In Conversation... Benjamin Francis Leftwich
There’s a palpable silence over the sold out crowd at the Portland Arms as a motley collection of punters await the arrival of the night’s entertainment. With little ensemble or fanfare an unassuming man, dressed almost head to toe in black strolls out and begins playing a tune on the beaten up guitar lying on the stage. Immediately, the mellifluous tones wash over the audience and there’s a sense that the pent-up tension has released. Benjamin Francis Leftwich is back, and it’s like he never truly left. A few hours before we’re sat in his dressing room chatting. Having just had the opportunity to hear some of his sound check I know in advance of the effect his music will have on listeners tonight. Enthusiastic, fun and intensely interested but also humble, contemplative and full of turmoil, Ben has all the characteristics of a singer-songwriter (if none of the ego). Five years ago he burst onto the scene at just 22 years old with his critically acclaimed debut album Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm and was on a sure-fire trajectory to stardom when tragedy stuck. At the helm of a burgeoning career, Ben’s life was thrown into turmoil when he lost his parent and number one source of inspiration, his father. After trying to persevere through the fog of grief, he decided to step back from the industry. “I just knew that I needed to not do this for a while … for me, I just needed to live outside of music”.
As we sit on the threadbare sofa, it’s clear that Ben is now ready to throw himself back into music; to not only reach, but exceed the expectations set on him all those years go. When asked how his new album After The Rain differs from earlier efforts, he’s clear that fans can expect something even more special. “I’m a better songwriter now and a better guitar player and singer than I was before. Sonically it’s more 3D and I think spiritually, in the lyrics, it covers a wider area. Geographically as well – I can place a lot of the songs in different places around the world”. Produced by the award-winning producer behind Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave and Madness’ Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da and released on the label behind the phenomenal success of The 1975, it’s easy to imagine there was pressure to live up to the critical and commercial success of the first album. “To be honest, I don’t feel the pressure. I feel pressure on myself as a songwriter to get better - creative pressure - but I write songs that I’m proud of and that are honest to me and that I record in a way that I consider to be beautiful and right for the song so I don’t feel pressure that this has to be as successful – or more successful or less successful – than anything I’ve done before.”
Tilikum is the first track to be shared from the new album and showcases a body of work written by an artist once more at peace with himself. Written shortly after the death of his father, the song swims beautifully in the space between light and dark. It’s a creation that simultaneously manages to be delicate but ambitious, melancholic but hopeful; a timeless song that’s easy to imagine still being relevant in many years to come. A common theme running through his work is honesty. Indeed, when asked for three words to describe his music he responds in his typical contemplative fashion: “Honest. Moving. Reflective”. His music embraces fragile, personal subjects; subjects which many artists run from in the wake of the personal tragedy. “Honesty is a funny thing. Songwriters talk about it but sometimes the initial emotion you have, the initial way of feeling about something isn’t always the most honest because it’s sometimes unconsidered. People ask me, ‘how come there’s so much pain in the music?’ That’s what I like singing about and that’s what I feel. I like opening up like that – to me it’s therapeutic. You make that deal with yourself as a songwriter, especially when you’re going to spend a year or two touring the world and singing the songs to people. You have to make that deal with yourself that you are going to put yourself out there.”
As the final guitar note fades, there’s a moment of silence before the rapturous applause begins. Old songs and new, behind a microphone and unplugged, Leftwich has bared his soul tonight and it’s been tucked firmly in the hearts of those watching. There are cobwebs to be blown away for sure – what artist wouldn’t have them after four years offstage – but there’s clearly a sense that Leftwich won’t be playing venues this size for long.
Benjamin Francis Leftwich is currently on tour. All dates can be found on his website. After The Rain is released on 19th August on Dirty Hit.