Singer-songwriter Ben Folds and architect Jeanne Gang have kept their ideas fresh, authentic, and clear of passing trends.
Ben Folds is a well-regarded musician and songwriter known for his work with the Ben Folds Five, extensive solo career, and cross-genre collaborations.
Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1966, he began learning piano at age 9 and played in several high school rock bands. He studied at the University of Miami and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, played drums and bass in several bands and as a Nashville session musician, and acted in New York City before founding Ben Folds Five in 1993.
Folds released three albums with the group, an alternative rock trio, scoring a Billboard top 20 hit with the 1997 single “Brick.” His three solo studio albums, Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001), Songs for Silverman (2005), and Way to Normal (2008) all reached the Billboard top 50, and a Ben Folds Five reunion record, The Sound of the Mind (2012) peaked at number 10.
Folds has collaborated with a variety of other artists, including The Dresden Dolls, Weird Al Yankovich, and numerous orchestras. He published a memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs, in 2019.
Jeanne Gang is an award-winning architect, known for her sustainable building techniques and her design of the 82-story Aqua Tower in Chicago.
Born in 1964 in Belvedere, Illinois, Gang studied at the University of Illinois and Harvard Graduate School of Design. She worked under influential architect Rem Koolhaus before founding her own company, Studio Gang, in 1997. The firm designed projects in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, St. Louis, and elsewhere. When it was completed in 2010, Gang’s Aqua Tower was the largest women-designed building in the world; it has since been surpassed by the 1,982-foot-tall St. Regis Chicago (2020), which she also designed.
Among her many awards, Gang won the prestigious Louis I. Khan Memorial Award in 2017 and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2011. She is a professor in practice at Harvard Graduate School of Design, and has also taught at Rice, Princeton, Columbia, and Yale universities.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world. And on this episode, “Conscientious Evolution.” Singer-songwriter Ben Folds has enjoyed more than a quarter century of acclaim. That success came with a keen awareness of place and time.
Ben Folds: The idea that you have to hang on to the glory years of your turbulent, 18-to-30-year-old self, the pressure to remain in the extremely marketable age group seems unhealthy to me.
And architect Jeanne Gang believes the built environment can coexist with the natural one, a concept her buildings have proved both possible and enduring.
Jeanne Gang: If you do something that is really functional and has the right order to it, it has beauty. It’s not something you have to try for but you have to find what is that right order inside the structure. What makes it what it should be?
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Ben Folds’ parents were barely 20 when he was born. By then both had already moved past much adversity in their own young lives. His father’s father was abusive. His mother’s father died from a liver disorder before she was born, and her mother dropped her off at an orphanage when she was six. Yet the couple kept these dark shadows from the past out of their own sons’ lives.
Ben Folds: I’m blown away that both of them could lop off that energy. While I understand the need for people to process things, to stand up and say, “This happened to me,” and my parents cut that off. And when I think about how hard that must have been to do, and also, yeah, when you don’t process something they’re gonna be emotional repercussions. It’s not like it just goes away. But what that did was it gave me some free space. It gave me real parents. It gave me two people who I thought knew what was happening. And that gave me some safety.
That safety was a foundation for a life in music that has been defined by variety and longevity. For two and a half decades, Ben Folds has created a wide range of music from piano driven ballads to catchy pop rock, to movie soundtracks, to works for orchestra. Indeed, he’s been artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra since 2017. The range and consistency of the work has kept his fans coming back for more and also brought new ones.
Folds: And sometimes you see three generations in one family will show up to a gig. I think people have discovered my music at different get in points, you know? And so now I’m seeing people who got in on my last record and I find a lot of kids got in on a soundtrack I did for a Dreamworks movie called Over the Hedge, a surprising number. And now they’re in their early thirties. So I see a lot of them.
Ben Folds realized he wanted to play piano as a second grader when he saw his classmate and future wife and collaborator, Anna Goodman, playing Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” He was entranced and would daydream endlessly at school about the music he would play when he got home. That single mindedness has stuck with him to this day.
Folds: I think someone would have a label for that that I’m not interested in but I like that I can concentrate that much. So if I can make myself concentrate instead on something that I’m working on then that’s a good tool. On the other side, it can be incredibly destructive, you know? And it’s not good for you if you’re concentrating on the wrong thing. I’m glad I’ve never been anywhere near gambling. I’m thrilled I’ve never been anywhere near that. I don’t want a piece of that ’cause I kind of have a feeling I know where that would go.
Folds grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but his family moved around a lot so he never got completely comfortable with the kids in one neighborhood before moving onto another. Still he credits these frequent uprootings with helping him understand different kinds of people, a skill that informs much of his largely story-driven songwriting.
Folds: You can’t write a good song down. And if you’re going to relate to anybody, there has to be, especially if you are, let’s say you’re angry with somebody. You still need to have a sense of who that person is and some empathy for them. Otherwise you just create a caricature of Satan. And you say, “Satan did me wrong.” That’s a terrible song.
This finely tuned empathy has allowed Folds’ music to transcend many dividing lines in American life. His song “Brick,” for example, written with his ironically-named rock trio, the Ben Folds Five in the late 1990s, is about Folds’ experience accompanying his high school girlfriend to get an abortion. Rather than polarizing his audience, the song connected with people across the spectrum.
Folds: There was a year when it made a top 50 conservative anti-abortion list and it also made a top 50 pro-choice list, independent of each other. I don’t know why such lists existed that year but they did, and my song made both lists at the same time which, I would say is my work is done.
“Brick” was a big hit, but the next Ben Folds Five album, 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, didn’t get the same acclaim. Folds has called it both a failure and the group’s best work. The following year, the band split up. Soon after, Folds kicked off his solo journey with 2001’s Rockin’ the Suburbs.
Even though the album was his fourth, Folds still harbored anxieties about his life in music. And those anxieties made their way onto the album. One song, “Fred Jones Part 2” follows a man who loses his job at a newspaper after 25 years working there.
Folds: So if you write about a character that you’re interested in, it’s gonna say a lot of about you because you could have seen everything else going on on the block but instead you saw, you know, the song “Fred Jones” about an editor of the local paper. And I realized I was very consciously writing about myself and just about, you know at some point I’m gonna get let go, like I’m gonna get laid off. I’m writing songs down, I’m getting away with it. But at some point, some kids gonna come in here with a box and I’m gonna find out I have to put all my stuff in it. And a security officers gonna march me down to the basement. And I’m done. At least that’s what I saw. But that probably was very possible at that time. I mean, I’ve now been doing this for long enough to where, when I go out, it’d probably take at least a couple years, but at the time I could have gone out in five seconds.
Ben Folds has now been at the piano longer than Fred Jones was at the paper, and he’s managed to do so not only by changing with the times, but changing with his time. Over the years, music about young couples and old girlfriends has given way to songs about raising children, gaining weight, growing old.
Folds: There is an age-appropriate, you know, music in a way. I mean that’s different for everyone ’cause everyone’s sort of at different places in their life. But the idea that you have to hang on to the glory years of your turbulent, 18 to 30 year old, or 18 to 28 year old self, you know, the pressure to remain in the extremely marketable age group seems unhealthy to me.
But beyond writing more songs, Folds has also found a new goal: empowering others to become musicians by advocating for music education.
Folds: I feel useful now, if that makes any sense, you know? I can’t say I felt useful in—back in my rock and roll years, I felt like, you know lucky to be doing what I was doing and everything but I didn’t really feel useful. I think I made a transition into a part of my career where I just really followed things that were just of interest to me that made me feel good ’cause I wasn’t doing it completely for myself. When I see what I feel like is the world on an unraveling trajectory, I think what can, what can be done? I don’t know. I’m a musician, kids singing, understand music, understand some harmony, doing things in concert, understanding the symbols. Maybe that’s, I mean, I can chip in there. You know, if I can talk another 10 kids today into playing piano or singing or just, because they hang out with each other and they interact in a way that’s I think is an antidote for what’s happening to us on the internet. When you have people communicating musically they’re inadvertently sharing their life, not just their life experience, but where they’re at at that moment. Some empathy listening for the other person in order to play symphonically, in concert, in harmony.
Promoting music education may end up being Ben Folds’ longest-lasting legacy, helping countless young musicians into a world where they can write and perform their own songs. But Folds’ music will also live on. Beyond the rock ballads of his early years, one of his most enduring pieces has been a softer song that closes out the Rockin’ the Suburbs album.
Folds: I’ve had so many like, different times in my career, different songs have been the thing that’s driving it. And “The Luckiest” is probably the one that drives my career the most universally. You’re talking about a love song coming from, you know, an era of musician, that was, it was against my religion to write a love song. All the cool kids had told me not to do it. No one did it. That’s what our era did. Or even if it was kind, it had a little irony to it or something. So in order to be able to write a song that I thought would go in, what would make the medicine go down, is just enough discomfort. So a couple next door dying and being old people, old aren’t normally in love songs. You know, one dying, the other being wheeled out the next week. It’s not that sexy.
Yet despite all of his years of adulation, Ben Folds isn’t trying to be sexy or intimidating or larger than life. The opposite, in fact. He’s trying to meet life where it is, understand it as best he can, and share what he’s learned to help others to do the same. And it isn’t getting old. He still says that he is the luckiest.
In 2009, Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower took its place in the Chicago skyline. Among the more traditional buildings, it stood out with its undulating facade of balconies transforming residents who might usually be isolated into neighbors. The Aqua Tower’s design made Gang an architectural sensation, but for her, beauty wasn’t the building’s only purpose. She was interested in something more intimate: the communities it would help foster.
Jeanne Gang: That was an interesting case to observe, is like this building with the two sides at City Hyde Park, with one side full of balconies that connects to the outdoors and one side with more picture windows looking at the skyline, and in Chicago, they say that everyone loves to be looking at the skyline. As we saw how people moved into the building, immediately like the south side was rented out like on day one because it was just, people wanna have connections to each other.
Gang has made it her life’s work to address how the built environment can help shape our relationships to each other and to the world around us. She calls it actionable idealism, a holistic approach to urban design that she’s been championing for decades.
Gang: I really get excited when I see people thriving because there is something there for them, a building that’s for them. I wanna see people get back together, able to talk and reduce the divisions that we have in our society.
Jeanne Gang’s idealism and affinity for nature began to take shape very early in her life. As a child growing up in Belvedere, Illinois, she loved being outdoors, building ice castles and tree houses, drawing what she saw in nature. Gang’s father James, a civil engineer, and her mother Marge, a community organizer, instilled in Jeanne and her three sisters an interest in how things worked and a drive to spark change for good.
Gang: My mom was very involved in community so it was natural for me to do that and talk to people and learn about what they needed.
And as young Jeanne continued to explore habitats, built and natural, she became ever more curious about the different ways that people and animals lived within them. Gang recalls one family vacation to see cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park as another spark that ignited her interest in architecture. She would go on to study at Harvard, and before that the University of Illinois, where she remembers many of her teachers as aging hippies with ideas about the environment that had yet to hit the mainstream.
Gang: They taught about passive solar orientation and you know, how to use less energy. But then when I got out in practice, nothing like that was happening at all. So when I finally got my own practice started I brought that back in and it was right at a time when there was, you know this movement was starting to happen. So it fit in with my way of being in the world.
Much of what Gang later put into practice came from studying and traveling in Europe. In cities such as Zurich and Rotterdam she observed how buildings evolved over time.
Gang: Seeing just the way that cities reflect the culture of a group of people, a place, its climate.
In Europe, Gang also saw how many different minds came together early in the creation of a building. There she learned that each design benefits from a diverse community to bring it to fruition.
Gang: That was different than the way I had seen it being done in the States. When I started my own practice, I would always bring in engineers or, like many different types of experts on different things and trying to get those early collaborations and conversations that inform the design.
And so when Gang returned to the United States in 1997, she started her own architecture and urban design firm. Today, Studio Gang has offices in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Paris. And for projects large and small, her team brings together a diverse range of voices, expertise, and points of view; community leaders, artisans, ecologists, this with the goal of creating buildings that respond to the environments in which they’re located. And just like the structure she created as a child, Gang’s architectural designs continue to take cues from the natural world.
Gang: What nature does that I like, it’s ruthless about using the least amount of energy possible to do what it does. So it contorts and conforms and evolves to do the function the best way it can. There’s no extra.
Fast Company magazine has referred to Jeanne Gang’s practice as a go-to for environmentally conscious and architecturally adventurous design, having repeatedly demonstrated that creating aesthetically pleasing buildings might just be an important part of the answer to the sustainability question.
Gang: Architecture that people love and they wanna hang onto tends to be the stuff that lasts. And yeah, I mean of course our conception of beauty changes over time too, and it adjusts. I still think there’s something that is like that compels you by certain buildings or structures that makes people love them and want to keep them. The function and the aesthetic have to go hand in hand, like in nature. So it’s, you know, so usually if you do something that is really functional and has the right order to it, it has beauty.
But not all of Gang’s buildings are show stoppers. She started her career working in the neighborhoods of Chicago and since creating the Aqua Tower, her studio has balanced its work between large commercial projects and others with a more civic focus.
Gang: In doing this more and more, it became clear that, we really need to have a method for engaging with communities. And that’s something that we’ve developed at my practice with people that are better at it than me, but just how to elicit what’s desired.
Jeanne Gang believes the future of cities will depend on their ability to support people from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Studio Gang is at the forefront of this in Chicago with a project called Assemble Chicago, a carbon neutral, affordable high rise to be built in the city’s downtown loop.
Gang: And it’s really for essential workers that would be working in the loop. 100% of the homes are affordable and it has these community spaces within it in the base. And this is, you know, because if you just let the market do what it wants, you will end up having cities that are not socially equitable and you, you know, it should be for everyone.
And Studio Gang’s mission to help cultivate better communities through the buildings they create is ever-evolving. In 2019’s Solar Carve, an office tower at the edge of Manhattan between the High Line park and the Hudson River, the building profile follows the path of the sun in order to prevent blocking light or restricting views. The glass facade has patterning that appears decorative, but is actually designed to mitigate the warming effects of direct sunlight.
Gang: I think the first wave of architects tried to like step over the High Line to get views, you know, but imagine if everyone did that, the whole thing would be blocked.
AJC: The High Line would be a tunnel.
Gang: Right? That building was all about stepping out of the way. And that’s what gave it its sculptural shape, it’s really shaped by the views to allow the neighbors along the High Line to still have the views. To step back for daylight so it was really carved by the solar angles. And that means that, you know, sunlight is getting down to the common area, the shared space. The benefit of it, though, in the end, it’s like you have a building with the most fantastic views itself because it steps over to the west and it gets out of the way of the High Line.
And as the city of Chicago works to transform its riverfront into an accessible recreation area, the talents and vision of Studio Gang have been called upon once again. At Clark Park, Gang hopes her work will help different communities to connect to what she calls the city’s backyard, and work together to maintain it.
Gang: Making projects like the Boathouse in Chicago that invites people to the river, even if it’s not perfect, but that will help to start the sea change, which will be more and more people caring about it, being stewards of the river.
Jeanne Gang knows that what we build and how we build it can help create a more sociable, sustainable, and equitable world. It’s an idea that she began espousing early and the world is finally catching up, catching on.