How To Write the Perfect Breakup Song with Ben Folds

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S1: And when you performed like tell me a little bit, there was like a dental school video.

S2: There’s like something about the Backstreet Boys or something. Oh, my God. Did you did you guys Google mirrors its. Yeah. Oh, yeah, lord. Oh, God. Are you going to make me sing it? Yes. OK, everybody a. Do you have Deke. Do you D.K.? I don’t remember. Next line.

S3: I’m never going to listen the Backstreet Boys without thinking about the need to brush my teeth again.

S4: This is how to. And I’m Charles to Hege each week on the show. We try to find creative solutions to people’s toughest problems.

S5: But on today’s episode, we’re tackling creativity itself. My name is Lorenzo from Montreal. Lorenzo is a dental student by day. It’s not the most glamorous job, but I love it. I think it’s great in an amateur musician by night. Yeah. Yeah.

S6: Emphasis on amateur. I took lessons for guitar when I was a kid and I would go to the guitar club and they would do open mikes like every two weeks. Watch out.

S5: So I would go to the open mikes and I would always just play covers. I was far from the best musician there and I was far from the best singer, but I was one of the better performers. So I would always just go with a lot of energy and really draw the crowd in.

S7: Lorenzo is a pretty outgoing guy, and despite what you might think about dentists, he’s got a great stage presence. But he says that there’s this one thing holding him back.

S6: So I reached out because I would always go to those open mikes and I would only play covers. And I’ve always wanted to write my own music and perform my own music for other people. But I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Yeah.

S3: That feeling of like writing your own song is like bringing this thing into the world that sounds beautiful and talks to your emotions. But it’s something you actually created that that seems like an amazing sensation.

S6: You’d have to be very vulnerable, I guess. And that would also be something I would have to learn to be a little bit better at.

S7: Lorenzo is struggling with something we all confront at some point. How do we become more creative? How do we find that that spark for our our hobbies, that that takes our painting or singing to the next level? Or even if you’re like an office worker, someone who doesn’t think of themselves as an artist? We all have something creative inside of us. Right. So how do we unlock that? How do we find and nurture and unleash the creative instinct that allows us to not just imitate the stuff we love, but to create something amazing ourselves to try and answer that.

S8: We found the perfect expert to lend a hand, actually. Two hands. Ben Folds.

S9: Yeah, that Ben Folds, the famous songwriter and musician, is here to give Lorenzo tips on how to craft an original tune. And he’s got a lot of other advice, too, for how all of us, no matter what your line of work, how we can live a more creative life. Don’t go anywhere.

S10: Nice, nice to form you.

S3: Swap I met up with Ben Folds in a Manhattan music studio with a baby grand piano, Lorenzo with his guitar was talking to us from Canada. We’re separated by many miles. OK. So Lorenzo had reached out because he has this question of how to write the perfect song. Well, perfect. I don’t know about that. Let’s start with write a song.

S9: Ben knows a lot about writing songs since he first came on the scene about 25 years ago. He’s written dozens and dozens of them. And he’s kind of unique because he composes in nearly every genre from rock to ballads is known for his catchy melodies and his lyrics, which often draw on his own experiences from his life.

S11: Six prisms throw throws clothes on.

S9: It’s kind of hard to imagine anything Ben can’t write a song about. Oh, I don’t know about that. Ben recently wrote a book, a memoir named A Dream of Lightning Bugs, A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons. And many of those lessons are about how to unlock your creativity thinks.

S12: Sometimes discussing the theory of creativity is tough because you’re putting a flashlight on something that is very shy when you write songs.

S3: Right. I I read your book, which I love. Thank you. And you said this thing that I was kind of beautiful, which is that you should stand in as many pair of shoes as you can, man. Yeah. What do you mean by that?

S13: I probably do a lot of characters in my songs. So there’s a lot of implying of short stories. But there’s a sense that you have something you need to share. Explain, tell. It may be stuck in your brain or stuck in your heart. But I think what people miss about music sometimes is it is just communication as all it is.

S7: There are lots of techniques for nurturing creativity. But according to Ben, one method is to focus on connecting with at least one other person to detail some shared experience. But that can be hard, right? And so one of the easiest ways of doing that is making that connection is to take an old idea. Something that’s cliched and familiar and explored in some totally unexpected way to stand it in a new pair of shoes. Psychologists who study creativity refer to this as becoming an innovation broker, someone who finds a way to connect with others by talking about something that they’ve both experienced, but giving us a new way of looking at it. For example, what if you took something depressing like like divorce and then wrote a song that was kind of happy?

S3: There was there’s one song. I’d love to hear the story of it. This came after your split from your first wife and that you were sitting down the piano one night alone. Like, tell me tell me a little bit about what happened there.

S13: I was. Yeah, I was. I was bollman, you know, like I was in I was out in a blue mood, but I was doing it in broad daylight all the time. There were no clouds. It wasn’t raining. It wasn’t walking through a graveyard. It was just out in the middle of broad sunlight. And that is in the lyrics. The other thing was, is that late at night, which is often the case with me. I just sat down and started doing something really kind of robotic.

S14: And it was two notes. It’s just CnF, you know. So that’s all it was. And the thing about the repetition of this particular one is it’s attractive to me. Don’t know why. It just is.

S10: I mean, I would be very unlikely if someone said make up something on the piano and like, okay, well.

S14: You do all the stuff, but then that’s just so simple. And it seems to have something caught in its throat that wants to tell a story. There’s a story in there. What is it? And then I realized the earth can kind of move beneath your feet and give you a different perspective of what life is. So if it’s that’s what you expect your feet are on the ground, that’s fine. Everything’s at the level that you think it is. But what if it goes? Then you’re suddenly the same chord, same thing, but you’re suddenly viewing it from a different place. That became it is just more and more of that.

S15: And then the sun was shining bright barefoot down the road.

S12: Then those parts of the story start to then also. I can see this the sunlight in that it feels has a blue to upper. Kind of yellow tinge to me.

S16: I put that diminished chord in, which is very like Chopin thing to do, and they love it. It’s very uncertain, unstable after the most stable thing in the world where it’s just constantly. That’s that’s where you are to go.

S3: To me means that we’re going somewhere else. That is that is the most beautiful description I’ve heard of someone talking about their own music. So let’s talk about the lyrics. Would you sing the first verse of that for us and just sort of tell us, like, how do you like, do the words just appear to you? Or do you have like a rough draft at first and you’re kind of like playing one was a little quicker, but it did have things in it that I think I had.

S17: Played with so, you know, along with the dude bombing out, but the sun’s out. I’d been thinking about everyone wants to be free. That’s what we want to be. But there is a certain uncertainty and sadness of being completely led off the rope, you know? So I thought sad and free is just a good combination of words.

S15: What I’ve kept with me and what I’ve thrown away and where they live ended up on this Cleary Random Day. The things I really cared about slept along the way for Ben to pin up and proud. Yeah.

S17: I mean, I think it’s just basic getting to the root of the things that you feel about something in.

S18: Yeah. And the thing I love about that is that the last the last third there for being too pent up and proud. I don’t see that coming at all. That’s kind of what gives it its power is that you’re you’re you’re it’s sort of it’s a dirge like it’s a little mournful, like poor me.

S6: And then you’re actually, like, blaming yourself. Yeah.

S19: Can see.

S20: He would eventually name that song evaporated and it appeared on his band’s second album.

S3: So so so I want to get to larenz and have him actually play for you what he’s got. Yeah, before we do, I just had one other question, which is. So this one came to you pretty fast right there when you asked me that in a night. Can you tell us a little bit and give us an example of a song where you really struggled through it. That’s easy because there’s one that the music came really quickly. OK. Which usually does.

S17: I wanted this song to be the first song on my next album for four albums straight.

S21: So it was like well over a decade of sitting on this song. Wow. But I just didn’t know what it was about. And I couldn’t find it. But the melody, just like.

S13: And that was it. So a great song. That sounds like so I that going through my head. I had no idea what it was. And then eventually I found myself. Since the breakup song sitting.

S17: On a big, huge pile of boxes that were just delivered to my new broke ass condo. And I’m just sitting in the middle of all of it. And.

S10: Again, bombing a little bit, but then suddenly I thought, you know what? I can put this stuff anywhere I want to. I can put my stereo anywhere I want to.

S21: I can, like, decide to get like, you know, a boa constrictor and a lava lamp, if that’s what I wanted, you know?

S10: And that was a happy beginning.

S7: This is Ben’s next rule about unlocking creativity. A continuation of how to make that connection. Remember that at the core of the creative experience at the center of things that amaze and delight us is talking honestly about our lives, about the mundane things that surround us every day. So you should look for those moments when people think they know what’s coming. The sadness that accompanies a breakup, for instance, or someone dwelling on what they’ve lost and then slip in something unexpected.

S13: You know, I just I made it very, very literal.

S22: I was looking around the room is like a mattress and a Steria.

S23: John Sly guy started.

S22: And no composed with thumbs and found on.

S24: It’s.

S25: Be sending it now.

S26: There was nothing to forget.

S15: So.

S13: So that’s the song this is I Can’t Forget You. There’s nothing to forget at this moment. I don’t even remember where I was. I’m now looking ahead. And then. So there is like, got you. I forgot you for a second. You know, and that’s a happy, childish thing to tell someone. So it all feels right with the music to me.

S20: That’s on which he called. So there was the title track of an album he released in 2015. There is.

S27: The problem with writing as a song is that you have very little real estate to work in. I mean, really, now you’re talking about you’re going to have like four or six couplets in three verses worth of those, a little bumper sticker to hang the whole thing on, which is the chorus and probably a bridge just to kind of keep people from getting tired of the song and come back. But when you come back from that bridge, you should be a different person. Like, that’s your moment to come back and be. The third chorus should always be sung by someone who’s not quite the same person as the first chorus. A really great song will do that.

S28: And this brings us to the next rule. Sometimes if you’re having trouble coming up with a creative idea, the secret is rather than giving yourself a limitless horizon to create constraints when you have to work within a small box. Sometimes it pushes you to find the most creative way out of it.

S3: And when you when you finally make that turn.

S13: Does this song all of a sudden appear to you now at that point? I’m sitting with big stack of note cards and a bottle of Scotch. Huh? And just sit there. I don’t drink straight out of the bottle. I wouldn’t recommend this sad. And I I write these thoughts on note cards because they they represent to me not enough real estate. You can’t write your story on it. There are small. It gives me a physical. That’s a verse, if I may have it right in the corners of that thing. I’ve said too much.

S18: And this actually is a perfect Segway into Lorenzo because great, the song that Lorenzo is working on is a breakup song.

S6: Yeah. I can tell you that I wrote this song kind of. It’s funny. Like you said, I just it just came to me kind of like one night.

S29: And it just kind of all flooded in together, like at the same time. And I had never, ever tried, like really writing a song before. And it all of a sudden, just kind of a moment, it’s like you said, there was something that I wanted to say and it felt like that was the right way to say it. And I wrote it. I don’t know, four or five months ago. And then I haven’t looked at it since.

S1: Would you mind Lorenzo playing it for it for Ben? And maybe like we’ll workshop it a little bit. Yeah.

S30: When we come back, Lorenzo will make his big debut for Ben Folds. And for all of you. Your first public performance happens to be on a 5:00 thrust in front of you. Know, how many subscribers do you guys get it per episode? You don’t want another. Can Ben whip his song into shape? Stay tuned.

S20: OK. We’re back with Ben Folds and her singing dentist Lorenzo, who has a song that. And it needs some minor surgery.

S31: Amet QEW many moons go sad and nice grimstone. No overtime, you grew it to some one that it. Moved away. Try to make it last. All that left were welts. And now you’re ready to move on with somebody else. This is Lorenzo’s first attempt ever at an original piece of music.

S32: Cause redhead’s. Yeah. Red has.

S33: Hard to forget. Well.

S13: There are some things that I can imagine you might play with. So first of all, I kind of like what you’re doing, but I’m I’m thinking embrace the cliche by finding the most numskull way to play it as possible. Gakkai So good. That sounds so much better. This is a rock iconic three chords and you’re not trying to embellish them in a way that that runs away from home. You’re like, we’re all in this pub together and we’re doing this like so on that. The other thing is some of those are the verses that you had were potentially the way to start the song. Your first line of the song, tell someone something they already know. They know you met a long time ago. I mean, there’s no news in that. Got it.

S33: Scramble line one in line to just switch him. All right.

S6: Over time, you grew into someone that I adore. I met you many moons ago outside an ice cream store.

S13: That’s OK. I already said that about that. Makes me smile more. Oh, yes, right. Yeah, but there’s something that you could unlock for. I mean, that’s silly. Say that one more time over time.

S6: You know, now that you mention it, I can’t stop singing it. Over time, he grew into someone that I adore. I met you many moons ago inside an ice cream store.

S10: Yeah. I mean, it’s. Yeah. A little bit. It works better. Yeah. Yeah. There’s so there’s something going there. I mean and here’s the thing. You don’t have enough lyrical musical real estate to really tell the story. So. So. So the way that you cut it up and the absurdity of what’s left out in the order that you do it in really can resemble life more. I’m not saying that’s the answer, but playing with that is good because you’ve barfed the song out because you had all these things that that occurred to you that you that you wanted to say. And now playing with. That’s good. The other thing is play the first verse.

S17: Don’t make an intro and don’t play any rhythm. Just play the downbeat. Just the down beats without any strumming underneath it.

S33: OK, I can do that.

S34: Over time, you grew in to some one that a door I met you many moons ago outside an ice cream store. Now start strumming. I moved away, tried to make it last all left.

S5: Well, wealth’s well. And now you’re ready to move on with somebody else. Could I hear it?

S35: Sounds like a song. Yeah. Yeah, I was like a real song there.

S10: That’s amazing. It’s getting there. You just have to keep playing with with those things. Your song. Actually one of the great things about it is that it doesn’t really have a chorus yet. Scott, that’s what I was going for. I dig it. I’m glad that you were going for that. I think that’s a really cool thing. You might find that out of necessity. You’ll come up with the chorus. Yeah. I personally didn’t need the red headline to ever finishes thought. Yeah, I’m quite happy with leaving it out. In fact, I was hearing a lot of words that could be left out. Just redhead’s. Yeah. Redhead’s anyway. Cool. Yeah. Got it. I don’t know if this works. I wasn’t playing around. I love this. You’re telling the listener, listen, I know there’s a song going on. I know I was supposed to show up for the rhyme with my tie and everything’s supposed to be buttoned down. But we know what I’m saying. I don’t need that. So if you leave that out, the awkwardness of it to me could be pretty cool.

S7: This is another rule. Once you figured out the basics of a song or really any creative project being a drawing or or something you’re putting together for work or a big pitch for a client. Once you have the basics down, then you need to take the next important step. Start messing around with it, no matter how strange that feels. First. The thing about creativity is what Ben said before. It often lives in the shadows, in the nooks and crannies that aren’t obvious. And sometimes the only way you can discover it is by trying things that don’t make any sense. By by rearranging and taking things out or shining a brighter light on what’s around you so you can see all the things that you didn’t notice before.

S18: So let me as one of the question, which is OK. So so Lorenzo, he’s learned these principles. He’s going to work on them. He’s committed to writing music on the side and being a great dentist. How do you live a creative life like beyond doing this? Like you talk in your book a lot about like almost self-care, like how you create an environment that lets you be your most creative self. How do you do that?

S36: I don’t.

S12: No, but I think it’s just a matter of allowing it. I mean, look, I mean, there’s things that we do in life. We all know we’re multi-tasking and doing stuff we don’t need to wear, like sitting on our phones, going through eBay or something like that. I mean, we know they’re not creative. We can feel they’re not creative. And it becomes scarier and scarier to be creative when you just, like, close that part of your mind down and it’s less fulfilling. The reason that I like boredom or I like enforced boredom is because things start to occur to you. I remember like sitting in the most boring situation waiting for something is a plane or something like that. I didn’t bring anything with me and I started to just go.

S21: Why? You got to act like, you know, when you don’t know why you gotta act like you know, when you don’t know. And it kept going on in my head. I thought it sounded like a Lauryn Hill song or something. I eventually wrote a song out of that. If I’d set down on the piano, I started using my tools, I would’ve never gotten there. I like the boredom, the fact that I imagine. So that’s what song did that end up becoming called Bastard. Okay.

S37: And it goes why I got like, you know, down.

S20: So here’s our last rule. If you want to be brilliant, if you want to be Benfold, so. Or you just want to be more creative at work or in your personal life, then put down your phone and give your brain a chance to be restless and bored and roam the wild side of life.

S1: Been let me ask you about this. I mean, ‘cause one of the things that like you wrote about in your book, which I loved, was you’ve talked about the fact that like anyone can be creative, like is it is it worth it for someone like Lorenzo who. I mean, he’s a he’s in dental school. He’s gonna be a dentist. He’s like to be a dentist. Yeah. Is this a good use of his time to write?

S12: I think it’s a great use of time. tunicates. Well, because people are fundamentally creative beings. The truth is we’re at the top of the food chain because we have ideas and we’re creative. So whether you’re building, you know, a train system across the U.S. are fixing someone’s teeth no matter what it is, you will be a creative being. And to not completely fulfill that in your life is to do everything less is to hold back part of who you are, men. My dentist is great. I go to a dentist who he’s about 65, maybe getting up on 7 years old. I fly to Los Angeles for the last 20 years to go to this guy. He reads me his poetry while I’m going numb. He recites poetry while he’s drilling my teeth or giving me a root canal.

S10: And it’s a huge part of the experience for me. I you know, I might have an appointment for you in Montreal when I’m with the L.A. dentist is ready to retire. The really the really advantage to this is that you would have so much cotton and stuff in my mouth, I wouldn’t be able to talk.

S2: Exactly. You’re just gonna have to. You’re just going to have to listen. What are you going to do?

S38: Ben, this was so much fun. This was a pleasure to hang out with you and learn. Thanks.

S39: Oh, and I salute you for having the courage to just sit and play a song. I think it’s fantastic that you’ve just picked up the guitar and you’re just doing it like fearless.

S38: Keep it up over time. You grew in to some one that he does. He met you many moons that go outside an ice cream store.

S20: Thank you to Lorenzo for sharing his music with us. And Ben Folds for breaking down some of his songs and his creative process. Make sure to pick up his book, A Dream of Lightning Bugs, A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons. And go to Ben Folds dot com to find out where he’s on tour. Do you have a question that needs a creative solution? If so, send us a note at how to add Slate.com. And who knows who will bring in to help? Finally, if you have a second, we would love it if you’d go to wherever you download your podcasts and give us a rating and a review and tell a friend. It really helps other people find the show. How TOS executive producer is Derek John. Rachel Allen is our production assistant and married. Jacob is our engineer. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown. June Thomas is the senior managing producer of Slate podcasts and Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Special thanks to Ahsha Soldier and Son Park. I’m Charles Du HIG. Thanks for listening.