just blazing trails, they know they’ve come from somewhere. I think a room like that is a neat reminder. When music was made in [Studio A] to begin with, people were just starting to figure out stereo. And there was just so much yet to happen in the world. I think feeling that is a little bit of a responsibility, in a way, I suppose.

I think when people go into church or into a school or into some place that they consider sacred, I think they’re on their best behavior, if that makes sense. I think that’s generally good. I think there’s sometimes when it’s best to make music somewhere that’s never been considered. I’ve made records in crazy places, from bedrooms to churches to outside, and I think there are many ways to do it. But it is really good to feel the history. And there needs to be places like that, musically, I think.

What is your hope for the future of Music Row?

I think some of the reason [for Music Row’s success] has been the informality, the unassuming nature of it. People were making music in the equivalent of what are just houses. And the studios were, architecturally, really nothing, just like buildings are beige, square, or rectangular. I think this caused an environment where creativity was really encouraged. Someone would duck into a house next door and write a song, or say, “Here’s a guitar,” or, “Do you have a piece of equipment I can borrow?” Or they’re hanging out and they’re like, “Let’s record here, there’s a studio downstairs.” It was very, very creative in an informal way. That led to such success and creativity.

New high-rise construction near Owen Bradley Park at the entrance to Music Row.

At the same time I think it made it more difficult to save, because a lot of people would say there wasn’t an amazing piece of architecture, and that if people are happy to make records in these little houses, why not build other houses somewhere else.

But the environment snowballed, and the more renowned it became for being a haven for creativity, the more people moved there. And the more people moved there, the more valuable [it became], and the more the economy prospered in town, which we find all the time. Creativity leads the way, and then the money follows.

So to me, what I would like to see is it continues. It doesn’t feel over to me. It feels like it’s all still going. I’m hoping that this was a real galvanizing moment.

Are there other historic studios or music or performance venues that are important or meaningful to you?

I’ve been in so many of them. It makes you happy when [a venue’s history is] pointed out to you, that you’re playing in this old theater, and here are some photographs, and here are some people who’ve played there. It makes you feel good about playing in the space, and it makes people feel good about coming to it, and it gives you a link with the past.

Ben Folds being interviewed at the Music Row National Treasure launch earlier this year.

A lot of the places, you don’t realize they’re gone until you’ve come through again. They’ve been shut down, or sometimes even burned. I live on tour, and there a lot of places I think are really neat that no one has said are in danger, but I would hate to think, for example, if someone said the Wiltern in Los Angeles was going to be [turned into an office store], I would be bummed. No one has ever said that, but I hate to think that that could happen. It would be a bummer if Radio City Music Hall were taken down to put a mall in or something.

To you, what is the relationship between music and the history of a place? How are they connected?

The place is the symbol, and holds the record. I think it holds the history, and it has to. Even if they don’t hang it on the walls, it’s there. People feel that. I think you feel that, in a real intuitive kind of way.

It’s like when I first went to Europe, I was blown away by the cobblestone streets. People walked on these streets, and there’s where Mozart was composing. You feel connected to your past. And history becomes important when you see the physical [remains], or what’s left. You walk into a building, you know that was there hundreds of years ago. I think there’s something grounding about that. It’s nice to feel rooted, and I do think it’s important.

Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

This May, our Preservation Month theme is “People Saving Places” to shine the spotlight on everyone doing the work of saving places—in big ways and small—and inspiring others to do the same!