Ben Folds "2020"

Ben Folds’ “2020” — A case study for indie artists

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From songwriting ideas to recording technique, there’s a lot you can learn from the songwriter’s tragi-comic recording-in-quarantine project.

Ben Folds was touring in Australia when COVID-19 shut down the world. With his concert dates canceled for the rest of the year, he wrote, recorded, and released a new single from his rented Sydney apartment.

The song is called “2020” and deals, bluntly and hilariously, with how messed up this year has been. As Folds describes in a media alert:

We seem to be currently reliving and cramming a number of historically tumultuous years into one. For a moment it was all about the 1918 pandemic. Then we began seeing hints of the Great Depression before flipping the calendar forward to the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. Running beneath this is the feeling that we’re in the Cold War, while seeing elements that brought us to the Civil War rearing their head, making us wonder if we’ve learned a damn thing at all.

Beyond offering commentary on our current situation that feels both heartbreaking and hilarious, the song offers valuable lessons in creating music under insane circumstances.

Embrace the chaos — and turn the moment into music

Folds described how the pandemic affected his creative process as a songwriter:

There’s the sense that time is accelerating by the day. It’s personally disorienting, and also artistically disorienting. It actually stifles expression in that what you express in the morning may be out of date or even inappropriate by noon. It used to be “oh, that’s so 2008!” Now it’s “oh, that’s so 1:30 PM!” How can you write a song in which the whole landscape has shifted by the time you’ve written the third verse?

These are weird times for sure — but instead of choosing to go silent given the dissonance of current events, he decided to loop it into his songwriting as best he could:

All I could think to do was to write a song about this very phenomenon. The cramming of multiple (and not so fun) years into one. And about the worry of how many more there may be to come.

Indie artists everywhere can follow the same strategy. New songs written mid-pandemic can capture our current reality through direct commentary on the state of the world, like Folds’ single, or they can go in different directions entirely. As long as your creativity channels some reaction to this chaotic moment in time, no matter how abstract it may be, go with it and see what powerful stuff you end up with.

Honesty is powerful

Folds’ lyrics are blunt and unpretentious and, from his commentary on the songwriting process, seem to directly reflect his raw feelings about the tumultuous year 2020 has been. Likewise, in your own music, don’t shy away from expressing your own truth about life today — as unusual or seemingly messy as that perspective might seem.

Humor is powerful

Laughter can be an antidote to pain, in music and in everyday life, and Folds weaves a wonderful flavor of dry and sincere humor into this track. Indie artists of any genre should consider doing the same. There’s no rule stating that art dealing with deadly serious topics has to be deadly serious itself; if your creativity allows you and your listeners to smile at the mess we’re all in, that’s a pretty clear win.

Less can be more

The recording is simple in production — acoustic piano, solo voice. But it works beautifully. While many popular tracks add layers upon layers of instruments, harmonies, and electronics, those elements aren’t necessary to create a song that touches listeners. Instead of focusing on crafting complex harmonies or adding that fifth track of electric guitar overdubs, consider spending your time crafting the fewest and most fundamental elements necessary to make your track a true conduit of what you are thinking and feeling.

Work with what you have

Folds recorded his work with the microphone, digital piano, and recording gear he had access to from his Australian apartment, rather than the full suite of pristine gear normally available in a top-notch recording studio.

In your own work, remember that you don’t need the highest-quality monitors, the most cutting-edge soft synths, or the fanciest guitars to make music that resonates. Far more important than any particular tool is the vision that you funnel through it.

Embrace remote collaboration

Folds recorded the track in Australia, but it was mixed by his longtime collaborator, Nashville-based engineer Joe Costa. Even if you’ve never tried internet-based musical collaboration and are intimidated by the prospect, now is the time to dive in. And making music with people miles, countries, or oceans away may be easier than you think. For tips on getting started, check out “Remote music collaboration: Create great music with partners anywhere” and “Remote collaboration: Nine tips for sharing music tracks.”

Enjoy the catharsis

Pouring your feelings, no matter how messy or dark or complicated, into music can clear much-needed space in your head. Folds’ commentary suggests he may have found comfort, grounding, and even a path towards optimism in creating this track.

“Here’s to hoping for some stability in 2021,” he said, “and to eventually looking back and understanding that it took this year, uncomfortable as it has been, to get us to a better place. Until then, hold on to our hats.”


rock rewindMichael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.

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