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High Art and High Water

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“Ben is his own worst PR guy,” Mike Kopp, the musician’s co-manager, tells me with a grin that belies his teddy bear exterior. With a professional music career spanning nearly twenty years, Ben Folds has etched his name in rock ‘n’ roll and earned the right to lose the sales pitch and get right to his opinions.

His work, accomplishments, and stark raving mad fans converge to create a forest greater than any trees of potential publicity misgivings. But as the overly warm security office at Schermerhorn Symphony Center fills with managers, PR people, and, eventually, Ben Folds himself, I suspect this army of spin doctors is not protecting Ben from himself. They are protecting Ben from me.

To find a quiet place to talk, the entourage heads down the promenade to an empty cocktail area. Ben is busy on his phone. He and I are separated by the phalanx of his people. Once through the next set of doors, down the hall and into the dimly lit space, the minders scatter. Other than the giant image of Amy Grant hanging ominously overhead, Ben and I are alone.

The heavy stone walls reverberate with the dissipating echo of footsteps. I am keenly aware of my posture and pace of breath. It dawns on me; I feel the weight of Ben Folds’ “celebrity.” He’s small. He wears glasses. He walks with a slight shuffle, but he is so practiced at the art of commanding a room that I am overwhelmed in the silence.

In a typical interview, I would start asking a few layup questions to give my subject a warm up. This time, I babble for two minutes about NATIVE, the background conversations I’ve had about this article, and my depth of symphony knowledge. In my lap, the list of questions blurs and Ben’s stone face is blacked out from the white light streaming through the window behind him.

Without nuance or grace, I jump into the interview with, “What drives you to donate so much of your time and energy to charitable work?” My lungs feel a post-sprint burn, and I wince at the bluntness of this opener. But, with measured breath and poise, Ben begins, “It emanates out of how I’ve structured my life. Everyone I work with enjoys spending time on things that aren’t necessarily lucrative but are interesting and fun.”

A traditional business structure is built with a singular goal—make money. But Ben’s business is different and he’s assembled a team that strikes a healthy balance with a smart focus on the value of music as an educator, healer, connector, and enhancer. “Because I work with people who are all really interested in helping people, we leverage a lot of energy toward these things. I use my quasi-celebrity status where I can,” he says with self-awareness.

For a moment, forget about bricks, black t-shirts, reality TV shows, and Chatroulette. Imagine Ben Folds the humanitarian. Bob Lynch, CEO and President of Americans for the Arts (the organization that founded the National Endowment for the Arts), describes Ben as “our most adamant, helpful, and generous member of the Artist Committee.”

Through Americans for the Arts, Ben has participated in workshops with folks like Robert Redford, lobbied Congress for art funding, and volunteered his time generously and freely. He is the Americans for the Arts ambassador to Nashville, a Schermerhorn board member, and music therapy fundraiser. Ben and his team spend time “putting together a database for music therapists” because the work is meaningful.

Ben travels across the country for benefits and speaking engagements, but home is where the heart is, and Ben Folds has a big heart for Nashville. His advocacy for Music City took center stage in 2010. You might recollect that in May of that year, some water spilled into Nashville’s downtown area and the sump pump in the Schermerhorn’s basement couldn’t keep up. Stop me if you’ve heard this story, but the Symphony’s $10 million flood insurance policy wasn’t enough to fix the mess.

In a nearby storage unit was Ben’s piano, just floating around like a wood and wire iceberg. Maybe it was sunken at the bottom like freshwater treasure, but regardless, it was ruined along with countless volumes of personal instruments, a state-of-the-art kitchen, and pretty much everything else in the guts of the high art music sanctuary next door.

The Symphony’s $10 million flood insurance seems pretty handy compared to the repair for my basement, but the Schermerhorn racked up $13 million in clean up alone. By the end of the summer, they were over $42 million for the entire rebuild. Just below the floorboards, that place was ruined, and there weren’t a lot of people psyched to throw cash at it. Why? Because nearly everyone and everything was in some state of disarray.

Back at the height of the flood, the world outside any of the 372XX zip codes saw a “Breaking News!” version of the mud and water pouring into our homes and businesses. These highlights underrepresented the misery many families suffered. The misperception motivated Ben to load his camera with film and grab his phone for a “this is how it really is” photo documentary. Those pictures of asphalt beaches, artistic deluges, and a spate of weary-eyed yet hopeful Nashvillians were eventually published on Weather.com, in National Geographic, and on Ben’s website.

As the waters receded, Ben’s pianoturned- iceberg was beyond resuscitation. This unplayable instrument was just one broken heart in a litter of ruin, mangled fretboards, and waterlogged music makers. Rather than scrap it, Ben pulled the heap out, broke it down into pieces, and found clever ways to reinvent each and every piece.

The most public demonstration of this effort was the Keys to Music City fundraiser. Ben began signing each piano key, selling them through the Schermerhorn’s website, and donating the money to the Symphony. Within minutes of posting the keys online, the first one sold. “I’m pretty sure Makiko Ishikawa bought that one,” he recalled. She is Ben’s self-proclaimed number one fan from Japan. The fact that he remembers her name points to a level of sincerity within Ben’s story that becomes more meaningful as our conversation unfolds.

Growing his fundraising efforts, Ben and the Schermerhorn added Sara Bareilles, Diana Krall, and Kristin Chenoweth to their campaign, each donating eighty-eight signed keys. Keep in mind, the goal of this drive was not to raise over $60,000; the goal was to raise awareness by leveraging the power of celebrity.

Hustling for a donation and carrying the flag for the Symphony are not typical rock star behaviors, but Ben doesn’t ascribe to any predestined, rock star life. Sure, he has his wayward moments, but his path is uniquely his own, and he’s cultivating an existence of musical sustenance on a new level. His time donated equates to time returned, with every minute a high-value investment. He looks at this system as a “second economy,” and he is ardent that everyone can exist on this fundamental principle.

“There are too many people getting good out of what you do to fail,” he tells me. This line is a blink in the longer conversation of “goodness.” It’s heady and centered in activism, but not the organized, protest type. This is a personal, apolitical focus on being a good person. In the music business, Ben looks back to those studying therapy and education as the ones who get it. He admits, “They’re not likely to sign a major label deal and go make millions of dollars.” But they are farmers seeding the field. In this metaphor, their toil returns a harvest that feeds more than their own. An abundance nourishes the mind, body, and soul.

What’s most compelling about our conversation is the ebullience with which he speaks. He approaches this work without a labored drain and gets revved up at the thought of giving his time, his energy, and his focus. In his secondary economy, there is no need to sell anything, nor is there a need to buy anything. To share the work and the reward is one of the central themes.

Jamie George, owner and director of The George Center for Music Therapy, recognized this in Ben. In cahoots with four other music therapists, she began Twitter-stalking him for some time before finally getting his attention. Their timing proved to be serendipitous as Ben was getting more involved with music education, and the link to music therapy was clear. Ben synced up with Jamie’s organization, and a relationship developed.

Ben has since promoted American Music Therapy Association, of which Jamie is an active member, supported music therapy through his own work, and hosted fundraising concerts. Not familiar with these concerts? That’s because Ben launched them as a music event, not a fundraiser. He donated ticket sales without publicity as a way to remove any perceived political agenda. But recently, he has started to embrace the publicity because he wants more focus on what The George Center is accomplishing and wants to clear a path for people to get involved.

Ben grins until his eyes nearly close, “I think the kids in college now who consider a career in music education or music therapy are crazy, and they know no one will pay them. But their faith is that if they do it, they will be taken care of—and they’re right.” His hope is to leverage his celebrity to form relationships between organizations doing good and the people who can help.

These relationships matter because the arts simultaneously add value to and derive inspiration from their surroundings. The arts are married to the local community and the relationships between artists and their community would paint a picture of interdependency. The arts played a role in every great civilization.

The Symphony specifically is made up of terms we use to describe a heightened level of engagement—“in concert,” “harmony,” “well orchestrated.” As Ben explains it, “People need to look at a stage and see eighty people who can work together because they turn on television and see a body of congress who can’t work together. We’re accustomed to that kind of dissonance as entertainment.”

When it comes to the arts, working together is easy. Like Ben and his Keys to Music City fundraiser, you are tasked with offering a life-saving breath when the artistic heartbeat of the community threatens to flatline. There are plenty of cities that produce music, but no other city lives on it. Nashville draws musicians in and gives them a permanent address.

But the dynamic of the musician is evolving. “When I was coming along, it was more about doing shit for yourself,” he admits. “But I think that there’s a new breed who are thinking, ‘I love music, I love performing, and I love seeing other people perform.’”

Keep in mind, Ben is not just talking about going to see the musicians that slurp coffee at Barista Parlor or your friend’s neighbor who landed an opening spot at The End. Ben is talking about all forms of music in all venues, and he is adamant that the city put its money where its mouth is. In a breath, he lays it out plainly, “If you’re going to call a town ‘Music City,’ and you don’t back it up with the finest orchestra and the finest hall, then you’re really f*cking up.”

Ben is taking full advantage of our fine orchestra with the still-under-wraps concerto he is writing. Working with the Nashville Ballet, he began creating an instrumental piece that, in Ben’s words, “blew up.” The Symphony is now part of the commission with the full debut taking place in Nashville this coming March. The piece may be better described as a tone-poem written in concerto form, but the focus is all on the quality of the music.

“I’m not trying to get an ‘A’ in composition,” Ben admits, “I really have to put that out of my head and make a piece that I thought was the reason that I make music.” With only a handful of months to go and a composer’s salary, Ben is putting his time where is mouth is, but he seems to enjoy the challenge. “It’s a lot of work… and it’s hard,” he laughs. Look for music videos and an eighteen-month tour to accompany the launch.

We stand and make our way out. This time, as we reenter the promenade, Ben and I are walking next to each other, laughing about some misguided driving directions in Kentucky and a speeding ticket in New Jersey. Ben’s management team surrounds us. I look at Mike Kopp and he smiles a pure teddy bear smile, shakes my hand, and thanks me.

It dawns on me—Mike lied to me, and he did it on purpose. He knows that Ben is an excellent PR guy because Ben is supremely passionate. He revived Nashville’s historic RCA studio A and made it his own. He represents our city at Americans for the Arts. He looks to Nashville as a solid foundation to hold this prize high overhead. Ben has stood mired in the flood damage and surrounded by the elegance of the Schermerhorn stage. He knows what it means to act as an ambassador for Music City.

Ben is not some “shoot from the hip” rock star looking for the next party. Ben has a message, and I can help deliver it. Before everyone leaves, I ask Ben for a call to action he might issue to Nashville. He smiles, and with full rock ‘n’ roll bravado says, “You should see the orchestra. It will get you laid for sure.” Without a doubt, I know he’s right.

Ben Folds:
Follow on Twitter @BenFolds

Nashville Symphony:
To buy a Ben Folds Key to Music City, visit nashvillesymphony.org/support/keys
Follow on Twitter @nashvillesymph