It's hard not to like Ben Folds (and in the interest of full disclosure, I'm definitely a fan). His lyrics can be funny, poignant or simply candidly observant of the human condition; he can pull amazingly honest stuff out of William Shatner (2004's "Has Been" was a critical hit) and he plays a mean piano. But it was still a surprise to see Folds on the judging panel of "The Sing-Off," NBC's reality TV competition for a cappella singing groups. (third season premiere Mon. Sept. 19 at 8 p.m.). I had the chance to talk to the musician-turned-TV personality at the TCAs this year, and we discussed his two new albums, how he's making a shaky music industry work for him and why he'd look like a "jackass" if he didn't play nice with his fellow judges.

"The Sing-Off" is going into its third season, but how did you get involved in the first place?They were looking for quote unquote experts at a moment when a cappella hadn't blown up as a result of the show and "Glee." When they asked me, that show hadn't come out yet. And I think it was because I'd just done a record of university a cappella groups doing my music, because we found out there were literally hundreds of university a cappella groups recording my music at schools, performing it, so [I thought] oh, we'll just take out a multitrack machine and capture it. The word got around about that and the producers said, oh, well, he's an expert. They called me up. I had to think about it at first because I wasn't sure why I would want to do something like this. The conclusion I came to was I should do it because it's an opportunity to almost be like being a producer. Something went right, something went wrong, how can you help. And that's not foreign to me. The TV camera things is a little different. But I just pretend like that's not on. It's like you get to produce ten groups in a night. 

Judging a TV singing show is a different skill set than being a musician. How difficult was the adjustment?
I mean, I think I was aware that I'm not an actor and I was going to be a bit awkward on TV. I also realized that that's okay. If I take time to choose my words and I'm a little bit awkward, I'm just a musician. I'm just trying to give them musical advice. it takes the pressure off me in that I don't have to be totally pro. If I was doing what Nick's doing and standing there having to read the teleprompter, I would totally suck. I can't do the second takes very well. I just see the groups, say what I think and then I shut down. 
 
You have a new album, "Ben Folds: The Best Imitation of Myself, A Retrospective" coming out October 11 with three brand new Ben Folds Five tracks included. In September, you released "Lonely Avenue," your collaboration with writer Nick Hornby. Given how much the music industry has changed since you started, how much do you have to think outside of the box in choosing projects?
It's not really a necessity. It's an option now. It wasn't an option when I started. When I started, the music industry was much more controlled ands sure of itself, and now no one really knows what's going to happen next. So people like me say, hey, I think I'm going to try this next, and they go, 'Alright! That might work!' Where it used to be no way, that won't work. Now I can try things and I feel really lucky, because I feel that I can leave behind me more of a diverse body of work that's actually published, whereas before I would have had to do these things in shame behind closed doors. If I want to make a record with William Shatner, if I want to make a record with Nick Hornby, I'd kind of have to do it under the radar. Now they're all up for it because the industry is desperate for anything that might work. 
 
How much has social media changed the game? 
It's the same thing as a live show. The live show always was we'd walk out on stage and no matter what someone said worked or didn't work, we knew, because the audience is right there. You go into selling records, you have to consider distribution, promotion, radio, all of these things. There's so many opportunities for the message to get watered down before it gets to people. Social media is just like playing a gig. It comes hand in hand sometimes.  I go, 'I'm getting ready to go onstage, everybody make a paper airplane and put your request on it.' And then in ten minutes they've all made requests and thrown them on stage and you go out. Can you imagine trying to get that word out through a promoter? It would never happen. That's great.
 
Has being a judge on "The Sing-Off" had any kind of impact on your record sales?
It's a different me. The people who come up to me in the street and say, 'You're Ben Folds from 'The Sing-Off,'' they're not necessarily aware that I make music. It's a big world out there, you know? The mainstream is massive. My cult following, though it's very large, is still pretty cordoned off. I know when I walk down the street I can see for a mile off which ones are my people, and of course they come by and they nod and go, Ben Folds, what's up and keep going. It's a nice little secret. Now I'm signing autographs. I used to write on shit. It used to be will you write on my shit? Yeah, I'll write on your shit. Now they say, can I get your autograph, Mr. Folds? It's a different group of people. 
 
So, since you can spot them a mile off, what do fans of the musical you look like? 
It's just a look. It's more like a honing device. I don't know what it is. It's not tangible. You just feel, oh, this is a person from that planet. Maybe it's people who don't exactly feel like they fit in some way. I think that's part of it.
 
In recent years you've collaborated with some unexpected non-musicians -- William Shatner, Neil Gaiman and Nick Hornby. What's the appeal of working with people from different worlds?
It's really powerful to take non-musical entities and have them express themselves musically. Like Shatner. We made that record [when] he was 73 years old and he'd never really told his story, especially musically. Yeah, he'd done spoken word, but those were other people's words. It's powerful, people giving their stories. Same thing with the a cappella stuff. I feel like I can pick out five people on the street, bring 'em together in a recording studio and find a way to have them tell their story and make it interesting. Of course, it's much more powerful when it's Captain Kirk. Still, no one expected what he did. That's what so cool about it. They expected one thing and he gave em something else.  Because I told him that schtick, I love what you do, but I'm more interested in you than what you do. If you can just tell me the truth... So he would write lyrics and I'd say that's bullshit, that's bullshit and that's bullshit. Take that out and be honest with me for a second and we can make an album. And that was our relationship, and he did that and I was so proud of him.
 
How was it working with Nick Hornby? I'd imagine the author of "High Fidelity" would be a natural.
Nick's a little different. He's like a psychic, so he gets into people's heads. [He and William Shatner are] both non-musical artists and they get to speak through music now. Obviously, Nick was chomping at the bit to do something like this for years, but wanted the right opportunity so I was very lucky that I got to be the one to do it. I approached him.
 
Do you have a wish list of other people you'd like to work with? 
I'm not like a musical slut or anything, but it doesn't take that much for me as long as there's an artistic personality with a compelling story inside them somewhere. Like Neil Gaiman, so professional. [I could say] 'Neil, we need to write about this this this.' 'Got it.' And he just put ja totally new angle on it, so open and professional. Because he knew we had a deadline of doing eight songs in eight hours. I could take Shawn [Stockman, Folds' fellow "The Sing-Off" judge and Boyz II Men member] into the studio, and we could make a record no one had heard before. It would be him, people would know it was him, but people would be surprised. It's just fun.
 
You're also working on an EP with your other "The Sing-Off" co-judge, Sara Bareilles. What's that going to be like? 
Sara's record, all we know about it so far is it's gonna be very live in the studio, without a safety net, with a variety of left of center musicians. So, I expect the way that we're going there will be choirs involved sometimes, a tuba instead of a bass guitar, stuff like that. Different sounds creating a little different grooves, and it's gonna go down fairly at-the-moment, a document of what happened. Years from now you want to have some music that was capturing that moment and wasn't just an idea that was overdubbed and lots of stuff came in, but not a live sounding record. It's going to sound like we worked on it, but the whole idea is we're capturing and documenting an event, because you don't get to do that too often. This is an EP, so we have license to kind of fuck off a little bit more.
 
It seems like the EP would be a perfect opportunity for NBC to promote it as well as the show. Are you open to that if they ask?
I'm happy to do it. But I really do believe what I was saying earlier that 'The Sing-Off' is about the stars of the show, which are the a cappella groups. We really do diminish in importance on that show as people become familiar with the groups. It's almost like then it feels kind of corny for us to go on their coattails because these guys are the ones doing it. It wouldn't make any difference in my career. People don't buy my record because I'm on TV. They buy my records because of the music. They may be turned on to the fact that they exist, but I don't see record sales coming from that and I don't see us enhancing the show by singing. All you need to know is we've all spent enough time on stage that we're very empathetic.
 
Speaking of empathetic, your judges' panel may be one of the nicest on television right now. Isn't that bucking the industry standard set by the Simon Cowells of the world?
One of the questions for us was, 'Why do you guys couch your statements in all this extra stuff?' And I think, why not? If it's just entertainment, if you're just going to be a dream crusher, that's fine, that's cool. Slaying lion shit, that's all cool. But if you're really trying to help people, first they have to trust that you're on their side. And then you can say things that might be a little more cutting than if you said, you didn't bring it and you need to stay in the shower and sing in there and you suck. Then you put the shield on and say, okay, I'm on 'The Jerry Springer Show' so someone smacks me in the mouth. So I may say, that was amazing, that was amazing, but if you're not going to be honest with us and express something that's real, it's not worth anything at all. Then they're like, 'Oh shit, I guess I gotta work on that.' You can say that in so many words without it being a spectacle. And I think it's actually very important.
 
Because you and the other judges do seem to have so much empathy for the performers, is it hard to kick them off? 
I think it does become emotional. This always feels corny to say, but it is really true, and that's that the show is about harmony. That's why the judges all get along, because it's contagious. When you see 15 people who all get along and they're in college and they just nailed it, then we look like jackasses if we can't get along. I don't think there's a lot of that on television. I know people are more compelled by struggle and dissonance, because that's what they see in their life so often. But for a couple hours a week there's room to watch people chill and actually get along. Yeah, it gets a little emotional. I haven't gotten that thick skin yet. I forget we have to kick someone off. Then they go okay, judges, huddle. Shit. I look at Shawn, and he's like, 'Gotta happen.' And we come up with it. But we justify it by look, that group got to be on TV, they're gonna get more work, they've got one more song, the swan song. We talk about those things before they go off. Sometimes the swan songs really show what they're made of. It's the classiest part of the show. It's very cool. They're not being assholes. 
 
What's your best advice for the groups who appear on "The Sing-Off"?
It's a moving target. I would have said, seeing the third season unravel so far, I would have said my best advice would be to innovate. Two seasons of singers realized if they did something different that stood out, they would get on the show. Now I think what's going to win is not something that's novel, it's because it has heart.