Ben Folds on writing his first book, the art of subtraction, and why he's still fighting it


Ben Folds, the writer. - JOE VAUGHN
  • Joe Vaughn
  • Ben Folds, the writer.
The year was 1997 and the world was mourning the death of a princess.

Sir Elton John topped the charts after repurposing his funeral ballad “Candle in the Wind” to honor Princess Diana. Before the year's end, the masses were then transfixed by a semi-unbelievable seafaring love story of titanic proportions, and suddenly everyone had appeared to adopt the belief that even after death, a heart does, in fact, go on, and on, and on.

Meanwhile, North Carolina singer-songwriter and indie piano man Ben Folds was crafting a different type of sad. Folds, who had assembled a band under the name Ben Fold Five, threw a “Brick” of a hit song into the mix of robust chart-dominating balladry with a track about abortion. The somber true-life story of when he and his high school girlfriend elected to get an abortion found itself on the band's sophomore record, Whatever and Ever Amen, wedged between rapid foot-stomping piano-pounding pop-rock songs about breakups, watching re-runs of The Rockford Files, and setting fire to diaries and cigarettes.

Though Folds, 52, is very far removed from the non-windproof candles and historic big-boat blockbusters of 1997, as well as the emotional rawness of high school traumas, he found space — and time — to revisit his childhood to trace his creative process (and creative neurosis) to include in his first memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs.

Released at the start of Folds' co-headlining tour with folk-rock statesmen the Violent Femmes, A Dream About Lightning Bugs reads both like a casual conversation and a masterclass on how to be your most authentic creative self. It's notated with playful musical cues and equally playful structural elements, not unlike his body of music which, since “Brick,” has ranged from chamber pop to orchestral rock to one of the most requested first dance songs for newlyweds of all time.

This comes at a turning point for Folds, who has an insatiable desire to stay busy. In recent years, he's made a record with novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity and About a Boy) and another with Amanda Palmer and her acclaimed fantasy writer hubby Neil Gaiman. He's been a recurring semi-meta character on FX's You're the Worst and served as a judge and mentor on NBC's a cappella singing competition The Sing-Off. Most recently, Folds launched the ArtsVote 2020 podcast, during which he challenges each of the Democratic presidential candidates on their policies regarding the future of preserving and expanding arts education.

Folds spoke with Metro Times ahead of both his tour stop with the Violent Femmes on Sunday, Aug. 11, at Meadow Brook Amphitheater and his appearance at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor on Monday, Aug. 12 in support of his book, to chat about finding his voice, his desire to write a musical, and why we should view education like a garden. (And, in true Folds fashion, he admits to using this interview as an opportunity to stretch his calves before hitting the keys.)

Metro Times: Multitasking seems to be kind of your bag these days. You've got the co-headlining tour with the Violent Femmes, but you're also finding time to do book readings and signings while on tour. How is that balancing act treating you?

Ben Folds: Well, I'm not sure I would recommend it for everybody. I'm hanging in there and it's good. It's a lot. Um, I think, you know, we looked at it and thought, oh, we'll just, you know, two birds with one stone that's been two stones. It's a lot of work. And, you know, I don't mind some work.

MT: Is it difficult shifting gears? Clearly, you're a storyteller through and through, whether it's through songs or even addressing an audience. But I would imagine it would take a different part of yourself to present a book.

Folds: I don't feel it's really different, no. I really don't. It comes pretty much from the same place. I mean, shifting gears is not always easy, but it's usually a technical thing. If I'm playing four shows in a week, one of them was with an orchestra, one of them is solo, two of them are with a band, that's difficult because they're different song forms and all kinds of stuff is happening. But you know, with this, I just simply go in and talk to them about the book and I think it's kind of nice. So part of the reason that I've done the book and part of the reason that I do sort of like these little masterclass events before shows is to do something I always wanted done for me when I was a kid, which is just a pull back [of] the proverbial curtain a little bit and allow a view into how one dude does it.

MT: More than shifting gears in the presentation, I know I had read a quote that you had said making albums is a pain in the ass and it's a lot of money and it's different sort of labor. And you said that writing a book didn't seem nearly as painful. Was it painful? And did you find your stories were bubbling up and needed an outlet other than songwriting?

Folds: No, things just kind of line up. That's the same thing when I accept any kind of project, a lot of it has to do with sort of what's available at the time, what the schedule is. Is it a project I think I can take on and you know, I've had these things in the back of my mind for a long time. The opportunity came up and both in terms of, you know, the schedule and ... kind of the boring answer. One day I'd like to do a musical, my time needs to open up for something like that to happen. When it comes to the book, the thing that I didn't want to do is just make it a collection of essays or collection of stories. I really wanted the whole thing to tie into a bigger picture and longer arch. So, I really had to make sure that I took the proper time to concentrate on that and nothing but that. Because I had amassed a lot of writing over the years, and it's possible that yes, I could have turned that into just a collection of things, but I'm really happy that I spent time because I think it's a more generous piece if someone wants to take the time to go down the road to get something out of it.

MT: I think much of what I like so much about your writing style is that it feels very candid and casual, without seeming forced in that direction. I like the musical cues, too. Was that an intentional choice or is that just sort of who you are naturally as a writer?

Folds: Well, I think anyone writing anything probably has to make some sort of choice in terms of voice. No one really likes to talk about it in rock music because people want to think as well, of course, you just speak from your heart and you have one voice, but there were decisions, you know, there are decisions to be made. I mean, we want to believe in songwriters, so we don't want to think that they're like staging a play or are play-acting or something.

But the truth is, is that everyone from Bob Dylan to staff writers for country musicians, they choose the voice. Choosing the voice for this was a matter of subtraction. It's funny cause I talked to Sarah Silverman who had written a book about being a bed-wetter and she said the same thing. She was like, man, my big thing was I wrote and then I read it back aloud and it made me sick. I took on this writer's voice. I didn't like it and I had to get it all back to me. Then you turn it in to an editor and the editor changes things which changes your voice. So then you have to get those things back. You have to fight for your voice. I'm pretty comfortable as a writer. I mean, I haven't written novels and stuff, but I'm pretty comfortable probably [coming] from that songwriting place. I think it's very important to communicate first and foremost. And there's no reason to be throwing around flowery stuff when you don't need it. There's no reason for any information that doesn't serve a purpose.

MT: I wish someone would have told me that when I started writing. I only really learned that as a writer probably in the past five years. I had always thought the bigger the sentence or, you know, the more colors you use, the better the writing is.

Folds: Yeah. I think these are phases that we all go through. You know, I have to go through that phase very quickly because going from zero to 60 in a matter of a year to get the book up and going. But then I also had the advantage of having written songs for my whole life. And of course, you know, I went to school like everyone else and I write emails and I think I'm a reasonable writer. Any of my friends that are writers, like Nick Hornby or Neil Gaiman, when they write you an email it's just a couple of sentences, just to get the point across. You can learn a lot from getting an email from Nick Hornby. Like, I'll write something to him and it'll kind of be funny, it'll have a couple of fun little metaphors in it, some images and a joke. And then he writes back something so simple, you know, and I write that to him because it's like, 'Hey, he's my writer friend, I better show off,' and then it comes back. The same thing happens with comedians. Don't joke with comedians.

MT: Oh, I’ve learned my lesson.

Folds: Yeah. We all learned the lesson the fucking hard way. You just don't do it. So, if I got something to communicate to the audience or the reader, just bloody do it basically, you know? That's easier said than done, but I think it's a damn good start to just promise yourself you're just gonna communicate.

MT: I think that's what your songwriting has been successful in doing by using language in the book that seems like the language you use in day-to-day speech. No matter how personal the situation is, whether it's abortion or heartbreak or whatever, it's still relatable when you frame it the way you do.

Folds: Well, I think you can simply look at something you've written and then pretend you're explaining it to someone. ... You just record what you said, because that's it. Just put that in, and I found that really useful because sometimes you're writing and you're like, 'How am I going to get that across?' Well just explain it to a friend at a bar and then you'll hear yourself say it.

MT: I think that's really helpful. There are times where I'll tell a story to someone and I'm like, wow, I did a good job saying words out loud and then I sit down and suddenly I don't know how to write.

Folds: Communication first and foremost. Say what you got to say. If it's not saying it you've got to do something about that, you can't let it kind of almost be there. I always find too, that the solutions to a fix are always way simpler than you think. It's usually about cutting a paragraph and shifting the other one up a couple.

MT: Did you find that you have had more stories you didn't use for this book that you might consider putting toward a second book?

Folds: Well, I would certainly consider delving into another book at some point, but the book that I wrote I cut things down a lot because there was no need for those things — back to subtraction. When I did that, like all these stories, that I thought I would tell, that didn't serve my narrative, didn't serve my purpose... and in some cases really weren't as kind of true or accurate as I had thought. Like a lot of it is about re-examining memories and remembering, remembering and getting some other perspectives on some things.

When you use examples from your life, if it's a memoir, you're being true to yourself and true to, well, just true. I cut down to 140,000 words and that's twice as long as it needs to be unless you're writing Stephen King. So, I cut it in half again and it's not like I cut that stuff off like I'm going to sell the table scraps, now it's another book — that's just gone. There's no reason for it. So the next thing I would write would be — I would think it would be different, but I would have to, I have to get to that bridge. I'm certainly open to it. I think I'm going to use those things in, probably, like, I have a Patreon site and I do little broadcasts from my house where we play records and sip Scotch and chat and write songs. It's been really fun. I'll probably leak these things out to my patreons.

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Love being messed up version of me on You're The Worst

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MT: Another amazing thing you've added to your plate is you host ArtsVote 2020 podcast where you interview Democratic presidential candidates to discuss their vision for the future of arts education. In wake of the three mass shootings this week, I don't mean to politicize the connection between arts education and domestic terrorism, but I have to believe there may be a tie. 

Folds: First of all, I want to say that when any of that happens and people go to consider changes and fixes to policies, that's not, that's not a bad thing. It may be politicized, but politicizing is what we do when we make policy. That's like if you had a wheel fall off your car and someone said, I think we might need to change those tires, you know, I don't want to politicize that, and then you just go off the bridge. It makes no sense. I strongly reject the idea that something can't be spoken about. I know that, hell, if I were so unlucky to be killed or someone in my family [were to be killed,] I wouldn't want to think that nothing came of it, you know?

Now how that relates to arts to me is that we definitely need to address some fabric of society issues. And education is one of the first ones. And arts are part of a balanced education. We've had it more in the past than we have it now. And to me that's the way into that stuff, it doesn't solve everything. But if you want critical thinkers who can switch between abstract and critical thinking, the dropout rates are much better in control studies between students over all socioeconomic brackets who have access to the arts, than those who don't. And there are really good controls to these statistics, I'm very comfortable that they weren't jerked with, like the stuff that I see that comes from Americans for the Arts. That's my opinion on it, that it's something we can do for people down the line, for perhaps we've gotten a little loose in our social fabric. The times have changed, moral compasses have readjusted. People lost their fucking minds, and we probably just need to make sure that we water the gardens so that the next couple of generations can have a little more to work with.

Ben Folds will make an appearance in support of
A Dream About Lightning Bugs at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 12, at the Blind Pig; 208 S. First St., Ann Arbor; 734-996-8555; Tickets are $30 and include a copy of his book.

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