OCTOBER 1, 2019
ON THE NIGHT of his book release this July, the rocker Ben Folds performed songs from his over 20-year career at a concert in Washington, DC.
“I didn’t know he works at the Kennedy Center too,” an usher whispered to me, having just learned Folds was an artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra.
“There’s a lot I didn’t know about him either,” I told her — like how he’d written a score for Nashville Ballet, penned musical responses to current events for the Washington Post, tried his hand at photography with National Geographic, and composed an album with the novelist Nick Hornby. I didn’t know about his knack for making up songs on the spot (he takes suggestions from paper airplanes launched by fans onto the stage!) or his penchant for revision, or that Ben Folds Five’s first studio album was entirely scrapped last minute and rerecorded in an effort to sound more authentic. It turns out the record I loved in college — the one that made him famous — was a complete Hail Mary with a small budget, a high-stakes exercise in trying again.
These stories and more fill A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons, out from Random House this summer. Half memoir, half reflections on art and craft, it’s Folds’s first book, with vignettes and earnest accounts of a life spent following creative glimmers. The book tackles his transition from an amateur musician to a professional, with the thrill and strain of success (“What’s been good for the music hasn’t always been so good for the life,” he writes), weaving lost love and record label auditions, band tensions and practical jokes, along with a slew of memorable scenes, like Folds throwing his drum kit in a lake and playing in a restaurant polka band.
I chatted with the musician the day after his DC concert, in the greenroom of a Strand Books event before he hit the stage to talk shop with Sara Bareilles. It was a big night for Folds. Even though he’s sold out thousands of venues in his career, I got the sense that he was moved people were showing up and getting copies of his prose. As we spoke, he seemed genuinely pleased I had gotten something out of the book.
EMILY SERNAKER: I’m wondering what the difference was between preparing songs for an album versus preparing chapters for a book.
BEN FOLDS: Naturally the book was sort of born in the form of short essays, and I never wanted the book to be a collection of essays. I’m probably just a little defensive because I’m a musician writing a book and I didn’t want to write a baby book. I wanted to write something that had a thread and an arc and went somewhere — that’s the way songs are. When the third chorus of a song comes along, you should be a different person by the time you’re singing it. I wanted that to be the case of the book. I think that’s what required the most discipline and attention, that’s where all the hair got pulled out.
It’s a little bit like a song in that a song is born in a line here, part of a melody there, things you don’t know how they’re going to connect. So, I felt sort of at home. The big difference is that my syllable count or word real estate is very narrow in a song. You have no time to say what you’re going to say. And if the words mean more to you than pitched mouth noises, that’s really where the art is. You’ve got to be brutal about the way that you limit yourself.
With a book, there is the illusion that I have all the room in the world. But you’ve still got to be economical. You shouldn’t flower up a sentence if you don’t need to. All of my homies who are musicians, me included, who aren’t novelists or authors first all have the same issue, which is the first draft — you write sounding like your idea of a writer. It is utterly cringeworthy. I worked so hard to get that guy out of that book, to get that voice out of there.
When I write a song, I often write it very formally and then I look at the “Roses are red, violets are blue” bullshit and think, How would I actually say that? “Oh, I’m happy,” and then I write, “I’m happy!” So I think some of the process of writing the book was to relearn some of the lessons of a songwriter.
I really liked the part of the book where you were just writing pieces of songs, and then you said to yourself, “I actually have to be someone that writes full songs.” Can you talk a bit about that shift from being a creative person tinkering to deciding, “This is who I am”?
There’s a great deal of fear, that I think someone — anyone, probably — has upon finishing a song. Because you can imagine all the great things that you would do, and you can bask in your incredible three lines that aren’t connected. But when it comes to the real world and you have to go 1, 2, 3 to play it for people, the way that it works as a piece can utterly fail if it’s not put together well. And you can feel that when you’re writing it. It’s hard to overcome the completion fear — the anxiety of completing a thing.
Making the leap from writing song fragments to writing songs was really difficult to me. And it was my father, I say in the book, who said to me, “Well, maybe you’re not a songwriter.” That’s what I needed to hear. It’s like, Oh, because I can’t name one song I’ve finished. But I had heaps of fragments. By the time I was 16 or 17 years old, I had hundreds of fragments, and I thought they were songs, but if someone said, “Go play them,” and they’re not finished, then that’s a very different part.
The idea of intention seems like a key lesson in terms of performance. I’m thinking of the couple who called you out for looking bored and acting like you were better than everyone when you were in that restaurant polka band. Would you mind speaking about that moment?
When I look at that story in hindsight, I see a person who needed to be told that. I needed to be told that when I perform, if I’m not all there, I have a big say in feeling of the entire room. Even if it’s just the number of the people that are in this room: there’s honor in at least being present. So they definitely taught me a lesson that I was ready to hear, or I wouldn’t have even heard it. It stuck with me all these years.
You need to be present and know you’re affecting a room full of people. I might be tired, upset, or feel like the gig is beneath me, and I feel like I’m so important that it’s beneath me, but it’s not to the people who drove that paid a hundred dollars for a ticket. Let’s say I’ve got a room full of five thousand people there, and 90 percent of them hate my music, and they talk over it. There’s still one or two hundred people there that have changed their plans and are paying attention to you and who care. So you have to stay honorable. And I learned that from that couple, and I wanted to pass it on to other artists.
The book touches on your ability to revise significantly. There’s that “Two First Albums” chapter, and I also saw a video of “Landed” where you had recorded a full string section in Los Angeles and then tossed it when you realized a simpler version sounded better. Can you talk about having a willingness to try things that don’t work?
You’re dead right. You have to be willing to do stuff that won’t work, or you’ll never get there. I think every successful artist — when I say successful I mean someone who is successful in making something that’s good — you have to be willing to fail, no doubt.
I think you have to be willing to claw up a crumbling cliff right until your deadline. If that means that I’ve written a song, and I’ve revised, revised, revised, and I’m in front of the audience, and I have exactly what I’m going to sing in my mind, but suddenly I realize I need to change the second verse on the spot, then you do it. I think you just keep clawing because I don’t think anyone could regret having spent the proper time on it.
The other thing is nothing will last anyway. It seems like a silly thing to say, but it feels like we’re all always thinking there’s something we could do to affect the entire planet or to always be remembered, and those things don’t exist. It has to be really great for right now. That’s what matters.
When following your interests, what goes into that? Is it about humility?
On one hand, it may have to do with humility, but it could well be the opposite. It could be kind of cocky if you think about it too. I mean, I have to watch out that I don’t engage in something I’m not qualified to do. I can’t be like, “I’m gonna be a race-car driver!” No — stay away from the car; you’re not going to be a race-car driver.
I dealt with that a little bit with my photography. I’m a pretty good photographer; I’m skilled. But I don’t have a specific voice as a photographer. And there are photographers who are starving who do have an incredible photographic voice that I know that I don’t have now. So if I just go, “Yeah, I’m just going toward what glows,” then I also have to be able to accept rejection. That’s another side.
A willingness to fail? Or a willingness to learn in public?
Yeah, that’s right. I took a big swing at photography. I love it, and my heart is so in it. But I don’t have a photographic voice. It makes me happy, it’s not commercially viable, and that’s that. At the same time, I really wanted this book to be something that, underneath it all, was for artists who don’t make a living at their art.
You say in the book that everyone has some innate creativity, but they have to foster it. What are some tangible things you hope readers will do (maybe pick up their guitar and practice, or finish a poem) after reading your book?
I would like both of those things. There’s a theme of mentorship running through the book, and without me saying it directly, a little regret is that I didn’t have lifelong proper mentors like some boxers have, or Beethoven had, or Mozart had. Even a lot of the jazzers — they passed these things down. Rockers don’t really do that for the reasons that I say in the book. If it’s something I feel I should have gotten but I didn’t, I would think that’s a cue to look out for it in your own life.
All you can really do, I think, is tell someone honestly how it happened to you and hope that the glimpse into that can be helpful for a reason you didn’t think. Like if an insurance salesman reads the book and for some reason he can’t describe decides to finish his short poems or something like that, then that would be very happy-making for me. At the end of the day, I had to watch out for advice-giving and the shit that would make it sound like I’m on a TED Talk with a drive-through mic. I didn’t want to be that guy.
It seemed like your teacher Robert Darnell was really significant. He pulled you out of that music class and said to try composing alternate versions and gave you a scholarship. It does show how a mentor can see someone.
One of the reasons I wrote that little chapter on my music teachers is they each sort of swooped in and saved me at the right time.
When I met the first music teacher in the book, I was kind of flailing as a kid in school like so many — I was pulling kids’ hair and standing in the back and not showing up and just being a dick. And this teacher saw that and saw that I seemed to be interested in music, put the two together, and sent me on my merry way. It’s sort of an angelic act. Maybe to her it’s no big deal; she’s doing this for all these other kids. To me, it was a big deal, my whole life.
Then my teacher Chick Shelton came along, and that gave me a reason to be in a school. That gave me a reason to show up. The dropout rates in schools that don’t have music are a real thing. You’ve got art and music in the school, and school dropout rates decrease a lot. I feel I’m living evidence of that. I may have dropped out myself — I barely got through high school.
What was that the hardest part to write? I appreciated that you wrote about the background behind the song “Brick.”
The hardest thing about that was the realization that it would be released. I felt like, if I was going to tell people in this book that honesty in your art is very important, and that I learn from honesty in my art and being honest in life, if I can’t walk that walk myself then I’ve got a pretty useless book. So I knew that I had illustrate my point by being willing to do the things that I’m saying you should do.
Beyond that, I had no wish to unveil anything about my private life. People will ask you before the book, “Oh, did you reveal some uncomfortable stuff?!” Like that’s something you’re supposed to check off on a list. I don’t want to do that, but I could tell that’s what the book asked for. The narrative and the message were the most important thing to me — so when it required me to do that, I did.
There’s a lot of humor in the book — the haircut scene, for example, and the bulletin board prank. Can you share about your sense of humor being next to your sense of discipline and rigor?
Humor is such a part of life; you can’t avoid it. At funerals all the way to the comedy club, it’s the way we deal with stuff.
I’m keenly aware that in pop music, if you hear humor in a song it’s a novelty song, which I think is kind of stupid. I mean, life is built on humor. And we know from some comedians who were suicidal, they weren’t walking around yuking it up all the time. These were people who were seeing the absurd black humor in life and trying to survive.
My father is funny as hell, my mother is funny too. To me, when someone is joking around and then they take a moment to be serious, I really listen. It works both ways. When I was growing up, if my teachers would be light after a serious moment, then I’d really listen to what they were saying.
You wrote that American audiences usually assume the songwriter is writing a confessional piece. Do you see the listener’s tendency to think something is autobiographical as limiting?
It’s limiting if you allow it to be. If I feel that my credibility hinges on how literally true a song is, then that is limiting. Then I can only write songs about what actually happened. If you’re playful in your songs, and you understand that David Bowie didn’t go to Mars, but when he says, “Ground Control to Major Tom, we’re losing you!” you go, “Oh my god, this is his personality! Or his soul!” then you can plant all these things inside it and be so much more playful.
I think it’s unfortunate that someone like Bruce Springsteen has to come out and admit that he never souped-up a car or didn’t make out with a girl at some park somewhere. He’s one of our greatest poets. But people still can’t accept that he’s not being autobiographical, and they get angry when they find out he didn’t actually live some things in his songs.
Are there traits that the people you collaborate with, like Sara Bareilles, who just walked in, tend to have? What do you look for?
I like collaborating with people who aren’t in a club. The reason I was interested in working with William Shatner is he’s a fucking island, he’s just all by himself out there. There’s nobody in that club. Sara Bareilles is like this. That’s my only sort of criteria. I would be happy to go into a fucking Denny’s and point out one person that looked interesting and make an album with that person. I think I could do that rather than be paired with someone with a big following.
Emily Sernaker is a writer and human rights professional. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Ms. Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Sun, Rattle, New Ohio Review, GOOD Media, The Rumpus, and more. She lives in New York.