Ben Folds on his new memoir, working with a young Keith Urban, and his political podcast
It is not a surprise to discover while reading Ben Folds’ newly released memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons, that the singer-songwriter is obsessed with creativity.
Over the course of his nearly 25 years in the business, the 52-year-old North Carolina native’s career has not lacked for scope and richness. In addition to the albums he’s written, recorded, and produced as both a solo artist and with his namesake trio Ben Folds Five, he’s worked with a wide range of musicians from pop to classical, served as a judge on the NBC a capella singing competition The Sing-Off, showcased his work as a photographer, collaborated with authors like Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman, and served as an advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Given that he has plenty to write about, with Lightning Bugs, Folds finally adds author to his list of creative explorations.
EW recently chatted with Folds, who will be balancing book signings with his current tour with the Violent Femmes and later Cake, this summer. He has been gratified by the early positive response. “This is the only one of these I’ve done, so the feedback resonates a little more,” he says. “People can tell me things about my songwriting and it kind of rolls off my back, even if it’s a very nice thing. But this is like, ‘Okay, good. I spent time on the right thing.'”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve worked across multiple disciplines. Why was now the right time for a book?
BEN FOLDS: I play piano and all this other stuff, but if I had to distill what I do down to one thing, I write. That’s the common denominator: I’ve always enjoyed writing. I think I had a really good environment in school for it. I had a really great English composition teacher, and it was just two hours of writing, and then the next day going over it, the next day another two hours of writing, and the next day going over it. And she was a f—ing stickler. I just always carried that [habit] with me and would write a lot. So, I was writing a lot of stuff on tour that we thought was going to be in the book — these interstitial moments of silly creative writing, little short stories. As I started making it happen, I realized there was a narrative of life, how that gives to music and then how music gives back, so I wanted it to follow the program. I was offended by the idea that I would be a musician that wrote a loose book of essays. I really wanted it to all tie together.
The book is less about the mechanics of songwriting and your discography than some might expect. Was that a purposeful choice?
Yeah, because I think everyone is always going to have their own technique. It’s hard to teach someone to be creative, and people have their quirks. I feel like explaining the environment and the condition [in which I wrote certain songs] hopefully gives you an idea of one example [of songwriting]. I think if you say, “This is songwriting, and here’s how you do it,” that’s probably a different book. This is more about artistry in general, and how life and creativity have worked for one guy.
As the title implies, you share some life lessons — from the value of playing in soul-deadening cover bands to making the music you want to hear. At first it seems like a specific construct but then becomes more subtle, so was the intent to share those thoughts as actual “lessons”?
Yeah, I think that it has to begin to build. You have to give little ingredients of this, little ingredients of that, and then after awhile it’s like, okay, we’re ready to start parsing out this stuff, making it actual lessons. I don’t think anyone wants to be preached to or lectured to too early on in a book like that, and if you did it would be more like a textbook.
How difficult was it to figure out what to include? And even though this is hardly a “tell all” or a typical sex-drugs-rock-and-roll tale, were you concerned about the reactions of friends and family?
Yeah, well, I think there’s enough of that out there, anyway, that’s really raunchy, awesome, compelling, fun, addictive, entertaining, cathartic. I didn’t think that that was necessary, although I think that since we’re in a culture of really embracing lewd, private shots of people that that gives everyone a dopamine hit. You want, I think, to show that you’re willing to pull back the curtain some because I can’t say, “Be honest in your songwriting and be honest in life,” and then be the master of withholding while I’m doing it.
But as far as what not to put in, there were bars that it needed to clear. One, [a story] has to support what I feel is my evil agenda of explaining and celebrating creativity, how it sort of holds hands with your life. I wanted the book to arc in that way, so if I’m going to pull back the curtain to the point where it’s like the f—g potty cam and we’re just going to be all lewd about it, that’s a distraction. That doesn’t help bring it around to the point, and it might have an adverse effect on someone in my life, or me, and to me that’s the opposite [of what I aimed to do]. That’s like, “What have I learned from my music? That I’m supposed to cause harm in making the book?” It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not that kind of book. You don’t get that dopamine hit at someone else’s expense.
One particularly funny memory you have is of a just-starting-out Keith Urban in the studio working as your tape operator. Little did you know he would go on to be a multiplatinum, CMA Entertainer of the Year.
Oh, yeah, that was funny. He told me that when we ran into each other in an airport one time and I was like, “You used to sleep on the floor over on 18th Avenue, didn’t you?” And he goes, “Nah, I don’t think so.” I said, “I’m pretty sure you did.” And he goes, “You know what happened was, you always had me coming over like we were going to write a song and you’d end up making me run the tape machine while you went in and out and just did everything.” I was like, “I don’t remember that.” So, we each remembered a different thing, so I tried to kind of allude to the accounts of each one. I should send a book to Keith, too. Thank you for reminding me.
That’s great. When you talk about fandom, that guy has enthusiasm for talking about music for days. He’s such a musician’s musician.
Oh, he’s fantastic, yeah. That’s why it’s absurd that he was there with his guitar and I was like, “Just press the buttons and watch me make this song.”
Now that the book is finished and out in the world, what’s your overarching emotional reaction to being done with it? Relief? Fear?
Oh, you know, it just kept dragging on, because you’ve got fact-checking, copy editing, laying out, first pass, first pass corrections and all that stuff. I think that served my state of mind really well. Having to read it over and over again calmed any nerves about it coming out. I was able to continue to lose stuff. I just kept subtracting. I think the process of writing something that’s memoir-based is hopefully the eliminating of the badly filed memories.
You recently started the ArtsVote 2020 podcast where you are attempting to interview all of the Democratic presidential nominees. What was the inspiration for that?
Well, I just realized that it’s been a project of mine for years to advocate for the arts and arts education and it began to occur to me that the candidates don’t get a chance to talk about this. I mean, they’re not going to stand up at the debate and start talking about the arts. They’re going to have to hit what people consider the main stuff. But [the arts are] real serious fabric-of-society kind of stuff, because what kind of seeds are we going to plant for our civilization down the road? And they all have really thought about it a lot. They just don’t get a chance to talk about it, so I just thought, “I want to know where they stand on it, so I’ll bet you that a lot of people, at least my fans, would want to know, and if I can use a couple of connections to make this happen, I think it would be interesting for me, and if it’s interesting for me it’ll be interesting for others.”
As specific as it is, much of the book examines questions of a general sense of purpose and creativity, and feels like it will be relatable not just to artists but to people from all walks of life. Is that your hope?
Hopefully it resonates with somebody else. And I never think that you have to resonate with everyone. One thing you learn as a songwriter is some people are just immune to your bulls—. It doesn’t hit them at all. So you just do what really speaks for you and then you find all these people who have emigrated to Earth from your planet. You’re all together in this thing, and you can’t say why. It just kind of works. It’s cool.