Ben Folds Interview: "I See the Role of an Artist as Someone Who Sees Flickers That Nobody Else Does"
Image attributed to Joe Vaughn
Multi-platinum selling singer-songwriter Ben Folds is known for his musical genius and spontaneous creativity. He has created an enormous body of genre-bending music that includes pop albums with Ben Folds Five, multiple solo albums and numerous collaborative records. He was a judge for five seasons on NBC’s acclaimed a cappella show The Sing-Off (2009-2013) and is an outspoken champion for arts education and music therapy.
For over a decade, Folds has performed with some of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras and currently serves as the first ever artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. In A Dream About Lightning Bugs, Folds looks back at his life so far in a charming and wise chronicle of his artistic coming of age. Infused with the wry observations of a natural storyteller, he opens up about finding his voice as a musician, becoming a rock anti-hero and hauling a baby grand piano on and off stage for every performance. A Dream About Lightning Bugs, in paperback, is released July 21, 2020.
"In the dream, I saw fireflies. Maybe another kid was looking at the stars. You capture the light that you notice, and that’s part of what makes each artist unique. What they have in common is the journey of getting it in the bottle and sharing it."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Ben, how are you coping during the pandemic?
Ben Folds: I’m fortunate to actually have a silver lining in these awful times. While on one hand, over a year of my touring and income is gone, which is just the way it has hit those in the touring business, I do have other interests as I emphasized in the book. I’ve always followed my interests and as a result, I have other things to concentrate on. I’ve never had such a lot of time isolated and in one place, and that has led to fully embarking on an album. Being someone who likes to be useful, I’ve followed the interest I’ve had in teaching and essentially provide that service over Patreon, giving songwriting masterclasses, group piano lessons and music appreciation sessions as livestreams.
As long as I feel useful and creative, I’m more or less happy. So that helps in battling the dark reality and the worry we all have. I can only hope to give a little respite to others. But I’m okay. Thank you.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Good to hear. I’ve heard many songs written about the coronavirus over the past few months, but I can’t recall a tune written about the entire year, especially since it’s only half over. Why did you decide to write “2020”?
Ben Folds: We’ve all noticed time has warped considerably. The days, the months are flying by sometimes, and then it’s excruciatingly slow, waiting for normalcy. All these years keep coming back from the worst parts of our history. We’re reliving them for short flashes of news cycles. One day it’s 1918, as the song says. Then, surprise! It’s 1968. Not so fast! There’s a new toilet tweet that’s hinting at the Civil War.
How many years can we cram into one? That’s what I kept thinking. I do wish that I had a little promotional firepower behind the song, so that more people could hear it because I think it’s always nice to hear a song that says what you’re thinking, and this little obvious waltz seems to do that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It does indeed, and I’m certainly telling everyone to listen to it. Can you say anything about the new album you’re working on now?
Ben Folds: There’s not much to tell specifically since I’m still in the writing phase. I will say that the way it will be recorded may likely be a more technologically driven method. The musicians I wanted to work with are on the other side of the globe, and maybe we’ll do this via Skype, Zoom, ISDN from multiple locations. I don’t know.
I feel on fire about making a record. That has to be good! I write in threes usually. Right now, I’m in a bath of threes, one of which seems to be a disco song about happy people. Another is in 7/8 time and is a song about an old people’s apartment complex. The third is like some kind of folk funk thing about a comically painful one-night stand. So far, that’s where it is, to add to the waltz about 2020.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You were 52 when A Dream About Lightning Bugswas released in hardcover. Why write a memoir at such an early age, and what does the lightning bugs metaphor mean?
Ben Folds: I don’t think 52 is young in rock years. You age out of that profession like athletes at usually mid-thirties. The lightning bugs thing came from a dream. I hope I explain it better in the book than I’m about to now. But essentially, the dream stuck with me, and later I realized that I see the role of an artist as someone who sees flickers that nobody else does and has the willpower to bottle them in order to share that with everyone else.
Part of the point is that everyone sees something else in a scene. In the dream, I saw fireflies. Maybe another kid was looking at the stars. You capture the light that you notice, and that’s part of what makes each artist unique. What they have in common is the journey of getting it in the bottle and sharing it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why didn’t you write the typical “tell all” sex, drugs and rock and roll story?
Ben Folds: I always wanted the famous musicians before me to give me an honest account, so I’d know what to expect. Good and bad, like if they messed up a lot, not like sexy messing up, drugs and sex. I wanted to know did KISS go to band camp when they were younger? Did they know what key they were in? How many embarrassing ventures preceded their successes? What did their art teach their lives and vice versa?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You say in the book that there was no “Sunday school” for your family. Did your parents ever discuss religion with you, or were you curious about it as a child?
Ben Folds: I was curious about it and why I was here and what happened after death. But I think I read so much Greek mythology at a young age that maybe Christianity-brand mythology just seemed a little less entertaining.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Ben Folds Five was the piano band that rocked, and that was a rarity when the trio was formed in 1993. Were you apprehensive at all that it wouldn’t be successful?
Ben Folds: I knew it would be successful because if we could just get out there, we’d be the only one. That’s why I insisted on carrying an actual baby grand, which I moved with our single crew member in the early days, to each and every gig. Out of tune and everything. I was in debt over it, and luckily, we finally had a successful record! When you start out, your uniqueness can be a liability, but soon it will become an asset if you stick by your guns.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ve said that you dreaded “Brick” coming out and that you tried to talk the label people out of it. Then when it was released, you wouldn’t answer questions about the song. What was the purpose of writing it?
Ben Folds: I just write. I was writing fast and furiously for Whatever and Ever, Amen, in order to have enough songs to mix for our release date. I didn’t think. I just wrote. Some writers like to say, “Write drunk, edit sober.” Well, I wasn’t drunk. But that’s a metaphor for not being overly aware while writing. I had just barely gotten to the sober editing phase as we were mixing the damn thing, and it was already sounding like the single to everyone!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Who or what was your greatest influence in life and in your musical career?
Ben Folds: I don’t really have one of those. I think comedy of the 1970s was a big influence, along with the music on the radio. And R&B from the 1960s since my father had stacks of those records, which he usually found in various houses that he remodeled. The comedy was an influence because it had layers, and there was often something dark at the center even if the outside was all laughs. I feel that’s a strong condition for a song.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You worked on William Shatner’s album Has Been. How did you two meet?
Ben Folds: Bill had been a guest on my solo instrumental album, Fear of Pop, and we became friends. He had called me a few times to ask my advice on how he might make an album. My answer seemed compelling enough that his label decided maybe I should produce it. I learned a lot. One of my favorite chapters in my book is about Shatner and his asking me over and over, “What is cool?”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What has been the lowest point or the toughest struggle you’ve endured personally and/or professionally?
Ben Folds: I was just burned out around 2010. None of the old tricks of making myself feel okay seemed to be working. My workaholism wasn’t a good distraction anymore because I was too tired. I was beginning to feel I couldn’t make music, so I made a few changes. Moved to the west coast. Did some old-fashioned “me me me” stuff, you know? Therapy. Yoga. Exercise. Got all the dental work I’d missed over the 15 years of non-stop touring. That doesn’t sound like sexy problems, but I was pretty miserable and felt washed up, so that’s the answer.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What continues to drive you as an artist?
Ben Folds: I’m not sure. Some of it is that I like to be useful and have a job. I like trying stuff I haven’t tried, and after that, I feel renewed to do what I know how to do with the new perspective I got from trying something else like writing the book. I put everything into that, and when I came out of it, I felt more like making an album. As I’m making that album, I’m sure to keep a little more innocence about me having just seen the power of discovering how to make something. To apply an adage from the world of books to that of music: You never learn to write a song. You just learn to write the one you’re on.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You supported Bernie Sanders for president. If Joe Biden wins the presidency, what policies do you hope will be implemented?
Ben Folds: I’ve spent a lot of time working with Americans for the Arts. I’ve spend a good decade now going to bat for arts education, funding, music therapy, etc. As Chair of Arts Vote 2020, we are trying to engage arts advocates in the political process. One component of that effort was my interviewing many of the policymakers, but there are a few danglers, notably Biden and Trump! I hope to speak to Joe Biden for our podcast, but either way, I already know he’s strong on arts. My goal has been to get as many politicians on record to commit to supporting a dollar per capita for the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). This year, I testified on Capitol Hill for a House appropriations subcommittee about the NEA and was very excited that they recommended the exact increase I was hoping for.
In addition to supporting the NEA, I’d like to see an artist core type of public service program that enlists artists of all types in civic and community projects. It’s something I’ve been talking about for a while. There are plenty of artists of all ilks who are ready to work. We are also pushing for arts supportive language in the platforms for the Republican and Democratic conventions. We know arts brings business and reinvigorates sluggish town centers, as well as makes people happy. Let’s put art to work for us. It’s not about what we can do for the arts, it’s the other way around!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I completely agree. Will there be another Ben Folds Five reunion?
Ben Folds: Not any time soon. I’m tied up for the next few years at least.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Ben, is there anything you’d like to add about the book or upcoming projects?
Ben Folds: In addition to working on a new album, I’m already thinking and outlining a new book. Most people are creative, and more than I’d ever imagined, have an intense interest in creativity itself. As a hobbyist, parent or someone who works in a creative field, they have an interest even if they don’t consider it creative. I feel that it’s really useful to have that conversation about creativity through the lens of songwriting. How a song is built isn’t any different than how a house, a piece of art, a play, a book or a business is built. People are creative by design, and our ideas are why we made it from the middle to the top of the food chain in our evolution.
Further, we all have so many memories and feelings associated with songs themselves that I find that even on the level of literal curiosity, most people are very interested in how they are made. And so, it’ll be a book about creativity through the structure of songwriting. I’ll also embark on a podcast about the same thing – songwriting creativity. As a masterclass, something that’s been quite successful are my Patreon classes. Amateurs and professionals alike send in songs, and we look at the construction, the craft and how well it is expressing what it seems to intend on expressing. Otherwise, I’m always open to some curveball or sudden interest, some flicker I have yet to see. I’m always doing something.
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