A personal reflection on the paper aeroplanes you threw at Ben Folds

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Ben Folds' songs are basically hatstands for you to hang your own experiences from.

I am a Ben Folds completist. I’ve seen every tour since I was old enough to go shows, and I reckon I’ve also caught every possible iteration of his performances: solo, with band, as Ben Folds Five, with symphony orchestra, with string quartet…

I think that’s why I was really intrigued by the idea that underpins his latest tour – The Paper Aeroplane Tour.

It's a conceptual thought experiment where the audience write down the songs they want to hear on pieces of paper, fold the paper into the shape of an aeroplane, and throw those aeroplanes to Ben on the stage to determine the setlist. I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it.

Broadly, I think it’s easy to be a Ben Folds completist because his songs are basically hatstands for you to hang your own experiences from. Specific enough to invoke detailed imagery, but also broad enough for you to imprint memory and project context.

For this reason, I’ve often wondered about what other people feel when they listen to Ben Folds songs, at the same time as I’m having my own personal meditations and memories from the context I’ve attached to the music.

So, below, a thought experiment of my own.

These are my personal reflections on the paper aeroplanes you threw at Ben Folds – an expression of the places and the times and the tiny life fragments that the songs you requested (and that you attach your own memories to), draw me into. We’ll go song-by-song unless there’s a reason not to.

‘Do It Anyway’

This song makes me think of two things concurrently: the first one is my sister Georgia. She is athletic and intelligent and talented and very normal and I am the kind of person who has cat called Jeff, except Jeff is a girl.

We bonded over Ben Folds. For her birthday in 2012 I got an advanced copy of The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind and I gave it to her so she could hear the album before anyone else.

The second memory is going to the Harvest festival later that year, where Ben Folds Five played, and trying super hard to get this girl to be interested in me. I held her while she watched Sigur Ros and cried at the sheer magnitude and beauty of the music. I later learned that she had taken a lot of MDMA that day.

‘Capable Of Anything’

I was in a weird place when this song was released. When I hear this song, it’s September 2015, and I am super, super depressed in a tiny apartment in Melbourne.

The song’s an insidious one – the message is loosely that you’re Capable Of (literally) Anything, which, at the time, I really did not want to hear. I had never dealt with mental health stuff before, and I was scared, and I couldn’t really listen to this song because I was afraid of it.

Last night was the first time I think I’ve sat through it in full and really enjoyed it.

‘Underground’

I have this fantasy of being in a cool punk rock band and covering this song. It’s arguably my favourite early-era Ben Folds Five track this side of ‘Narcolepsy’.

There’s this quote from the 90s where Ben talks about his music being punk rock, but for sissies – ‘Underground’ is a great example – and if there is an aesthetic benchmark I relate to on a deeper level, I’m yet to find out about it.

‘Emaline’

When I hear this song, I’m 15-years-old. I work at a CD store, and by some ordained providence I’ve ordered a copy of Ben Folds Live (2001) into the store for myself.

I don’t really recall having much familiarity with Ben Folds before this point. I do recall loading this CD onto my first-generation iPod before a family camping trip, lying awake in our breathable canvas tent late at night with my earphones in, and music making sense for the first time.

‘Emaline’ is one of the tracks on that album, and I am transported by it.

‘Late’

This song is Ben Folds’ eulogy to Elliott Smith.

It makes me think of my friends Alex L’Estrange and Ben Fahey.

Alex’s mum used to teach me piano at their family home in Ballina – he was a consummate rock’n’roll frontman even when we were teenagers, and continues to be someone with an incredible ear for music.

Ben went to my high school and he encouraged me to get into Elliott Smith. Later on, Ben and Alex formed a great rock band together called Denpasar, because the world is cyclical, and also very small.

‘Rock This Bitch’

This song is different every time that Ben plays it, so the memory I’m going to choose here is an email from my friend Luanne from Double J that arrived in my inbox about two weeks ago. The subject was “Ben Folds explains what the word ‘Beyotch’ means to Richard Kingsmill in 1997”, and it remains a precious gift.

‘Effington’

This is either the end of 2008 or the start of 2009, I can’t remember. It reminds me of driving the old Pacific Highway between Wollongbar and Ballina, between my friend Evie’s house and my house.

It was late, I stopped at the 24-hour servo next to the Big Prawn, got a sausage roll, and ate it in the car as this song played. Pure hedonism. It is very important that you Celebrate The Prawn at every available chance.

‘The Luckiest’

I think the most vivid thing about this song is the imagery. This one takes me into my own imagination – I think about the street he describes, the girl passing on a bike. In my mind she’s wearing a pink shirt and the trees in the distance are sturdy old oaks.

The old man who lived to his 90s was named Norman. His wife, Elle. He was bald and nimble like my grandpa Bede, she had white hair and wore thin glasses like my grandma Gwen.

‘Lullaby’

The thing that has always confused me about this song is the reference to James Earl Jones. It’s so specific and personal and full of character and then all of a sudden the voice of Darth Vader is there and we’re just supposed to accept that? Not I.

Further thought here: what if the whole song is about how ~it was all just a dream (dream dream dream)~

‘Not The Same’

I’m in my old bedroom at my parents’ house, it’s a Friday night, I don’t really go to parties because I don’t really get invited to parties yet.

That’s cool, I’m just here at home trying to learn the entire three-part-harmony to a pop song about born-again adherence released in the year 2001, please for the love of god will someone invite me to a party (you might even say that ‘I’ve got one good [party] trick, and I’m hanging on I’m hanging on …. TO IT’).

Ben Folds is Artist In Residence on Double J this month. Hear his show Sundays from 3pm, or online right now.

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