BEN FOLDS: found, ´lost´ and found again
by Norman Warwick, thanks to the fantastic Paste on line team
In a similar fashion to the subject of today´s piece I spent hours in Rochdale Libnrary when I was a teenager, all those decades ago, poring over any auto / biography I could find of the musicians I loved listening to. I wanted to know how The Stones and The Beatles seemed to be so stardom-ready when the wide world first heard them. I wanted to know from where song-writers drew their inspiration. I wanted to know how to be one of them. Somewhere along this long trail of sidetracks and detours and sometimes cul-de-sacs, I heard of a Ben Folds who was then a Five
Our regular readers know by now that I seem unable to walk in chronological directions and so they will be unsurprised to learn that I honestly can´t remember when I first heard either The Ben Folds Five or Ben Folds or whereabouts I lost them or him somewhere along the trail. A recent article in Paste on line has had me scratching about all of the above.
I could check all that by crawling through my record collections or my writing archives, but for now let´s just follow the road ahead to see where it might lead. (That has always been my philosophy).
When Ben Folds was younger, Paste on line tells us, he’d read through virtually every music magazine at his local 7-Eleven in Winston-Salem, N.C., trying to figure out where rock stars learned to be rock stars. Did they take piano or guitar lessons? Did they attend music college?
“It just wasn’t cool for a rock star to shout out to his music teacher,” Folds writes in his new autobiography, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons, out Tuesday. “Rockers were supposed to be completely self-taught, rolling out of bed one day with messy hair and a bong, and suddenly—boom—they were the shit.”
But how did Gene Simmons actually become Gene Simmons? Folds attended band camp—did Simmons? Did he know what key “Calling Dr. Love” was in? The Paste on line writer, Rayme Antrim, put these questions to Ben Folds during an extensive interview.
“Well, you could read all of the interviews you wanted to, they were never going to pull back the veil and let you sort of understand how they got there,” Folds tells Paste. “There was no sense of giving back. Before you can understand someone’s creative process, you have to understand where they came from and who they are.”
Understanding Ben Folds’ creativity is the crux of his book. Unlike the artists who hid their musical education and background while he was growing up, Folds wrote his memoir to tell that story: how he learned how to play instruments, why he stuck with it and what creativity truly means to him. Without that incredibly detailed background, he says it’s impossible to fully understand his career and his creative approaches. It’s why he mentions every music teacher from kindergarten through college by name, spelling out how every class and every music lesson led to his accomplished back catalogue. He doesn’t even mention the formation of Ben Folds Five until page 163 of 311.
“I spent way too much time on childhood for the pure reason that anything that was going to be understood about what I made, had to be seen through that lens,” he explains. “You have to understand who my father was. I think then it’s helpful to see how he was. If it’s interesting, and if it’s compelling towards the story of creativity, then it would remain. Then, stories of my life that are batshit crazy, those would be loads of fun to talk about and would be really entertaining, didn’t go in if it didn’t serve that purpose. If something was terribly uncomfortable, I didn’t want to talk about it. But if it did serve the purpose, I had to say it. I had to put it in.”
Those stories—which range from a chapter about walking to piano lessons in the snow to hanging out with elderly parapsychologist regulars at a German restaurant after his polka sets (his first regular music job) and a lot more in between—all serve the purpose of showing what actually led to Folds developing his own personal creative method and, in turn, influencing his own song- writing.
But it takes him a while to get there. Folds details his myriad music failures, including: getting kicked out of the University of Miami’s music school in spectacular fashion (after which he threw his drum kit in the campus lake); playing in cover groups and wedding bands; attempting, and failing, to make music careers in London, Nashville and New York; fronting multiple groups with no label interest; and signing and getting dropped from various publishing deals.
Each stop along the way made him who he is today. The book wouldn’t have been truthful without each story, as painful as they may be. And the process has been a rewarding one for Folds: He even suggests that everyone should write their own memoirs in their mid-40s. It helps you rediscover the truth in your own personal life, separating it from what you misremembered along the way, he says.
“You would find some stuff that you realized was fiction—I don’t care how honest you are,” he explains. “As it went along, I realized I was getting the job done even with the truth, even with the things that weren’t exaggerated.”
Even though the truth may have been painful, a lot of these individual stories led to specific lyrics in Folds’ back catalogue, many of which are inserted throughout this book.
For example, instead of telling the story behind Whatever and Ever Amen’s “Brick” (which he writes is detailed enough on its own), he instead tells the entire tale of his relationship with his first girlfriend, including the abortion the song is about, with a major focus on the aftermath. Exhausted from working two jobs, he almost flunked out of high school while trying to help her recover both physically and mentally. The story ends with him driving her to the hospital where upon her release, his car got totalled. The next week, he borrowed his mom’s Honda Civic, which was stolen that day. When his father told him to lie to the police and say he lost more valuable items than were actually in the car, he couldn’t do it, resulting in the “Brick” lyric: “She broke down / And I broke down / ‘Cause I was tired of lying.”
Originally, the book was going to be even more centred around the lyrics, Folds explains:
“I considered the form of it being based on my songs, but I felt like that was too—I know this is funny to say because it’s a memoir—me-centric. It didn’t allow me to tell the story of creativity. I kind of wanted a study of my songs to have someone walk away and think about the images in their life and what that brings up and how that might be a song for them and what’s important and what’s not important. For someone who knows all of my music, it’s of a certain kind of interest. But for someone who doesn’t know my music, I also wanted it to be of interest.”
What results from this effort is an incredible memoir that’s quite different from most other musician autobiographies. Folds absolutely succeeds in his mission to pull back the veil behind his process and show the world how it all came about. While some chapters paint him in a negative light, he’s honest throughout, proving that it’s possible to be legitimately objective and truthful about yourself if you’re willing to commit to it. There are loads of entertaining stories—even one that references a 2018 Paste article—but it’s the heartfelt ones that paint the picture of Folds’ early life and struggles to get a career jump-started, that truly resonate.
“This is a book about what I know,” Folds writes in the first chapter. “Or what I think I know. It’s about music and how it has framed and informed my life, and vice versa. About the stumbles, falls and other brilliant strokes of luck that brought me here.”
That journey, beginning with a dream he had at age 3, is one of the most rewarding any musician has brought us along for in quite some time.
After eight years, Ben Folds returns with the new single “Winslow Gardens,” alongside a new album What Matters Most set to release on June 2 on New West Records.
The multi-talented singer/songwriter, musician and composer from North Carolina first found success as the frontman and pianist of the alternative rock trio Ben Folds Five in the late ’90s, and followed that a decade later as a solo artist, releasing Rockin The Suburbs with hits like “The Luckiest.”
His versatile approach to writing and composing, along with performing arrangements of his music with symphony orchestras and a cappella groups, has led to a varied career that includes an impressive 20-minute concerto with the Nashville Symphony in collaboration with yMusic.
Folds has also written scores for classic animated movies such as Hoodwinked! and Over the Hedge. The jack-of-all-trades in music has brought a refreshing sound to the world of singer/songwriters. It helps to know how to play the piano, bass and drums when making some of the best songs of the 21st century.
His new single “Winslow Gardens,” is a light, springy tune backed by his iconic keys. The lyrics hint at a couple going away for a trip and finding themselves in that place much longer than expected. Ten weeks turns to ten years, while it all feels like just ten minutes—you lose track of time as small routines with your loved ones become the only things that matter. The swirling, repetitive melody at the end of the chorus, “You started all over / We’ve started all over again,” makes you feel like you’re in a that time loop with the characters—and it’s not particularly a bad feeling, but a comforting one.
Listen to the new song, and check out the new records’ artwork, tracklist and tour dates below.
What Matters Most TRACKLIST:
1. But Wait, There’s More
2. Clouds With Ellipses (feat. dodie)
3. Exhausting Lover
5. Kristine From The 7th Grade
6. Back To Anonymous
7. Winslow Gardens
9. What Matters Most
10. Moments (feat. Tall Heights
European Tour dates 2023 NOVEMBER
08 – Bath, United Kingdom @ The Forum
09 – Brighton, United Kingdom @ Brighton Dome
10 – Birmingham, United Kingdom @ Symphony Hall
12 – Oxford, United Kingdom @ New Theatre
13 – London, United Kingdom @ Royal Albert Hall
15 – Gateshead, United Kingdom @ Sage Gateshead
16 – York, United Kingdom @ Grand Opera House
17 – Manchester, United Kingdom @ O2 Apollo
18 – Edinburgh, United Kingdom @ Usher Hall
20 – Dublin, Ireland @ The Helix
23 – Zurich, Switzerland @ Kaufleuten
25 – Berlin, Germany @ Admiralspalast
26 – Wiesbaden, Germany @ Kurhaus
27 – Utrecht, Netherlands @ TrivoliVredenburg – Grote Zaal
30 – Paris, France @ La Cigale
European Tour Dates 2023 DECEMBER
01 – Antwerp, Belgium @ De Roma
02 – Dudelange, Luxembourg @ Opderschmelz
04 – Essen, Germany @ Lichtburg