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Ben Folds was the '90s alternative movement's version of Elton John or Billy Joel, a piano man with a few stacks of smart and appealing tunes. Growing up in Winston-Salem, a city with a long alternative-rock history, Folds started writing songs as a teenager and played different instruments (piano, bass, drums) in various high-school bands. One of those groups, Majosha (with Folds on bass) won a Duke University battle of the bands in 1988 and made an EP called Party Night: Five Songs About Jesus (which in fact had no songs about Jesus; the first instance of Folds' quirky sense of humor). A publishing deal led him to Nashville, then he studied percussion at University of Miami's Frost School of Music, and next wound up in New York where he regularly played the acoustic club Sin-é (where another soon-to-be-famous songwriter, Jeff Buckley, was also doing gigs). Finally he returned to North Carolina and formed Ben Folds Five-so named, perversely enough, because they were a trio-with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee. Folds said that Elton John's live album <11-17-70, also featuring a trio, was his template for the lineup. The Five's debut was released in 1995 and the followup, 1997's Whatever and Ever, Amen introduced his best-known song "Brick." Recorded when the album was nearly done and nailed in one take, "Brick" had a despairing feel that he first declined to explain, then revealed it was about a high-school girlfriend who'd had an abortion. Another popular album track, "Song for the Dumped," found him dealing with personal history in wittier terms. The Five broke up in 2000 (following their third album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner) but continued to work together over the years, between Folds' diverse solo projects. Launching his solo career, 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs had Folds playing most of the instruments, and spawned an MTV hit with the title track, for which "Weird Al" Yankovic directed and appeared in the video. A more surprising collaboration was with William Shatner, whose proudly odd 2004 album Has Been was produced and co-written by Folds. During 2008 he worked with Amanda Palmer, then just out of the Dresden Dolls, on her solo debut Who Killed Amanda Palmer. The same year Folds leaked a bunch of joke tracks to fans, claiming they were from the upcoming album The Way to Normal. When the (entirely different) real album came out, it became the highest-charting one of his career. The next year saw his debut on NBC-TV's talent competition "The Sing-Off" (NBC 2009-2013), where he'd appear as a judge for the next four seasons. The Five toured again in 2013 and went back into hiatus afterward; Folds' 2015 solo album So There was fully orchestrated and featured his first piano concerto.
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