Musician Ben Folds Tells The Story Of Himself

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Ben Folds. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Ben Folds. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Ben Folds’ new memoir, "A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons,” is a reflection on being wise in the art of songwriting — but unwise in almost everything else.

“I had so immersed myself in creativity in my art that I was letting things go in my private life as myself,” he tells Here & Now’s Robin Young. “I started to realize that I was very wise when it came to writing a song. And I was a damn idiot when it came to living.”

His tour kicks off this week.

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "A Dream About Lightning Bugs"

Interview Highlights

On when he was 3 years old, dreaming of collecting fireflies in a jar and gifting the jars to other kids

“I think the metaphor for it, for me, [was] to see something that the other kids didn't see and then to get to share it with them was what made me cool in my dream. People see something that's glowing and that was what made me valuable.”

On his turbulent childhood

“I felt like I wanted to make some kind of statement about creativity, maybe teach by example of what I know about one creative person, which would be me and how I got there. I felt like it wasn't the complete story unless you could see what was in motion that created my parents. I mean, they were like 19 and 20 years old. And you know what? I saw a lot of crazy stuff. I think everyone does. But I wanted to state mine.”

On getting creative

“We wonder, if you're a writer, are you inviting odd stuff into your life so you can write about it? I'm not that sure. It becomes more clear as you summarize the book in that way. It gives me perspective because I don't really think my life has been that crazy, I just really wanted to show how I was formed and hopefully that would illuminate any creative decisions I make.”

On his ambitions on the road in the Ben Folds Five band

“Much of my ambition at that time was, ‘This was my last chance to not be poor.’ … To be a piano player and to bring a piano on stage, that would certainly be its own lane, right. Then you realize in a pub, no one could even see you and connect to you. So then my natural instinct is to like, ‘Okay well, I'm here to do my job. I guess I should do this.’ I'm glad that I don't have to feel the pressure to perform in that kind of way where I'm hurling myself at the piano. I've seen pictures of myself taking dives off the piano. I had stuff stolen from me by stage diving in England — boot, no wallet and everything. Crazy.”

On making up songs on the spot at the Kennedy Center

“I tried to take a phrase from a song of mine's called ‘Phone In A Pool.’ It says: ‘What's been good for the music, hasn't always been so good for the life.’ You know, a kamikaze sense of kind of facing risk and danger in a really cavalier way is a particularly appealing artistic stance. But in real life, that sort of risk taking — just diving straight into it — is not advisable. I think the same thing that allowed one allowed the other. And that's all it is. I was always fairly happy.”

On where he is now

“Well it's certainly learning. I think that fame and a constant schedule with no sleep and never processing anything is certainly a disaster for anybody. So I think that that definitely knocked me off my axis a little bit. And you know, there's a chapter in there where I posed myself in my age now as the teacher and then me of all the various ages. I'm asking them what they have learned and they all knew more than they knew.”

On his high school girlfriend’s abortion and his song about it, “Brick”

“I mean it's not something I talked about much when the song was out. In fact, I never answered an interview question about that song. Try having a hit song and not answering a question about it. I had to clam up a lot.

“Look I let her know this book was coming out and I sent her the copy of that section to make sure she was OK with it. She's very happy that someone might benefit from the story.”

Book Excerpt: "A Dream About Lightning Bugs"

File Under “Music”

Music feels like the frame on which I’ve hung nearly every recollection, giving me access to large files of childhood memories. Each song, each note, has a memory attached to it. Just a few bars of the saxophone intro of “The Girl Can’t Help It,” by Little Richard, and out of nowhere I can see the towering leg of my father’s gray sweatpants passing. I can almost feel the crusty scar of the radiator burn on my forearm and smell the creosote of asphalt shingles. The song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” brings back the texture of the dirty linoleum floor, the spinning of the colorful label of the 45-rpm record, and the window-lit specks of dust on their journey around my room. These memories are from when I was two years old. That’s a lot of detail to recall from so far back. Either that or I have a good imagination.

I recently asked my mother if it was accurate to say that I was listening to a couple hours of music a day when I was two years old, and she said no. It was more like eight hours—splayed on the floor at my record player, organizing my records into neat stacks and just listening. And I would become an absolute irate little jackass when interrupted. Eight hours, damn. That’s obsessive, but then, some things never change. It’s also a lot of input and stimulation for such a young brain.

I happen to believe that all the music I listened to in my toddlerhood has served as a memory tool of sorts. Maybe it’s why I can accurately describe the floor plan of our house on Winstead Place in Greensboro, North Carolina. Where all the furniture was placed, where the Christmas tree was, which radiator to avoid ever touching again, the jar of salt I would never ever again mistake for sugar, and the small black-and-white TV playing a rocket launch from Cape Kennedy. We left that house in Greensboro when I was three. In fact, we moved nearly every year of my childhood and I can tell you these sorts of things about each house we lived in.

Neurologists and music therapists are increasingly convinced of the effect of music on the brain. A music therapist friend of mine likes to say that “Music lights up the brain like a Christmas tree.” She’s referring to the large regions of brain scans that light up when stimulated by music. Other important functions, like speech, activate far smaller areas. In fact, there is an observable physical difference between a musician’s brain and everyone else’s. Here, I googled this for you, so you wouldn’t think I was crazy.

Using a voxel-by-voxel morphometric technique, [neuroscientists have] found gray matter volume differences in motor, auditory, and visual-spatial brain regions when comparing professional musicians . . . ​with a matched group of amateur musicians and non-musicians.
—From “Brain Structures Differ between Musicians and Non-Musicians,” Christian Gaser and Gottfried Schlaug, Journal of Neuroscience, October 8, 2003

But neuroscience is not my area of expertise, and this is not a book of science or facts. This is a book about what I know. Or what I think I know. It’s about music and how it has framed and informed my life, and vice versa. About the stumbles, falls, and other brilliant strokes of luck that brought me here.

A Dream About Lightning Bugs

Here’s a dream I had when I was three years old. It’s the first dream I can remember. It was set in one of those humid Southern dusks I knew as a kid. The kind of night where I’d look forward to the underside of the pillow cooling off, so I could turn it over and get something fresher to rest my head on for a good minute or so. The old folks described this sort of weather as “close.” In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies—“lightnin’ bugs,” as the same old folks called them—lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy.

This was one of those movie-like dreams and I recall one broad, out-of-body shot panning past a silhouetted herd of children, with me out in front. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. And I remember another, tighter shot of children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something.

Now, this dream wasn’t any kind of revelation. Hell, I was barely three years old. And although it’s stuck with me all these years, I’ve never taken it to be a message from above that I’m a chosen prophet, or Joseph from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. However, a half century later, it’s obvious to me that the dream reflects the way I see artistry and the role of an artist. At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.

Here you go. A melody. See? I found it. It’s always been right there. That’s why it’s so familiar. Maybe it was in the rhythm of the washing machine, the awkward pause in a conversation, or the random collision of two radio stations blasting from two different cars and how it reminded you of your parents trying to be heard over one another. Remove a note, one flicker, and it’s the sound of the door closing for the last time and her footsteps fading into the first silence in forever. But wait . . . ​nope, the silence wasn’t really silence after all. You just weren’t paying attention. There’s always sound beneath the sound you hear. Or something else to see when your eyes adjust. It turns out there was also the sound of children playing outside your window and, below that, the buzz of a ceiling fan. That’s a sound you’d overlooked before, but now it’s all you can hear. We all see different flickers in a busy sky.

That’s where the melodies live. What do you notice that glows beneath the silence? Can that glow be bottled, or framed? From time to time, we all catch a split-second glance of a stranger in a storefront window before realizing it’s our own reflection. A songwriter’s job is to see that guy, not the one posing straight on in the bathroom mirror.

As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here.

We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else. Who knows where this drive comes from? Some artists, I suppose, were simply cultivated to be artists. Some crave recognition, while others seek relief from pain or an escape from something unbearable. Many just have a knack for making art. But I’d like to think that most artists have had some kind of dream beneath the drive, whether they remember it or not.

I’m amazed when someone sees the sculpture inside a rock while the rest of us just see a rock. I say “hell yes” to the architects who imagine the spaces we will one day live in. And a round of applause for the stylist who sees what hair to cut to make me look respectable for a couple of weeks. I bow low and fast in the direction of those who paint amazing things on the ceilings of chapels, make life-changing movies, or deliver a stand-up routine that recognizes the humor in the mundane. What all those artists have in common is that they point out things that were always there, always dotting the sky. Now we can take it in and live what we missed.

My dream about lightning bugs still fills me with the same pride and sense of purpose as it did when I was three. It reminds me that my job is to see what’s blinking out of the darkness and to sharpen the skill required to put it in a jar for others to see. Those long hours of practice, the boring scales, the wading through melodies that are dead behind the eyes in search of the ones with heartbeats. And all that demoralizing failure along the way. The criticism from within, and from others, and all the unglamorous stuff that goes along with the mastering of a craft. It’s all for that one moment of seeing a jar light up a face.

Excerpted from A Dream About Lightning Bugs by Ben Folds Copyright © 2019 by Ben Folds. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Emiko Tamagawa and Robin Young produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on July 29, 2019.

Robin Young Co-Host, Here & Now
Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



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