Knowing His Place
Singer-songwriter Ben Folds has enjoyed more than a quarter century of acclaim. Success came with a keen awareness of place and time.
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.
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.