“I wanted to write a book,” Folds says. “All the Ben Folds Five shit is already on public record – I was interested in making something useful”.
A Dream About Lightning Bugs is a mix of personal memoir, a reflection on making art and a guide to living an authentic creative life. Lightning bug was the local vernacular for firefly, and Folds begins his book recounting a dream he had as a kid in which only he could see the fireflies until he caught them in a jar; a metaphor for songwriting.
While cautious as coming across as “Mr Advice Giver”, Folds wanted to give an“ethnographic view of how someone who does what I do might have had a few quirks along the way which would’ve helped me become that.”
We’re fitting in lunch at Fitzrovia in St Kilda, between Folds’ other book tour commitments. He’s not actually hungry, but orders the ancient grain salad and I have the calamari salad.
Folds was vegetarian for 25 years but a life of touring made him “more moderate”. “Being in places where really [meat] was all that was on offer … you become like a precious white dude in a faraway land who’s got some kind of flag he’s waving,” he says. “It’s better to go, what are they having here, well here I am, I’ll have that.”
He still plays more than 100 live shows a year, which keeps him from doing much cooking.
He used to cook for his kids, twins Louis and Gracie, (now 20) who were born in Adelaide when he lived there with former Australian wife Frally Hynes.
But perishables are a problem when you’re on the road for most of the year. “You buy what you think you can live with and then find yourself throwing everything out of the refrigerator before hopping on a tour bus.”
His recent Australian visit was bus-free; no playing and no music talk. Which he’s enjoying.
“Because you’re wording about words, you know? With an album, people tend to concentrate on one dimension – if they’re a word person, they might not have noticed that the words that were sad were couched in a happy melody. And I think the journalists who have found themselves in book world … I don’t wanna jump to say ‘they’re better’ but – they seem to be better,” he says with a laugh.
He thinks there are “a lot of hacks” covering music. “When I’m talking to book journalists, they’re more well versed in what they do. For one thing, you’ve gotta read the f—ing book!” It transpires that I’ve read an uncorrected proof that “changed a lot” for the final edit, but Folds forgive me (although he later signs it “the fake book”).
Given the storytelling style of his songs, one imagines he enjoyed the expansiveness of a book.
“If you’re trying to write something that … implies a short story, within the confines of lyrical real estate, it’s tough. That’s why most people sing ‘yeah, you’re my baby, let’s go dance’ or ‘you hurt me, you hurt me bad’. But when you’re really trying to communicate something … you can jack around with poetry more than you can lyrics; they’re pretty confining,” he says.
Writing book chapters was like “living in an apartment in Tokyo with a family and then moving into a big, spacious house in America.”
His fans – a very particular lot – have embraced the book, which made the New York Times bestseller list. “Makes me feel right fancy! I’m up there with some cookbooks though,” he says.
There will, of course be more music among the many projects Folds now has on the go. Since going solo in 2001, he’s collaborated with William Shatner, employed author Nick Hornby to write lyrics, produced Amanda Palmer’s first solo album and formed something of a ‘supergroup’ with Palmer and her husband, author Neil Gaiman. He hosts a podcast, ArtsVote2020, interviewing every presidential candidate for the 2020 presidential campaign, he acts in TV comedy programs, was a judge on a US TV a cappella singing competition and since 2017, he’s been the first artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
He talks at enthusiastic length about the challenges, and the joys of the latter; of arranging, and orchestrating, trying to bring in younger audiences without making the programming “unmusical” for the orchestra. Asking orchestras to play movie themes can, he says, be “demoralising”.
“It’s like asking Shakespearean actors to do Teletubbies.”
Next year, he’ll be back in Australia for an orchestral tour, backed by our state orchestras, playing all his hits. Well, most of them; there are some Folds leaves of his setlist these days.
His songs are often satirical and snarky, but there are a few, for example with the word ‘bitch’ in the title, and he’s no stranger to accusations of misogyny.
Some of his best loved songs are considered problematic in the age of ‘woke’.
“It’s so touchy… but there are a few (songs) with ‘bitch’ in it,” he says, referring to his songs Bitch Went Nutz (albeit one written for a ‘fake’ album he put out to stop his 2008 album Way to Normal being leaked online), Rock This Bitch, The Bitch Song.
“And anything with bitch in it … you know, you have to ask yourself when it’s ok. And it is a moving target because times change.”
“I think even saying ‘woke’ – this is in print so you know, maybe I’m saying it sarcastically. Is he being sarcastic? Is he a racist? It’s so touchy… I think every generation has something more enlightened to add and so … the thing you need to ask yourself in my position is – is something in the material or anything I present, something that could make someone feel bad about themselves?
“If it’s offensive – that’s not enough; f— you. But if actually dredges up something that makes someone feel less than someone else, then f— me.”
One of his requested live tracks is his 2005 cover of Dr Dre’s Bitches Ain’t Shit – he turned the foul-mouthed hip-hop classic into a poignant piano ballad, and it’s regularly requested by fans. But he won’t play it any more.
“Not because it might offend someone … what I care about is that there would be someone that wasn’t white in my audience, hearing a bunch of white people singing the ‘n’ word – and in this climate? God – that could mean anything, they might feel like they need to run for the exit … it’s not nice,” he says.
By the time our salads have been cleared Folds has expounded on everything from literature (“I’m reading Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and this motherf—er can write!”) to Twitter (“I log on to see the general lay of the land every morning”), his early fame in Australia (The English and Australians synthesise a little humour and a little downer in the same sentence. In America it’s like, ‘oh it’s got funny in it – it must be a joke’. And if it’s dark, it’s just dark”), and Australian music.
“I think Australia has a lot of talented people, but I don’t think Australia has cultivated a proper sound of its own,” he says, amused by my sharp intake of breath.
His theory is tight though; unlike the UK or the US, touring is hard and expensive.
“You’ve got just a few major cities and they’re way too far from each other – in England it’s all crushed up together, way more people,” he says. “Touring my band, we just had to drive 30 miles, play – drive another 30 miles, play again. We wouldn’t have been able to build a fan base as easily here.”
As for what’s next, Folds isn’t sure about writing another book and concedes he’s cautious about adding too many different gigs to his resume.
“I don’t want to do stuff that I don’t think I’d be helpful at, just so I can do it,” he says. “To jump into something, to say you’ve done it, can be a terrible move. You can find yourself out of your depth quickly and just being a f—ing joke.”
A Dream About Lightning Bugs, published by Simon and Schuster, is out now. Ben Folds plays The Plenary with the MSO, March 22, 2020. Benfolds.com
Kylie Northover is Spectrum Deputy Editor at The Age