A Chat with Ben Folds

Saturday Oct 11th, 2014

Blog > A Chat with Ben Folds

The other week, we asked you to submit questions for Ben Folds. And you did! It was great. So when Ben was at our campus for the YoungArts Salon Series, we picked our favorites and our social media girl + YoungArts alumna Isabela Dos Santos sat down with him to pick his brain and get you some answers. Enjoy the conversation!


Ben Folds performing at YoungArts with alumna Kate Davis (2009, Jazz); photo by Lisa Leone, taken on Ben’s cool camera.

Ben Folds: Good luck transcribing this later. I always just talk forever.

Isabela: That’s okay. It’ll be fun. So…the first question comes from one of our alumni in musical theater, Blake Pfeil, who was wondering: “Last year you wrote a 15-minute musical as part of a 24-hour festival, but I’m curious: any plans to compose a full-lengther?”

B: That [24-hour festival] was fun. And yeah - I mean, I’ve been thinking about that since the first time I was approached to do this in, like, 1995. I’ve probably met all of the major Broadway producers over that time, and I’ve had an idea or two, but I keep not doing it…because it’s not my world. So just as soon as you start breaking into song it’s - I think I will. But I also kind of wonder, since I write songs that are already telling stories, if maybe it’s a little bit like someone who makes silent movies who shouldn’t try to make a talkie. Does that make sense? But I think I will eventually. But I’m probably going to be the last person on Earth to do it and it’ll probably feel like I was the first one that was approached. But I’m going to do it. I think.

I: Along that, in terms of your writing process, another one of our alums who is a singer/songwriter himself, Philip Labes, was asking: “Do you write in a stream of consciousness style, or is there an editing process?”

B: Well, it’s both. You have to make a little agreement with your internal editor that, “You don’t get to be around while I’m making this up. You really have to…f*** off.” And then you promise the editor that when he, or when she, comes in the room, they get to go at it with a chainsaw. Like, just absolute - just wreck it. Lose everything that’s crap. But allow yourself the opportunity to do that. So yeah, it’s both, but it’s real important to put yourself in that space where you’re not editing. Because, when it comes to music, every melody means something. And if you’re gonna be the kind of person who can’t even write down a shameful thought in a diary, or feel at all weak about anything, then you’ve cut off everything except for your little myopic “this is the way I want to be seen” thing. And I think that’s unfortunate. Just go ahead and let yourself be who you are. Then you have to bring the editor in and start just cutting stuff - entire things. You might say, “That song has some merit…but there’s three words that are not quite there.” Just throw the whole thing out, just throw it out. Seriously, that’s my editing process. It’s really easy to start and then absolutely brutal after that.

I: It sounds like you know, or have come to terms with, how you work. Do you feel that way, or -

B: Nooo, I don’t feel that. Every time I say something like that, it’s also to remind myself. Because every time I have to write a song, I have to go through that. I want to edit while I’m…it’s just basically killing it all as it comes out of the chute. You don’t want to do that. You need to be crueler than that. Let them grow up a little bit, have, like, eight of these little ideas eating out of the same bowl, then come in with the machine gun. [laughs] There’s a time to do it, just not when you’re thinking of it. That’s what screws most people up. When they have “writer’s block”. They don’t have writer’s block. There’s no such thing. They have I’m-writing-shitty-music block. And, they have to do it. You just have to do it. Write the shitty music. Then dispense of it and you can move on through. And it’s real hard to do because people don’t like to suck. It’s not fun to suck.

I: Nope.

B: But you have to. And I’ll add that every amazing artist I’ve ever met that I couldn’t believe I was working with turned out to be the biggest hack. In the best way, like, we’re all hacks. I can only imagine what legends like Mozart might have been at the time. There had to have been the same, “This isn’t a worthy melody and I’m just…I’m just gonna throw it out.” There had to have been that. It didn’t just fall out of his ass.

I: That reminds me of a question someone asked, in regards to YoungArts: “How do I know if I’m good enough to apply?”

B: See, just because you’re asking that, you’re not [good enough]…

I: Yeah?

B: No, I’m just joking.

I: Good.

B: [joking again] No, just go home. Just don’t. Don’t put yourself through that.

I: So what would be your realistic advice to someone who’s asking that? Because it’s easy to just say, “Just do it, just try!”…

B: Yeah. Hm, I don’t know because I think that almost anyone that takes their heart out of the basement, whether it’s with a rock band or with any kind of art, there’s going to be a lot of rejection. And there’s a lot of failure, so…we don’t know - what is it that’s prevailing with the people who are actually, you know, doing great things eventually? Is it that they were so stubborn or crazy or didn’t realize that they sucked or something? I don’t know what that balance is and why some people have a certain pain threshold that’s greater than others. And maybe that’s not even a good thing for a personality that’s supposed to work out in the world in general. You might call these people crazy. Like, they might not be right. But you either have that or you don’t. And I think that that question unfortunately has to be answered just by…living. Like, you just find out what your pain threshold is. Because I remember waiting tables - I was waiting tables until I was 27 years old - I was 25 years old and going in to wait tables after playing a gig. I remember this one gig - with a couple of friends, we had a band. We were trying to make it and we blew the PA system up…that cost, like, $400. We made about $6 at the gig. So we’re all waiting tables for the next two weeks just to pay for the system. No one liked it - it wasn’t very good. Why did I even do that? I wasn’t getting any sleep, standing there working [with my eyes closing], and with no promise at all that I was ever going to be doing anything else. That was pretty much - if there’s a music god out there, he was telling me, “You know, you should quit.” Over and over again. And even after I made my first record, you have these great signs from the universe that tell you to quit, constantly. So I don’t know why one person is okay with that, and the next isn’t. I do know I’ve come really close to hitting my pain threshold. To just, “I can’t. Why even. This is embarrassing. Why do I keep embarrassing myself?” ‘Cause even after you make your third, fourth, fifth, sixth record, those records are going out and a lot of people are hating them. The more people know your music the more people hate it so you still have to have that pain threshold. So if someone is feeling like they don’t have it in them, I think they’re the ones who are going to know. I wouldn’t be as positive as some people. I think everyone is creative and everyone can create things, but is someone going to make their life out of it? You shouldn’t lie to people and tell them that everyone should go for it. It’s weird business. Some of my favorite people are people who dropped out of it and done other things. I think that’s amazing, too. A friend of mine who went to University of Miami with me was going to be a jazz bass player, and he was going for it, he was following his dream, but he just couldn’t hack it. He dropped out. So now he’s invented half of the life support system we have in Boeing airplanes. That’s awesome. Good for him, you know?

I: That’s great. I think that’s something we try to remember - we’re supporting the arts. So, keep making art - you don’t have to worry about being hugely successful. Unless you want that, and then you go after that, and we’re here for that, too.

B: Yeah, that’s another thing. That we’re so success- and license-oriented, that people feel like you need to have some sort of license to be an artist. Which is just culturally a side effect of capitalism that we all feel like we have to exploit something and have your name associated with it. Creating or making things is a big thing in itself. I think…people figure out where they fall. I think that question is, in the best way, unanswerable.

I: That’s a good answer. So, on to a more concrete question… “As a multi-instrumentalist, what keeps you coming back to piano as your primary writing instrument?”

B: It’s…well, I’ve actually written entire albums on bass guitar in my apartment, or guitar. In my head. Piano is just a great way to orchestrate. But I don’t really write at the piano. I write away from the instrument. I write on my phone more than anything, ‘cause it’s got a voice notes thing so I can sing my parts into it, whereas before I would have to scribble it out, you know…just to put it in my pocket and then I have to figure out what the hell I was talking about. Now I can just listen to myself mumble on the phone…and try to figure out what the hell I was talking about. [laughs]

I: That’s fascinating to me as an animator - obviously the way you “sketch” is very different. That was actually one of the questions we received that I loved [from Dominique Grogan]: “How do you feel creating other art forms is similar to your musical process?”

B: However your brain is wired is the way you communicate. It must be similar. We know that when you improvise now - this is recent but obviously from a neuroscience point-of-view - that when you improvise, it’s coming from the same exact place as your speech center. Suddenly, you’re emitting music from the place you speak. That confirms a whole lot of stuff I’ve always believed. So if you’re - I would think a dancer who’s choreographing or someone who’s doing visual art - at that moment when you’re creating, you’re just speaking. It’s all you’re doing. So, what are you saying? Because you’re affixing symbols to it that are yours - there are archetypal ones, but then there are ones that are just yours. I just think that’s what’s so cool about creating something. It’s a language, in it’s basic form, until you start deleting words, or doing ambiguous things. That’s the poetry. Until you do that, it’s pretty…primitive. It’s like that whole thing, “You can’t dance about architecture,” but I don’t see why not. I think you probably should.

I: Another question [from alumna Eden Girma]: “Did you have any mentors to guide you in your musical/artistic development? And how do you connect with those mentoring figures?”

B: I never really had a mentor. I mean, I had moments…like, “this guy at this moment said something that’s hugely influential.” And then a couple of more teachers. I had two really good band teachers, and I had a really good piano teacher. I might even reconnect with the guy down here from the University of Miami who gave me private lessons, Steve Rucker. He taught me a lot musically, but the biggest effect he had was making me do a test, which I think is cool. He made me do a test while my hand was broken.

I: That was actually one of the questions. Someone said to to “please ask you to tell the story about how you were made to take a final with a broken hand” [TPR: The Source on Twitter].

B: I’m SURE I’m going to have to tell that story tonight. You’ll hear that one later. [He indeed told the story later, at the YoungArts Salon discussion with Dean of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Shelly Berg. You can see it over at our YouTube page once it’s uploaded!] But Steve Rucker, he’s like, “You’re going to have to take the test.” And actually, well I just wrote him an email - we haven’t connected in 30-ish years. And I anticipate he’s heard that story a lot, and I was kind of worried…I can imagine how it would cast him in kind of an asshole light. But I’ve been really careful to tell everyone that I really appreciated it. Because in my music career I’ve only missed two shows. I’ve only had to bail on two shows: it was after playing several nights with 105 fever and pneumonia. I collapsed and was taken to the hospital, so I missed the next two shows. I think some of that probably came from, you know…This is a contract. People show up, they change their plans, they’re there. And that means something to me that I go play. I’ve played sick, or with broken things, but I play.

I: So I snuck in a question of my own here, too: I have a few ideas of what I might want to do with my life, but I’m often struggling to figure out what’s truly important. Since you’ve got a couple years of “successful” experience doing what you love: what have you found is important at the end of the day? The people you’re around, the places you go…

B: Yes.

I: …doing something you enjoy versus doing something other people say you’re good at?

B: Oh, that’s tough, isn’t it? It’s a step at a time, I think. Making a big broad, “I’m going to do this” - for me, I’m not sure that’s worked out. It’s been the little things, the little luminous things…like, “I really should do that.” And a lot of the time it’s the stuff that the people around you are going, like, [shaking his head ‘no’] “You go do that…” And that leads to something else which leads to something else, and then looking back at the path you see the zig zag going to that somewhere-broad - and you can image if you talk to your former self that they would like that idea, of where you took yourself. But it’s not something you think about now. One example - a small thing: A friend of mine sent me YouTube clips - probably at the beginning of YouTube… - of all these college acapella groups covering my music. And no one had ever covered my music before, and I always really wanted that. I actually never really wanted to sing that shit, I wanted someone else to do it…it never worked out that way. [laughs] But these groups are doing all these covers and it was awesome. I was just skipping around hearing all these amazing arrangements. So I was like, “Alright, I’m going to doing a second half of the year’s touring, and I’m going to go around and record these groups.” And I couldn’t talk the label into it, or they tried to make a contest out of it. Management didn’t want me to do it. The musicians in the band just wanted to keep touring. No one wanted me to do it. And then I was, like, “Fuck it.” So I went on YouTube and I found the groups I liked, and I just wrote them a letter through YouTube. And they would write back, “Bullshit, this isn’t Ben Folds.” So we had to have that conversation…But eventually I got twelve of them that I liked, and my engineer and I got into a van, and we would drive out to the college and go into a room, put some mics up and record them. It was just something I felt like I had to do. So I did that, and I put out a record that didn’t really sell. And right then NBC was starting the show The Sing-Offand so they heard my album. “Oh, this guy knows acapella music.” So I ended up on the show for five seasons - of an NBC show. So everything that I’ve done has been something that everyone’s going, “Ehh…why would you want to do that?” Even when I started playing in the band, I thought I really wanted to have a real piano, so me and the other guys moved a baby grand piano for three years to punk rock clubs. Nobody did that stuff. At the time it was just grunge bands - there was nothing cool about a baby grand in a punk rock club. And if I compromised, like, one bit to that, then I wouldn’t be here now. At all. But it wasn’t because I wanted to get somewhere - it was because I couldn’t imagine playing the show any other way. So to me it’s about the thing that’s, like, right in front of you. Like you’re just mole and you can’t see anything, and you go through a field blind. And every once in a while you have to make these huge big decisions. Then what do you do? [shrugs] But - when you can…just like, tonight. Sometimes it’s just because you went to some club one night and heard someone play and that changed your life. Just ‘cause you went that night. Sometimes it’s just a matter of asking, “Do I feel like it?” Something will illuminate or resonate. But I think the small decisions are the ones that get you somewhere. That would be…my long answer to that. Because I don’t think you can just make up a decision. You just make…stuff. Keep making stuff. You have songwriters that are like, “Well, I was going to go out and see a movie, but I felt like staying in and then I wrote this song, and it’s called ‘Hey Jude’.” That changes your life more than saying, “I think I’ll be a songwriter.” Actually it’s the little things that you do that make a big difference.

[Ben’s hand was in a brace and covered in band-aids.] So what happened to your hand?

B: Yeah…you know, someone had something rude to say about YoungArts, so I clocked them.