In our latest interview we sat down with York native, and absolute champion human, Benjamin Francis Leftwich to talk about his latest album After the Rain, what inspires him and his experiences on the road.
S] How is everything? How does it feel to be back in York?
B] “It feels amazing. This city’s a home for me. I’ve been playing here since I was seventeen opening for all kinds of people and doing my own shows. It feels great to be back on tour. The perspective of touring is so different. I was much younger when I was touring before. When you first go out into the world you have that mad rush. This time you learn how to pace yourself and I’m more clear minded on stage than I have been before. I definitely know exactly how I want to do things. When you’re singing the songs, when you’re clear minded you connect with them a different way. I close my eyes a lot when I sing and that’s because I’m in the zone of the song.”
S] When you go on stage has that changed over the years or do you have the same approach?
B] “I definitely prep for the stage a lot more. I turn my phone off about an hour before I go on. I send my sister a text saying ‘I love you’ and then I start doing my warm ups and I try to get as far as possible into the zone of the song as I can.”
S] You’ve gone through a lot of stuff in the last few years and motivating people through your music. What have you been doing to stay motivated?
B] “I think knowing that I can do something that can have that effect. Music is the most important thing in my life. My sister and focusing on the songs and I write with loads of different artists, I’m super supportive of new artists. Just throwing myself into music, surrounding myself listening to songwriters and bands that I love. When you’re around bands enough everyone starts to know each other. Festival season comes around and its family time. You have to keep that focus. We’re all in this game because we f*cking love tunes. There will be times when I’m really low and don’t want to do anything at all and there are times when I’m over the moon. It’s just music.”
S] You wrote ‘Tilikum’ when you were back in York and have inspired people that have lost family members. Can you tell us about what you went through in terms of developing that song?
B] “I wrote that song fairly soon after Dad passed and I was living with my neighbors in York, opposite my Dad’s old house because I didn’t want to be in that house. The chorus of that song was from a song I wrote in America about missing someone at home called ‘Day by Day’ and for me, the verses are a lot colder and there is a darkness, but the chorus warms it all up. In the verses there’s a story and the motorway and the flying to Australia and meeting the lover 30 years later and the chorus is the world. To me, that was a long song about someone I cared about very much that I was too unable at that moment to be able to commit in the way that us crazy humans throw things away.”
S] You took some time away from music between albums. How was that? Did you gain some perspective?
B] “I don’t feel like I was taking time away from music, but in terms of the public eye I definitely was. I am always texting jams to my friends and in music all the time so I think I needed to not be on the road. It is an intense place to live for a long time. It’s a blessing. I’m very grateful and would never complain about touring, but I needed time to live, to do normal things. I didn’t want to make a record that was purely about loss or purely about being on tour. Especially being on tour because not a lot of people can relate to that. I needed that time to live and that living moves into the honesty of the songwriting and that’s the key. Not just honesty like the first thing you think, but deeper honesty like considering what you are actually thinking about and the message. Sometimes we think something and the initial thing is not the correct thing. It is superficially honest.”
S] In terms of the record itself, what does it mean to you? You’ve been all over the world with your music, but what does this record mean in terms of moving you forward as an artist?
B] “Sonically, it’s a lot more 3-D. The range of music I listen to now is a lot more eclectic than what I was listening to when I was 18 and would definitely reference some of those sounds. When the album comes out people will see it is very different to Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm. The spirit, the sonic is different. Acoustic guitar is always going to be my main instrument, it’s my roots. I think it leaves me a lot of open space and how I use that space is going to depend on the next two or three years. I can’t second guess what I’m going to do next. My rule is always do what’s right for the song. I might release my third album in two years time, I might release in five years, I might release it in ten years. I’ll release it when it’s ready. I feel like that’s just a deal I made with myself. People who listen to music, whether it’s the radio or you’re into records, everyone is different and who are we to define this is what’s spiritual.”
S] You’ve got a lot of good stuff coming up. How are you looking forward to getting back to the US and touring the world?
B] “I’m so excited and I’m so humbled. There was a moment I wasn’t sure I was going to ever go out again. I thought maybe I’ll do this one album and go to Uni and do something different and maybe I’ll do that at some point, but the main emotion I’m having is humbled and really grateful. I reply to most comments online and you get all those really personal intense things that people are writing and I’m grateful. To go out on tour and be selling out shows all over the world five years after, to me is the ultimate compliment as a songwriter because by default that means the songs have stuck deep into people’s hearts.”
S] You have a great level of commitment to your fanbase. People don’t always get to say hi to people at shows.
B] “I see it as a responsibility. It’s not something that’s considered. When people are driving from all over the country, especially in America because it’s such a big country, people drive eight or nine hours to come to a show. I’m grateful.”
S] Tell us about some of the bands that are inspiring you or some new bands that you’re championing.
B] “Falling in love with hip-hop and rap is something I never expected and now it’s my favourite music. I fall asleep listening to heavy gangster rap. I can’t relate to a lot of the stories, but what I relate to is the energy. My energy in my music is sad and introspective. Different energies, but they’re both energy. I love Kanye West, I love Madilb, I love Mobb Deep. I love Drake, he’s one of my favourite artists. I love that he’s got the whole world dancing. I love a lot of the music coming out of the OVO scene in Toronto with the producer Noah Shebib, “40”. That’s stuff I love, in terms of what I’m championing, Sam Griffiths from York. He’s such a dear friend. There’s a lass called Keeva from London, she’s brilliant. There is so much stuff. I get sent stuff all the time. A guy called Harry Jones, he went to uni in York. He’s a brilliant musician. He’s got a great voice and he writes great melodies. Amy Ellis from York is brilliant. Loads of good stuff.”
S] What are your tips for touring? How do you survive on the road?
B] “Mentally, just being ready and being grateful and understanding that if you blow yourself out too early you won’t make it to the end of tour. You learn to pace yourself. Surrounding yourself with good people you can trust. If you’re lucky enough to have a great tour manager like I am, having a great tour manager. Just going in with the right attitude and realising that you’re going around the world and people who are coming out to shows have been waiting a long time to see you play. Pushing all your focus on whatever’s going to make it into the best possible show. The best thing about touring internationally is you get given CDs every night. I listen to everything, whether it’s ten seconds or ten minutes. I was the first to play Wolf Alice to the record label who signed them. What I love about them is they’re so inclusive. They’re inclusive of character, of sexuality. It’s feels like a family.”
S] Do you have any dream collaborations that you would want to do or any coming up that you can tell us about?
B] “There are a few exciting things coming up, but if I could pick one it would be Noah Shebib “40”. I’m interested in the young ones, because they’re the ones coming up. That’s where it’s at. There are some people who are crazy talented.”
S] What stuff inspires you outside of music? Any movies, places or people?
B] “People is definitely a big one. Meeting people on tour and at festivals. Becoming friends and talking and respecting each other and that human interaction is invaluable. Beautiful movies and beautiful TV shows. Even if it’s a cheesy TV show. With songwriters and bands in general, it’s about those amazing things around you and picking what inspires you. Human interaction is the main one. Anything moving and beautiful as well whether it’s a Youtube clip or a TED talk. Understanding and knowing that I’m really privileged to be able to do this and to be born to a dad who bought me a guitar when I was ten. Or to be born in a part of the world that has guitars. I’m certain there are people who are considerably more talented around the world than I am who just haven’t had the opportunity.”
S] If you could soundtrack any film that exists, what film would you pick?
B] “Blow with Johnny Depp. It’s so moving. The story and the end scene is so moving. Blow or The Life of Pi movie. The story is so amazing.”
S] Is that something you might consider doing in the future?
B] “I’d love to. If the right director of the right movie reached out to me, it would be something I would dedicate myself to. A scene in a movie can bring a song so alive in the same way a song can bring a scene alive. We all know what it’s like when a sad song comes into a movie. You’re on the edge of the cliff and the song comes in.”
S] As a guy coming out of York who has achieved well deserved global success coming out of a smaller city, what would your advice be?
B] “Playing live and being able to commit to that is essential. It’s attitude as well. People think the industry is going to come to them. You have to go try and kick down doors. Sometimes people want to try to keep it in house and with the greatest respect it never works. All the artists from York in the past twenty years who have been successful, they all love York, but they’ve been willing and passionate enough to let people give them a leg up. People should go for it and be hungry and go out and do their thing.”
Words: Francesca Fortunato / Interview: Dom Smith