You don’t typically see a guy lugging a piano into a punk club, but in the late '90s with his eponymous alt-rock band Ben Folds Five, the musical mastermind and keys guy used do just that. It was those displays of grit, along with addictive pop songs such as "Brick," that give Ben Folds the street cred to make piano hip in the modern era. "They all want to see that you’ll bleed for them," he says of every musical subculture. "I think that my first five years being all about that, before we were even on the radar, it probably made a difference, because you can’t separate the musical from the cultural.” Another thing that fueled his indie-rock and punk-kid following, he says, is he's "someone who takes risks and doesn’t seem to mind if it doesn’t work... I’ve been musically honest all along."
Folds' career has blossomed in unusual ways, and his talent is widely recognized outside the rock and pop spheres. He was recently named the first artistic adviser to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He plays his songs with classical orchestras around the world and had just performed with the Utah Symphony Orchestra when he spoke with New Times. This week, Folds will perform his songs with Miami’s Nu Deco Ensemble, a hybrid crew that includes rock instruments in a large chamber orchestra. He has worked with its cofounder and artistic director, Jacomo Rafael Bairos, in the past. “I enjoy going down that road with him," Folds says.
He takes his skills off the stage and puts them online too. He's been using the fundraising site Patreon to interact with his audience in an educational way, lifting the curtain on songwriting by arranging, recording, and producing songs on the air. He even crafted a tune using lyrics sent by fans. “I don’t plan to make masterpieces this way,” he says. “It runs them through the process. I’ve always been a fan of demystifying that part, because the mystical part about [songwriting] is in the creativity, so you can kind of demystify everything else and leave that part sacred. I don’t see any reason to keep those things a secret.” He notes that each musician has their own way of writing; this is just his. He’s learned much from collaborators, and there have been many, including Regina Spektor, “Weird” Al Yankovic, and Amanda Palmer. "It's where I see that my peers are hacks like I am,” he jokes of those fortunate interactions.
Going into music was "existential" for Folds. As a 2-year-old, he listened to music eight hours a day. “There’s no exaggeration in that. I double-checked with my mother," he says. But Folds also pursued photography, an outlet where he has had less innate confidence, which has helped him understand why other musicians might have difficulty making decisions about their work. “I question certain things about my photography that I never questioned about my musicianship. That’s not to say that my photography sucks!” he laughs. “[But with music] I don’t have that gene; I don’t question it... I’m not sure if it’s better or worse, but I can tell you it’s an easier life to be a true believer in your work.”
Folds is now also a memoirist, whose book A Dream About Lightning Bugs will be available July 30. The description of the memoir on Penguin’s website amusingly but accurately describes him as “an unconventional icon, more normcore than hardcore.”
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The 52-year-old thinks everyone should write their memoir in their late 40s because it’s good for “debunking your own myths.” In that kind of retrospective exploration, he says, “you just hemorrhage energy when you’re upholding [an untruth about your past]. And let’s say that untruth is something that came from when you were 10 years old — that 10-year-old version that your teacher was out to get — you hold onto that your whole life. Then you’re using that as a support beam for all of these other assumptions you’re making later on. So as soon as you can take that out and replace that with something solid, you feel your soul just relaxing a little bit... That was part of the process — I was going, Oh, shit, that was wrong! These corkers, these amazing stories that used to go so well at dinners, and you knew they were going to go in your book, and it was like, this has nothing to do with anything at all!” he admits. “You learn something from observing a life. That means you have to be honest about your failures and the scary stuff as well.”
As an advocate of arts education, Folds doesn’t claim to be an expert on early-childhood education, but he emphasizes it’s good to get your kids listening to as much and as many kinds of music as possible at a young age. "I feel like most any kid knows that music is communication. You can hear it in the inflection of their voice [when they sing]," he says. "I kind of have a theory that if you could retain that, that would be really special for a kid’s relationship with music." In a deeper dive into that theory, he pontificates about musical education and the way kids are taught to play music. "Not to cast any shade on being a gymnast, but there is an artistic difference between being a gymnast and being a dancer. I think we consider the dancer to be an artist who has to be an athlete, and a gymnast as an athlete who is sometimes asked to be an artist. Sometimes we go toward the gymnast approach for musicians — where music for the sake of music or something random like it’s mathematical. It’s really communication... You need the gymnastics stuff to support the communication. You have to eat your Wheaties and do your pushups." When parents see their children reacting to music or perceiving it as funny, he says to engage with them about it and talk to them about the feelings each song conveys.
"In art class, they start out doing original drawings. They're expressing themselves and telling a story, filling the page with something that means something to them. As opposed to music [students] — they're asked to play something someone else wrote, and they're probably dead. And if they're alive, they're someone who's worshipped as a celebrity.” Each person, he notes, has something to say that's unique, and they can relay it through music. Though you or your kid might not be a musical wunderkind or soon-to-be acclaimed memoirist, Folds is dedicated to not only telling his tales but also facilitating others to tell theirs. And that connection is what life is all about.
Nu Deco Ensemble Featuring Kimbra & Ben Folds. 8 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Tickets cost $35 to $85 via arshtcenter.org.