Ben Folds: Renaissance Man
Singer. Songwriter. Band leader. Author. Arts advocate. Mentor. Activist. There are a great number of words you can use to describe BEN FOLDS, but these two can replace them all: renaissance man.
Few rock artists from the 90s can claim to have so seamlessly transitioned from their alternative rock days to a role that includes addressing members of the US Congress on the importance of arts funding. But there’s Ben, acting on behalf of the Arts Action Fund for Americans for the Arts one day, performing at the Kennedy Centre in his role as Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony the next. Not bad for a guy who earned his place in rock lore singing accessible 90s alternative hits like “Brick” in a trio called The Ben Folds Five. Never one to rest on his laurels, Folds has spent the last two decades creating an enormous body of genre-defying music, from pop music to #1 charting classical albums, contributing to animated soundtracks for Hoodwinked and Over the Hedge, serving on the TV talent show The Sing Off, and even producing an album for William Shatner.
His latest project is a memoir entitled “A Dream About Lightning Bugs – A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons,” which should be available this July. In his downtime, Folds still finds time to tour, and his upcoming show March 21st at Fallsview Casino’s Avalon Ballroom is the latest opportunity fans will have to see this uniquely talented performer. In anticipation of his upcoming show, Folds took the time to chat with GoBeWeekly.com about his arts advocacy, his prog rock experiment and his justification for unleashing a Shatner album on the world.
GoBe: You’re a great example of how varied your life experiences can be when you pursue a career in arts and music. As Board Member for the Arts Action fund for Americans for the Arts, you were part of a contingent that addressed Congress on arts funding. How critical is that mandate to ensure arts funding continues.
BEN: Funding for the arts has always been really important. Everyone’s got a system. In the States ours is titled, probably a little too dependent, on the assumption that the private sector will take care of all the arts. I’ve been touring 25 years believe it not, and I see all these small rural towns in the US build up from dilapidation to become inspiring places to be. This was normally led by arts, by a theatre that was revitalized, then shops spring up around it, cafes, interesting things come to town. It’s definitely a great investment. Right now the White House wanted to zero out the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). We really have to not do that. That’s an investment in the building of rural communities that is well documented. I’d like to see it at a dollar per capita. Right now it’s about 50 cents. It’s not about asking for money for art; it’s about having a system that allows arts to make money for us.
GoBe: Tomorrow night you’re playing the Kennedy Centre along with your daughter. How did that come about.
BEN: Gracie’s great. When I was 21 I was still flunking out of college and bagging groceries. We were happy to have Julian Baker performing at this event, but when she fell ill I was trying to find someone to fill her space. I called (cohost) Sarah Silverman and asked ‘do you know anyone up and coming’ and she said ‘your daughter asshole.!’ Gracie’s good, she’s there to do a couple songs. She just had to get out of working at the ice cream shop. She wasn’t going to come if her boss wasn’t going to let her off. I was going to call the shop and say ‘motherfucker, you’ve got to let her off.’
GoBe: Did she show interest in music organically or did she get a little push.
BEN: No, there’s been no push at all in fact. I know how hard a music career is. I’m the last person to shove her or her brother down that path. She hasn’t pursued it all that much. She just happens to be really brave and at an age to be so clueless on just how important the gig is. But she’s just going to walk in and do it. That’s what so crazy. She’ll just walk in and do it. She sat in with Sara Bareilles when she was 15 or 16. She just sat in and sang harmonies. You know how teenagers are. She just said fuck it and walked out and did it.
GoBe: You’ve got your first book coming out. Writing lyrics is about doing more with less. Was that a challenge when sitting down to fill the pages of a book.
BEN: Oddly, you come back to that. For a songwriter, in a book you have all this space. It’s a lot of discipline to get everything you want in a three minute song. That’s not easy to do That becomes your art. So as soon as someone says oh, you’ve got 300 pages to just ramble, that’s the first thing you do. What happened next was I realized, you have to be just as succinct and poetic when you’re writing a book. I chopped down 180,000 words for this book, cut that down to 85-95,000. I cut it a lot, 40 percent of what I had.
GoBe: The book is subtitled “A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons.” What are some of the cheap lessons to which you’re referring.
BEN: “Cheap lessons” comes from my father’s hope for me that things he couldn’t teach me, that I would be punished for when I got wrong, but I wouldn’t be punished so severely so as to lose a limb or my life. So it’s like, ‘I hope you get some cheap lessons Benjamin.’ So for example, if I was out late in my car and had been drinking, his hope would be that I get pulled over and have to spend a night in a pool of my own piss rather than run off a cliff and kill somebody. So cheap lessons are the lessons you learn that involve a penalty that’s not fatal. Those could be musical too. You do things as a pro musicians or amateur, you try it and you hope it doesn’t end your career. Or it ends something but you learn a lesson that’s valuable. And hopefully with your cheap lessons you can tell people about your lessons so they don’t’ have to learn them on their own. So my book is not lessons like I know everything. All I can tell you is what I’ve fucked up. That’s why is was 180,000 words to begin with.
GoBe: You’ve dealt with record companies and now book publishers. Which of those is more apt to screw you in a contract.
BEN: I doubt that the book industry has ever been flush with cash the way record companies were. I don’t know this for a fact, but the record company in its heyday, which was in my era, was rolling in dough. With more money the more power, and with power the more corruption. I doubt that the book industry has experienced quite enough temptation to be corrupt. That said, I was a fan of the music industry. I miss it. What used to be these big teams of people around you to help make your record is gone. The artist always thought they wanted to do it alone, but we don’t know how to sell records. That’s never been the artist’s job. To me it seems the book business is like a tiny record industry. When you make something, someone’s got to pay for it. And when you make something, someone’s got to steer it to the hands of people who will read it or listen to it. No artist likes doing that. I didn’t know how to make a book, the publishers at Valentine knew what they were doing. I learned well in the 90s, and I had the right to be a little bitch. So that’s why I did. I whined and bitched to everyone.
GoBe: You’ve had so much success with symphony and classical music, even hitting #1 on the classic charts with one of your projects. As a younger artist, why didn’t you wind up in a prog rock band instead of the Ben Folds Five.
BEN: Well I definitely flirted with it. My first band was kind of a bad white funk band, which is sort of a sub category of prog rock because it involves math. There’s some real white man math going on, where there’s the joy of being with four or five guys and every measure has a different number of beats in it. That’s definitely a bubble. There’s not going to be many chicks at a Yes concert. ELP, you look at them, they’re just a bunch of hairy dudes.
GoBe: Do you see recording again with the Ben Folds Five or are you happy flying solo.
BEN: Well, to look at the schedule, I don’t see I’ve gone anywhere close to get back with Rob (Sledge, bass) and Darren (Jessee, drums). All the plans that are ahead, that’s just not in there. I enjoy playing with them. It’s not new territory. All these new things keep coming up. I’m greedy that way. I like doing something I haven’t done before, so I’ve got much of that left. Once I’m finished with that and not on a cane or in a rocker, maybe we do something.
GoBe: Speaking of canes and rockers, you see a lot of that when you’re playing the casino circuit. How do approach those shows knowing your audience might be more curious gamblers rather than fans.
BEN: It’s not comfortable. It’s healthy to play across generations, and it’s healthy to play for people who don’t expect what you’re doing. It’s a reminder everyone has different musical tastes, that you’re not the shit all the time, that there’s a broader world and different way of relating to people. le. It’s a humility thing. It’s not comfortable, motherfuckers talking over your music, some old fucking guy coughing in his mobility scooter. Casinos are interesting. I’m down with it. I wouldn’t do it if I couldn’t deal with it.
GoBe: Of all your successes, where does producing a second William Shatner album (Has Been) rank?
BEN: I would love to do another record with Shatner. We talked about a Christmas album a couple years ago. My standards and hopes for him are really high. I want to spend a bunch on money on it. I want the proper talent on it. I want to spend a bunch of time on it. I think he’s an important iconic artist, he’s a presence. He’s been with us since the middle of the 20th century. I don’t want to just make some garage album bullshit with him. I want to do it, but I’m not willing do it and not do it right. In this era you should be able to get a proper $300,000 budget for a man like William Shatner.
GoBe: What can fans expect at your upcoming show at Avalon Ballroom.
BEN: Who knows. I just show up and play. That’s the way it goes. We’ll see what happens.