Ben Folds has what appear to be perfect piano-playing hands. They’re large, with long, elegant fingers – until you look closer and inspect the damage. “My left hand’s fucked,” he says, raising a beer with it. He lowers the glass, then vigorously shakes out the hand, from the elbow down. There’s an audible click. “Good to go for the next couple of hours.”
Folds, whose sweet, sometimes earnest, often irreverent songs with his group Ben Folds Five were a staple of late-90s alternative rock radio, has just released a memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs. In it, he describes the piano as “living-room furniture” – expensive and heavy, and therefore manifestly unsuitable for rock & roll, which is supposed to be portable.
But, he says, if you look at the handful of notable pianists in rock history – Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John, John Cale – “they all had to sacrifice their piano to a degree. Stand on it, attack it, sacrifice it, to show that you’re on Team Rock.” Folds’ hands have paid the penalty.
His right hand isn’t much better. In late 1984, a pumped-up jock on a wrestling scholarship beat him to a pulp the night before his exams at the University of Miami. The weedy Folds – then a budding percussionist – tried to hit back, only to slam his fist into a cinder-block wall. Crippled, he failed the exam the next day, then threw his drums in a lake.
The story sums up Folds’ self-deprecating approach to his memoir, which has brought him to Australia for a book tour that culminates with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival this weekend. “If I put something in the book, it’s because I suspected there may be a good chance that a liability was an asset towards my occupation,” he says.
If anything, Folds is a proud member of Team Dork: a bespectacled boy next door. He remains in-between, an outsider, a status he acknowledges he’s actively cultivated. A musician, he says, is “branded and tethered by the personality they exude through their songs”. Folds’ brand is awkwardness.
Today, his work spans high and low culture. Since 2017, he’s advised the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC. From 2009 to 2013, he was a judge on an NBC talent contest, The Sing-Off. He’s collaborated with Regina Spektor and satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic, authors Neil Gaiman and Nick Hornby, and actor William Shatner.
He realised he’d found his own voice when he started using words like “stupid” in songs. “It’s very freeing to hear how awkward that is, and to feel how that resembles life, suddenly,” he says. “It’s not on the stage anymore – the guy’s fallen off the stage, and then you can relate to that person.”
In a chapter ironically titled Cheap Lessons, he writes about his best-known song, Brick: taking his first girlfriend to a clinic for a pregnancy termination. He fills in the stuff that isn’t in the song – the two jobs he worked to pay it off, the final year of high school both he and his then-partner both mostly missed, their sympathetic parents, the emotional aftershocks.
“I dreaded that song coming out,” he says now. “I tried to talk the manager and label people out of it: that it wasn’t a hit, it’s upright piano, it’s out of tune.” At the time it was written, though, “the point wasn’t to reveal myself; the point was to write the best song I could. Consider me almost a songwriting sociopath. I do not give a shit, as long as it’s a good song.”
A Dream About Lightning Bugs is Folds’ take on what it means to be creative. The title is drawn from the first dream he can remember, of catching fireflies as a child, which he uses as a metaphor for songwriting. Making art, he writes, is about “following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others”.
Like Brick, the point isn’t to reveal himself. A late chapter in the book concerns a mental health breakdown and recovery. Most other rock memoirs would make a whole book out of this. Folds doesn’t dodge it, but doesn’t wallow, either. “Everyone hits the bottom, it’s actually not special to do it,” he tells me. “That’s the dynamics of life, you go up and down. It’s OK.”
Instead, much of A Dream About Lightning Bugs is centred on childhood, where the seeds of creativity are sown. As an obsessive two-year-old growing up in North Carolina, he says, he would spend up to eight hours a day listening to records. “I probably would have been called functioning Asperger’s or OCD or ADHD or something like that.”
On his 2004 collaboration with Shatner, Has Been, Folds received a valuable lesson on what he calls “The Death of the Cool”. Shatner challenged him at length to define what the term meant: ‘“Benny, listen to me, what is ‘cool’? Benny! Listen. What is ‘cool’? You don’t understand!’”
It was an ideal Folds says he was still caught up in, as he battered his hands on the keys. Being cool, he says, has “damn near ruined pop music”. He’s called his songs “punk rock for sissies”, but no genre was more rule-bound than punk. “Adding too many chords – terrible thing to do. Care about what you look like – terrible thing to do. There was a lot of lying going on.”
Eventually Shatner’s persistent questioning made sense. “He was saying that he didn’t want to be held to some stupid kiddy standard; he wants to make something for him that speaks of his life, and what’s cooler than that?” Folds says. “A 75-year-old man doesn’t give a shit, just does not give a shit, and he’s the coolest motherfucker on the planet.
“It was interesting to me to have someone who was just void of judgment of whether something was acceptable or not in indie-rock that year – with certain people, with certain magazines, who wear certain clothes. And the not-being-cool brand, if you will, was working for me. So I had to acknowledge that.”
First published in The Guardian, 29 August 2019