Ben Folds has been living in Sydney, Australia, since the COVID-19 pandemic started sweeping the globe entonths back. And he’s probably going to be there for a while; the number of U.S. cases has ratcheted up recently in states that attempted to reopen prematurely. Folds isn’t despairing, though — at least not any more than the rest of us. Instead, he’s taking this time to work on a new album, and to escape the stresses of the road.
Folds, until recently a resident of New York State, first arrived in Australia in March to play a series of shows with orchestras from around the country. Soon, though, his run of dates was canceled and he found himself on the other side of the world indefinitely. Always tech-savvy (remember his stint on ChatRoulette?), Folds jumped into livestreaming full-tilt and even wrote a song about this cursed year, “2020.” “Don’t it seem like decades ago/Back in 2019/Back when life was slow,” he sings on the track, which dropped the end of June. “We’re just halfway done/2020, hey are we having fun?/How many years will we try to cram into one?”
The marooned musician spoke with Rolling Stone about COVID-19, the politics of face masks and new music.
So you’re living in Australia now? Where are you staying?
I’ve been increasingly awesomely private and I’m loving that. I mean, everyone knows I’m in Sydney, but that’s about as far as I’m going. I showed the inside of my apartment on the little broadcast I’ve been doing. We found it super last-minute, trying to figure out if we were getting back to the U.S. I feel a little guilty I’m not over there suffering with everyone else.
Tell me about what it was like when you first realized you were going to have to stay there.
Trying to to look into the future and figure out what is canceled in the world of a musician is still difficult. The extent to which music, arts, entertainment has actually been affected — I haven’t really seen it reported on. I think the reason is probably because it’s not a very attractive part of being a band or a musician or an entertainer to show how broke you are suddenly are. There is some dignity involved; no musician wants to appear like a broke-ass musician.
I know of three or four musicians who you wouldn’t think would have financial trouble who were scrambling; they probably have to sell most of everything [they own]. … And in the States, it’s getting worse and worse. I don’t think I have thought that for a second [that concerts would have resumed by now], but you still have to be in the conference calls with people who are hoping to get their business started. But I think most musicians should probably go ahead and bet they have no income for a year. There’s nothing about the numbers that would say otherwise. And how does the musician feel about that? Well, it’s pretty scary, because you can’t promote an album without touring it.
How are you handling all this personally?
I’m pretty flexible. I started out moving my own piano, which I was in debt for — with the collections agencies coming after me. Even when we were famous and making records, I was still doing that shit. I still am. Like I’m a construction worker. I always wanted to wake up and think I could be my own crew. That’s kind of the way I’ve treated [making music during lockdown]. I’m doing my own tech work when I’m doing broadcasts. Some broadcasts I do because I just think people need music. Other ones I’m getting paid little bits and pieces for. I have like 80 things open on my screen at any given time.
I’m getting by. Part of me enjoys it because I love stuff and abundance, but I’ve never been comfortable mentally with it. So I sleep at night now, which is nice. …
Because you have fewer things to worry about? Do you have control over your worries?
I have a lot of small worries now. I worked all kinds of jobs before I was 27 years old; we made it in the music business very late. I was waiting tables, delivering wine, lawn maintenance, all kinds of shit. Running a musician’s business, you don’t sleep. I haven’t slept since I’ve been a professional musician. People can level all that Republican nonsense about elitist musicians and if I say something that I have an opinion about I’m told to shut up, shut my mouth and sing. Because I don’t know what people’s problems are like because I’m “elite.”
Well, now I’m living hand to mouth, counting the change to go to the grocery store, have something delivered. I’m happy as shit right now because I don’t have as much pressure. That said, I also know that my future is probably brighter than it was when I was doing lawn maintenance and that perhaps in the next couple of years, that builds back up. It’s all perspective, you know? I feel really good about just making an honest living.
Is there any way for you to leave or are you kind of stuck?
I think that there could be a way to leave, but it’s so uncertain now in the U.S., with the borders and the rules coming in and out. I have to play here for some orchestra makeup shows in January, and it’s not clear to me that it would be easy for me to get back [if I left].
There’s no community transmission here right now. So there’s no way they’re going to be like, “Yeah, go back to the U.S. and come back and play your shows, bring a crew, or whoever you bring.” I’d have to do two weeks of mandatory guarded quarantine in a hotel. I mean, I could do it, but I have nothing to do in the States except for trying to dodge a terrible virus and commiserate with everyone.
Yeah, there are so few cases over there. I’m in New Jersey and I think there were about 400 new cases today.
But they realize over here that 30 cases can become 400 really quickly. So they actually have something called a “plan,” you know, and no one over here sees wearing a mask as a political statement. Everyone here thinks it’s insane over there. Like, why should wearing a mask — to protect everyone — be a political statement? They’re really enforcing stuff here and I’m actually glad. I mean, it’s a pain in the ass, but I’m glad.
I know you just put out a song, “2020.” So it seems like you’re feeling creative.
I’m feeling I have time to be creative, you know? And I’m giving myself that time now where I would have been touring. That’s an age-old problem for musicians. I mean, that’s why Rachmaninoff was depressed when he moved to the U.S. — because he was such a commodity. He toured all the time and didn’t compose for four years and thought he was gonna kill himself.
So, at the moment, there’s something really nice about being locked down, even though it’s for terrible, terrible reasons. I always feel creative, but I feel like I have time to be creative. This morning, Sarah Silverman put up a funny Instagram of her and her friend playing one of those terrible shoot ’em up video games. And she’s just like singing these Broadway improvs: “I killed her! I killed her!” So, just a few minutes ago I threw some piano down on it and sent that to her. And those are the kinds of things that I’m finding myself having time to do. Mostly, I’m thinking about songs in terms of an album, though.
Is the record informed by 2020?
Well, the thing with 2020 is the news cycle is so fast that it’s stifling for a musician — it’s moving faster than you can physically release a song. The song “2020” may be old as the hills in one week — and it’s still fucking 2020. People used to say, “That song’s so 2010 or 2008.” Now it’s like, “That song’s so two o’clock.” Then something else happens at six and we’ve got new coronavirus numbers. Now there’s a civil war and China’s getting ready to bomb. It’s just so fast.
Back in the Sixties, there are all these songs with social changes in the background. Even just a love song, you can hear the era because they were living in it. But when you’re skipping around so many vibes during the day that if you try to write about it, it’s old news — I actually think that shuts an artist straight up because before you can express yourself everyone’s changed. I’m not sure that people are even cut out for that. You’d almost have to have free jazz going 24 hours a day to interpretive-dance the shit that’s going on.
Meanwhile, the other things I’m writing have what’s going on in the background, I’m sure, but they’re not particularly or specifically about now.