You know Ben Folds: Perhaps you hung out with him in Chapel Hill 10 years ago, bought him a beer or maybe vice versa. It's possible you saw him play with his band, Ben Folds Five, or tried unsuccessfully to get him on a local compilation back in the day. Perhaps, though, you watched and liked the geeky piano rock king from afar, like most of us, as he transformed simple melodies and chords cut from ivories into coming-of-age anthems. You're the one who knows "Brick" and "Army" and "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" and has smiled at his picture hanging in Pepper's Pizza on Franklin Street. In that photo, Folds carries the same disheveled grace that defined those early records. His hair sticks up. His glasses are askew. And his expression—much like his best early songs—seems to say, "Who gives a fuck?"
While Folds might still wear those same tattered clothes, geek-chic glasses and sucker attitude, his songs have matured. As he's grown up, so have his words (mostly), but he's always been at his best by making his life ours. In fact, along with his onstage charisma and perpetual balance between cynicism and romanticism, Folds' tendency to insert autobiographical minutiae in his songs sets him apart from most men fingering their instruments. By putting his stories and friendships into songs you soon know by heart, Folds invites us into his own love troubles, record-label woes, child births and band breakups. Considered together, those moments shape an elliptical autobiography, one that is detailed enough to convince us it's real but broad enough so that you too can become a character.
Consider, for instance, Folds' early works in his Chapel Hill-based piano-rock trio Ben Folds Five. Folds spoke from experience on high school rejection and the search for identity, as with 1995's "Underground," which reads like the diary of the shy girl sitting alone at lunch or the nerdy dude in gym class. Folds fills its opening lines—"I was never cool in school/ I'm sure you don't remember me"—with a mix of melancholy and grit. Other characters from those first two albums are people we've all met: A reckless college student drinks, sleeps and screws his way into a woman's disapproval in "Julianne." A blue-collar man can't get ahead or find freedom in "Jackson Cannery." And "Brick," which launched Ben Folds Five into the national spotlight when it climbed high on Billboard's Modern Rock and Adult Top 40 charts, details Folds' experience taking his high school girlfriend to get an abortion. Would you care to know someone any better?
But the Five called it quits, and Folds duly put the past in its place on his 2001 solo debut, Rockin' the Suburbs. Five bassist Robert Sledge becomes the impetus for the track "Not the Same" when a man climbs a tree at Sledge's party. In that tree, the climber finds Christ while tripping acid. Again, the past becomes a character, making the present realization that much more poignant. When Folds sings about his old friends, we're traveling with him. Folds' most recent solo album, 2005's Songs for Silverman, features "Gracie" at its center, a song written and named for Folds' second child. It's Ben Folds, coming of age. Still, he's been divorced three times, and, now 41 and living in Nashville with his fourth wife, he seems to keep enough hardship in his life and words (see "Give Judy From My Notice" from the same album) to remind us of that kid with the attitude, still hanging around the walls of Pepper's.
Ben Folds plays Koka Booth Amphitheatre at Regency Park Friday, May 30, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15-$37.50.