On March 7th, I was lucky enough to speak to the wonderful Benjamin Francis Leftwich before his gig in Limelight, on the final date of his Irish headline tour. From Ireland’s musical heritage to his songwriting process, our shared home city and whether he’d managed to have a Boojum yet (he hadn’t, I fully recommended one), we had a great (and lengthy) chat. Check it out below!
Hi! First and foremost, thanks so much for agreeing to chat with me! I’ve been looking forward to this gig for absolutely ages.
Hello! Yeah, me too – it’s been a long time since I’ve played Belfast. It was like seeing family when we walked in. All the people I’ve worked with every time we’ve played Ireland, pretty much since 2010, are the same people I’ve seen on this tour. That personal touch really calms you down, makes you grateful.
How is it being back in Belfast and in Ireland in general? How have the other dates gone?
They’ve been great! We’ve done Galway first, in the legendary Roisin Dubh. It was chaos, but was a beautiful gig, and the next one in Dublin was one of my favourite shows of the year. You feel an energy on stage sometimes – it’s hard to explain, but they were both special, totally different gigs. Then we did Cork, which was awesome as well, and had a day off there, which was really nice! I felt like I was in that film P.S. I Love You, just a lone guy walking round the streets of Cork, going to little bars.
It’s amazing to be here. The scenery’s amazing, the people are legendary, the humour’s amazing, the coast is never too far away, and, more importantly, the musical heritage in this country is insane: Foy Vance, Iain Archer, Fionn Regan, Damien Rice, James Vincent McMorrow, Snow Patrol, U2, Two Door Cinema Club, General Fiasco, just to name a few.
Speaking of the musical heritage over here – you’re a fantastic musician in your own right, but who would you listen to as you write? Who would influence or inspire you?
Thanks, I’m trying! So, at the end of 2013 I kind of quit touring and went to Australia, and I put on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye. From then on all I’ve listened to is hip-hop and rap—and that album’s the lighter side of it. On this tour, I’ve been listening to Future a lot. Though I can’t personally relate to some of the stories or the language, it’s all exciting and free, just people expressing themselves in a really free way, like a composer like Yann Tiersen would in the Amelie or Chocolat soundtracks. You’d never really hear this stuff in my music, but it influences me personally, makes me feel creative and emotional and inspired. I’ll sit down with a guitar, make a beat and stuff comes out.
I’ve got two playlists I make on Apple Music and Spotify, you should definitely check them out. It’s such a mix of stuff. A band called The Blue Nile really influence me emotionally, and I love any song that moves or helps me. Sure, I have my all-time favourite albums, like Springsteen’s Nebraska and the Amelie soundtrack, but I listen to so much.
You said that you listen to music that moves you. Do you find music and songwriting cathartic? And what is your writing process? Will you focus on emotions and write lyrics, then arrange around them?
In terms of the writing process, it really depends. Sometimes you come up with a chord or a riff, then start singing around that. You might have a riff for weeks and weeks, then you might get a lyric or a melody idea, something that just really sticks, and you’ll work on it. I find it really hard to write on the road. I’ve been writing bits, and have loads of ideas and some songs ready for the new album, but not as many as I’d like – although I’ve literally been on tour since last March, so I haven’t had as much creative space as I’d like.
Music can be cathartic, but it can also be painful and fun and beautiful. I don’t really see any distinction between music and my spirit, so they’ve both got to match up.
How does touring influence you in ways other than your songwriting? You get to see some amazing places, like Canada…
Yeah, totally, that was crazy! Sure, it influences me in the sense that you meet so many different people. I’m humbled enough to meet people in places that I hope I’ll get to go to again, but may never return to. You meet people who your music has really connected with, and that really makes you think, you know? It inspires you to do more, to stay focused and grounded.
Also, you get to listen to so much music as you’re travelling around, and get to meet artists like Brolly, who’s just been on tour with us in Canada. We discovered each other on tour in San Francisco 3 years ago: he gave me a hand-printed CD and I listened to it, then fell in love with it straight away.
And the scenery, of course – I love walking around and trying to get great photos and stuff. It’s inspiring being around nature, driving through mountains and around lakes, seeing mad things like that.
That actually leads me to my next question, because there’s a lot of beautiful, natural imagery on After The Rain. Where did that come from – just from seeing everything and being so in awe?
That’s a very good question, and definitely! I think growing up in Yorkshire, funnily enough where we’re both from…it’s aesthetically very beautiful and moving, if you’re open to that, which I definitely am. Like Robin Hood’s Bay, or Whitby, the Hole of Horcum and Rosedale – all those places are very special. So from an early age, I’ve been exposed to that, and I think that’s why there’s a lot of nature-based metaphors and sentiments in the music.
That was, of course, enhanced when I started touring. I’ve woken up one day in Shanghai, the next in Norway…you open the window and that intense feeling, it just stays with you. It’s amazing to be able to see how other people live, and I feel very lucky – that feeds itself back into the music. I’ve had some amazing moments on tour, and I’ve had moments that are so unimaginably dark, and I’m thankful for all of them.
As a proud York woman, I love our local music scene. Are there any artists from back home that you think people really need to hear?
Yeah, so many! First up, obviously, Sam Griffiths, who’s a singer and writer and wonderful guy in The Howl and the Hum. He’s an amazing man who I’ve got to know over the past four years: we’ve sat in each other’s living rooms many times, just sharing songs and trading ideas. He’s someone who’s really inspired me, to be honest. His songs are so beautiful – ‘Until I Found A Rose’ is one of my all-time favourites. Bradley in The Howl and the Hum as well, is one of my really trusted friends, as is Conor.
David Ward Maclean, an acoustic singer-songwriter from York, is a really good friend of mine – he’s opening for me in London, writes the most incredible songs, I’ve always looked up to him. Avalanche Party are also an amazing band; Jordan Bell’s a genius songwriter. There’s a young singer-songwriter called Amy Ellis, who’s amazing too – she has the most soulful, deep spirit in her voice. So many others: Boss Caine, Hayley Hutchinson, Chris Helme of the Seahorses, Bonnie Milnes. Yeah, and me, obviously! But no, it’s hotting up there, for sure.
So, any more plans for the summer apart from Latitude Festival? Any other festivals lined up, or any surprises – Glastonbury maybe?
I don’t think Glastonbury – I’ve done it before and absolutely loved it, but not this year. We’ve got 10 or 11 festivals, something like that, loads in Europe. Barn on the Farm will be amazing because there’s just so many of our friends there, it’s a really special place.
Well, thanks so much for chatting to us, and all the best for the gig!
You’re so welcome – I feel like we’ve covered a lot of ground! And thanks, I hope you enjoy it!
The gig itself was amazing: intimate, note-perfect, and the support acts were incredible, too. Make sure to check out local artist Travis Is A Tourist, as well as The Howl and the Hum – and if you haven’t heard them yet, give Benjamin’s two albums a listen. They’re as lovely as he is, believe me.
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