REVIEW & INTERVIEW: BENJAMIN FRANCIS LEFTWICH

Words: Emily Ames

Images: Kate Woods

I first saw Benjamin Francis Leftwich on a brisk evening in September at Bestival in the Isles of White. Competing with the distant base of Magnetic Man’s set on the main stage, Benjamin Leftwich played on the Band Stand to a silent crowd seeking refuge in his humble acoustic sounds. A month later at the Brudenell Social club in Leeds, with the lesser competition of drunken northerners in the bar next door, Ben once again created a still atmosphere where his husky tones and quiet demeanour became the focus of attention.

It is obvious that Ben has left no stone unturned with the details of this tour to enable him to insert the gentleness and intimacy of his music into his performances. Turning down larger venues in favour of quiet settings and choosing to play without a band enable him to create a familiarity with the audience. This is evident even in his chosen support acts Monument Valley and Daughter who created such a comfortable festival feel that the audience was lying on the beer stained floor of the Brudenell. Daughter in particular was an inspired choice and an asset to the show.

Starting with “1904”, Ben’s flowing voice beautifully supported one of the most lyrically impressive songs on the album. Other choices such as Atlas Hands and Maps from the first EP in 2010 had the entire crowd lip-synching the words as not to ruin the moment with their conspicuous voices. His bravery in asking the crowd to remain completely quiet during “Snowship” and “Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm” so that he could step away from the mic, showed not only a confidence beyond his tender age of 22 but paid off in creating wonderful acoustics in the small venue.

 

Ben’s first album has been criticised for sounding like the OC Soundtrack and its lack of variety. It is a difficult skill to keep a level of authenticity and truth in ones album whilst still varying the sound, and frankly at this stage of his career he probably feels it is more important to stay true to the former.

So whether at a noisy festival or a beer stained venue off the beaten track, Benjamin’s voice provides a welcome respite for all of us seeking refuge.

Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm is available on iTunes. For more information on Ben check http://www.benjaminfrancisleftwich.com/

Check out what Ben had to say when we caught up with him at the Brudenell Social Club.

EA: I saw you play at Bestival at the Band Stand and it was such a relief, sitting on that grassy hill, all chilled, after I’d been dragged to all these electronic gigs…

BFL: Same! It stank of weed around there, was that you? I was thinking “how much trouble would I get in if I had some of that right now…?” Bestival was awesome, I loved it.

EA: You were competing with Magnetic Man on the Main stage but you had a huge crowd. Is acoustic music making a comeback? Did it ever go away?

BFL: Everyone thinks it has come back with bands such as Mumford and sons, Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn etc. Firstly I don’t think that is folk at all. And secondly, I don’t think it is having a come back I think it’s always been there. Just because a radio station that everyone listens too is playing more acoustic stuff doesn’t mean it is having a come back. Ryan Adams has been releasing albums for 15 years and they have all been amazing. Springsteen as well, even though he’s gone a bit more rock. Brucey and his electric. There’s something about an acoustic guitar. I love going to a gig and just seeing a guy alone with his guitar.

 

EA: Do you think Ed Sheeran was monumental in bringing an acoustic vibe back into the UK music scene?

BFL: He’s a good friend of mine. I think Ed is a really talented guy but I don’t think its necessarily acoustic music. I think he’s a pop act. He knows it, he’s happy with that and I respect him for it. We’ve spent a lot of time together talking about this stuff and how weird everything is. He’s a really nice dude, very talented, and good at writing that huge pop song. He plays his music on an acoustic guitar but I don’t think he’s brought back acoustic music. He’s nailing it because he is playing songs that collectively connect with a lot of people. They don’t necessarily connect with me but….

EA: Why are there so many negative connotations with the title “Singer Songwriter”?

James Blunt. Sorry if that’s too harsh. There is a negative connotation with it. But I sing, write songs and play guitar so I am a singer songwriter. It would be pretentious and a lie if I said I was “new folk” or “old folk” “anti folk”. I don’t even know what they mean. People should just play what they enjoy playing and people either enjoy it or they don’t.

EA: Throughout your new album Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm you address certain questions and feelings that a young man addresses growing up. Do you now feel like you have put that behind you and have grown up, or are you still experiencing what you were exploring?

BFL: I never wrote this album to put anything to rest it is more of a conversational narrative. I feel like there are different things I can write about now. A couple of the new songs are a bit more political. A lot of people seem to think it’s just an album of love songs but I really don’t think that’s the case. For me it is a bigger vibe than that, not only in terms of the sound but also the lyrics.

EA: But it is still a theme throughout your music. Was there a particular event that spurred any of the love songs?

BFL: Whether you are writing a story, poem or a song, love is something you write about. But I’ve never sat down and written a song and thought, “oh that fucking girl,” it’s more of just a general vibe and the things that go around it. That’s the way I see it anyway. But that’s the cool thing about music in that everyone interprets it in their own way.

EA: You said that you are writing more political stuff? What is really making you angry at the moment?

BFL: I wouldn’t say there’s stuff that gets me angry. There is stuff that fucks me off. To pick one, it would be the death penalty. I wrote an article for fly music magazine recently on the death penalty and how hypocritical it is. How can you punish someone for something by doing the same thing?

EA: You have said it is hard to put yourself into a song because you feel exposed. Do you think its something that you will learn to do as you get older or more experienced or would you rather keep things ambiguous?

BFL: What did I say? I can’t remember saying that, if I did say that I was probably really stoned. Writing a song is putting yourself into a song. But what I like in music is a level of ambiguity so that you can take a message from it that means something to you.

EA: You discuss God in many of your songs and I know that you recorded the album in a church in Finsbury Park – is there an element of spirituality in the album? Were you exploring religion?

BFL: I’m not religious at all but I am kind of spiritual; I think that there is something more in the world. But I’m not a Sikh or a catholic. It is a coincidence we recorded in a church but everyone keeps picking up on it like “Ben! Did you pray while you were recording” For me though music is a spiritual thing. As cheesy and cliché as it sounds when you listen to an amazing track that you love, that really connects with you, its really powerful stuff.

 

EA: Last Smoke before the snowstorm is your first album after 2 EP’s. Was there a lot of pressure releasing an album or did you feel like you had built up a large fan base from both the EPs?

I didn’t feel pressure releasing an album. I felt confident in the 10 songs that I had chosen and I felt like I had a good selection of songs to choose from and I wanted to release them in a full-length record.

EA: Your producer Ian Grimble has worked with bands such as Mumford and Sons, Manic Street Preachers….

BFL: He’s coming tonight, were all really scared! He’s terrifying. (Laughs when he realises were recording) No, no, I’m joking. Listen I love Ian he’s a funny dude and I’m really excited to see him.

EA: Were their elements of their albums that you wanted Ian to inject into yours?

BFL: No, definitely not Mumford and sons. What I like about him is he is really creative, really smart and likes experimenting with sounds. He calls me up on stuff that other producers wouldn’t and he really cares. He only works on stuff that he actually likes.

EA: Top five artists of all time?

BFL: Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams are my top two. Beatles, Tom Petty, and Neil Young.

EA: What is your song writing process? Do you have a notebook full of little ideas? Do you record fragments? Or are you like Lil Wayne who doesn’t write anything down?

BFL: Lil Wayne is insane. He smokes SO much weed. Every morning he gets blazed and drinks cough syrup. But no, I don’t think I’m like Lil Wayne. I sit down with my guitar, I sing, I play a bit, jam around try figure out a vibe. If it comes it comes, if it doesn’t I try something else.

EA: Can you see yourself moving away from acoustic music to more heavily produced stuff?

BFL: No, it’s not really my thing. I’ve always said I’m really lucky to be signed to an independent label and they are supportive of what I do and we get on most of the time. I’d rather be playing what I want and be skint if it ever got to that than sell out. I don’t want to do tours of academy ones I’d rather do cool venues like this one. I really mean that, I know people probably say it a lot. I turned down a gig at an Academy one in Manchester last week just because it’s not my scene. Even though its 3,500 people it is just not my thing. I’d rather be doing this.

EA: You have Shepherds Bush Empire coming up on the 22nd of February, which, correct me if I’m wrong, will be your biggest show yet. Do you view it as just another show or does it hold greater meaning to you?

BFL: I think it holds greater meaning to everyone around me but maybe not to me. I’m really looking forward to it, it’s a great old venue and what is really cool is I’m going out with a band. I’m going to take a couple friends out on stage with me, spruce up the sound a bit.

EA: You shouted at someone to shut up in Sheffield, do you prefer smaller venues where it’s less likely to have people chatting over your music?

EA: Oh no did you read that. Clash music magazine wrote that. What really happened was there were 250 people there that had all paid to get in and were all silent. There was this one guy at the front who wouldn’t be quiet. Then his phone went off and I thought, “I’m not going to say anything, its fair enough, peoples phones are going to go off, I’m not a dick.” And then he picked up and started having a conversation. So I just stopped the song and said something. I hate to be rude but you know. I felt really harsh soon as I had done it, and I’ll probably never do it again but it was just one of those moments where I had to do something. Now everyone on facebook is calling me a fucking lad!

EA: Jamie Oborne found you at 16 and has been your manager ever since.  Was there a lot of pressure to succeed as he has said you were basically the reason he founded Dirty Hit Records?

BFL: Nah, I never really feel pressure. Dirty hit Records is a really cool label. Its really small, independent and vibey with really cool creative people working with them, which is ideal for me. Jamie is one of my best friends and I really value his opinion and it’s a massive compliment.

EA: The label was funded by premiership footballer Ogu Ehiogu. How did that come about?

BFL: I have no idea. It’s cool though. I’d rather that than a businessman or an accountant. He bought me a beer once and I was thinking “Oh my God! You’ve met David Beckham.”

EA: Have you always been confident in what you do or did support from people like Zane Lowe and Huw Stephens help a lot?

BFL: Obviously that helps. But support in the sense of coming here and selling out a show means more to me than just one radio DJ playing it. I’m confident in what I do. I’m not overly confident. I know there’s stuff that I can improve on and get better at. I’m confident in my songs and my song writing. I don’t feel like I’ve achieved everything I want to achieve yet but I just want to keep making records.

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