Portrait

A conversation about memory, memoir and bringing the spirit of punk to the piano. By Kirsten Krauth.

Musician Ben Folds

In Ben Folds’ memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs, there is a photo of a baby perched dangerously in a plastic capsule on the front seat of a jeep with his papa. No seatbelt. No doors, even. As the infant stares at the camera in defiance, it seems like a pre-emptive vision of the mad ride Folds will take us on: breaking the rules, catapulting to fame, lurching from one ditch to another.

“Underground”. “Brick”. “Song for the Dumped”. These songs, all written by Folds, spark strong recollections of ’90s Melbourne for me. In an intimate bar in the same city 25 years later, he tells me his memories have always been caught up in the music he was attentive to – even at two, he would spend eight hours lying on the floor, listening to the record player. In his book, the themes of obsession and lessons on creativity are woven around music, photography and writing itself. What pulls it all together, strangely, is the notion of discord: writing a song means lyrics, melody, dynamics and performance can all work against each other. “So, you can be smiling at someone, have an evil thought about them, look like you’re pale and sick, and feel great.” He smiles at me as he says this.

As a kid, when he couldn’t get the music right, Folds would get so angry he would punch holes in the walls – he even once broke his hand when he hit a stud. This rage has always elevated his performances: riotous, out of control and great fun to watch. Although he listened to everything from Black Flag to Shostakovich, he realised that punk rock as an aesthetic or a way of music allowed that behaviour. “Suddenly, with this outlet, you can get paid for it, or make a good song, or play a good gig simply by placing that energy into it. Which is wonderful,” he says. “I have thrown tantrums on pianos but … it has a bunch of happy in it. My band was playing fast, loud, happy, sarcastic songs.”

He admits that the last time he had a “total shitty” on stage was in Brisbane only three years ago. In his description of the night, the piano takes on an almost animistic dimension – a living spirit. “If you play it enough,” he says, “your nerve endings seem to tendril into the piano itself … It’s every day, every day, every day you’re doing it and it becomes your hands. The personality of this piano was a snaggle-toothed, mean old man, who was asking to be taken off life support, and was heckling me while he was doing it, was being stubborn, was shitting the bed, wasn’t doing anything I asked him to do.” Hands black and blue the next day, he decided, turning 50, it was probably time to stop.

Folds’ songs have revolved around him playing the seasoned observer, struggling with what it means to belong while still living “in the key of awkward”. Writing the memoir, Folds tested many assumptions about his life, including that he grew up working class. He describes himself as a social-class tourist. “It seemed too convenient to brag that I pulled myself up by the bootstraps, and that seemed like a fucking boring story, even if it was true.” His parents moved constantly between working-class and middle-class neighbourhoods, building houses. He had Klansmen neighbours while he played in orchestras with rich kids. “I watched all these people. I sat staring at them. Where do I put my fork? If I say that word, will that make me look like an uppity snob and get me beaten up at school?”

Accents defined him too, marking him as an outsider. “My accent would have said bottom of the barrel, redneck, dumb fuck.” After he spent years travelling and trying to leave his southern accent behind, it has now returned. When we consider Australian class accents, I mention Kath and Kim, Prue and Trude, and his face lights up. “I moved to Adelaide in 1998. Kath & Kim was my manual on all sorts of things to do with Australian life,” he says. “I had been a big fan of The Castle. In college I watched that all the time. Everyone in the wing of my dorm was always like, ‘You’re dreaming.’”

As it happens, the book’s title comes from his dreaming as a child – of fireflies that only become visible to others when Folds points them out, lighting up the darkness. As I watch his fans wait for hours to get their books signed, the memories, humour and melancholy are all reflected when they meet him. A woman’s face is luminescent as she shows me the piano he’s carefully drawn on her arm: she’s heading into the night to the tattoo parlour to get it inked.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "That Folds black magic". Subscribe here.

Kirsten Krauth
is a writer and editor. Her novel Almost a Mirror, shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize, will be published by Transit Lounge in 2020.