Ben Folds loves to play, but he's not that fond of practicing - even when it's his own piano concerto.
"At first it was scary, because I had written something that was beyond what I could do at that moment," said Folds, on the phone from Nashville, his base for the past 13 years. "But now I've annexed that into my playing. It required a bizarre ritual known as practice. I had to refamiliarize myself with that, because I hadn't really practiced in a long time."
Folds will have plenty of time to get ready for his Feb. 6 program with the San Diego Symphony at Jacobs Music Center, when he'll perform his concerto.
For his Summer Pops appearance with the symphony on Thursday at Embarcadero Marina Park South, Folds is going to focus on his pop stuff, which on his new album, "So There," due out in September, is accompanied by a classical sextet.
"Somehow, I felt a bit of freedom to be more of an unabashed pop songwriter as I was arranging it for a classical sextet," Folds said. "That tells you something about my psychology. ...
"But what I'm getting back from people is these songs comprise some of the best stuff I've ever done. That's what everyone who hears it keeps saying. And I'm really proud of the record. I don't really have a lot of perspective on it, but it sounds like what I do."
When: 7:30 p.m. July 30
Where: Embarcadero Marina Park South, 200 Marina Park Way (behind the San Diego Convention Center downtown)
Phone: (619) 235-0804
What he does is always just slightly off center. Folds, who first rose to pop stardom in the '90s with the Ben Folds Five, has little interest in the clichés that pervade pop music.
"I don't like the standard vocabulary, or lexicon, of pop lyrics," he said. "Those ways of saying things that you only hear in a song have never interested me that much."
People singing "I cried for you" or going on about "the game of love" make Folds cringe.
"You wouldn't say that out in public," he said. "I would rather have a lyric that sounded like it came out of a physics manual than something like that. I have a way of speaking in songs that I try to keep as an interesting edit of what I'd normally say."
And then there's his sense of humor, which can shift from whimsy to sarcasm in a moment.
"I think maybe I write what I want to hear," he said. "Sometimes I write something where I feel like it's missing, like what we don't have a lot of.
"You get beaten up for that a little bit, because it's not going to be cool. It's not actually ever been cool to not do what everyone else is doing. Especially the more subtle that is, the less cool that is. ... So I've found there's always been a lot of folded arms to my music from people who need a little more definition somehow."
But Folds is unbothered. While he's dedicated to his craft as a songwriter and composer, he doesn't take himself, or even his piano playing, completely seriously.
"I've always viewed myself as a really limited player," Folds said. "Sometimes I'll see it come back, and I'll think, 'Wow, I'm not that bad.' I played this 'Live From Daryl's House' with Daryl Hall, and when I saw some of the footage of that come back, I thought, 'This guy can actually kind of play.'
"I always feel like there's more that I'd like to be able to do, but then I'm aware of how much practice time that would be, and I'm not crazy about having to do all of that.
"I do my best."