Benjamin Francis Leftwich begins a headline UK and Ireland tour this Spring, including a Belfast date at the Empire Music Hall on Sunday 24th March 2019. The tour runs throughout March and April culminating in a date at London’s Union Chapel. Benjamin recently released his third album, Gratitude, via Dirty Hit. Mark Millar caught up with Benjamin to chat about the album and tour.
Your third album Gratitude is out now. Did you go into the recording with any preconceived ideas how it would sound and what you wanted to write about?
BFL: I really was in a more peaceful place going into the studio on “Gratitude” than I had been before in a long time. I think my only goal was to make it as truly honest, kind and beautiful as possible. I know that sounds kind of vague and maybe cheesy but it really was as simple as that. I wanted to be fully free of ego and fear in the studio and to be truly open-minded, hearted and eared. My general rule was like… let’s just do whatever is right for the song and its message you know in the writing, the performance and the sonic. I really wanted the theme to be an observation on surrender and self-referential honesty. I definitely think there is less ambiguity lyrically on this record then my previous work. Not that I necessarily think clarity makes a song “better” but it is how I wanted to work on this record.
Is there a particular song on the new album that you thought “this is why I’m doing this”?
BFL: That's a great question. I think there are several moments on the album that I feel are truly special in that context you know. “Tell Me You Started To Pray” is a song about the first time I heard a loved one tell me… Ben I’ve started praying for you. When I was in a very bad self-destructive mode you know. I think to be able to write about that with compassion and honesty is definitely a good energy to be sharing.
Also the song for my sister “Miracle Sister” is a straight-up love song to my brave sister, and I think to be able to write clearly and generously in that way feels good you know, and is definitely one of the reasons I continue to make music. The closing song “The Mess We Make” is really an observation on how much chaos we cause ourselves when we don’t check our spirits in the creative process or on road. I think to look inwards like this is kind of therapeutic sometimes and is part of the reason I continue to do this.
What is you’re songwriting process?
BFL: Honestly, it really depends, there is no rule, I just kind of trust my instinct. Sometimes I’ll have a theme that I really want to write clearly about. Other times I’ll just sit with my guitar and kind of freestyle and voice memo some ideas. As I’ve grown up more I’ve definitely come to respect “the craft” side of songwriting more and I think that has become an important part of the process for me after I have caught that initial spark you know?
Did the songs come easily for the album?
BFL: I was in a kind of isolated space physically and mentally on the road in 2017 when a lot of these songs were written. So I think the whole process at times felt kind of depressive and dark but once I was onto a song I knew I loved it kind of was pretty quick getting them down. I think… Every song is different… You just never know!
Was it an enjoyable experience recording the new album?
BFL: Yeah, do you know what it really was. For the first time I worked with a wide range of gifted sisters and brothers and it was truly amazing to have other peoples talents and wisdom to bounce off. Beatriz Artola (Electric Lady Studios, NYC) flew over and kind of oversaw the whole process. She is like a sonic wizard and has a great and deep insight on song, structure, performance, lyric and spirit. It was really beautiful and useful to have Beatriz to catch me and guide me in the right ways.
My best friend Joe Rubel also produced a few songs on the album and he is a very sweet and strong man who really encouraged me to take risks sonically and musically, which was super useful. Lazy H was there right at the start of the writing process, and early days me and him cooked a lot of songs and ideas just sat in his room jamming. Harry (Lazy H) has an amazingly unique and unaffected approach to songwriting and production that was really special to be around.
I worked with many other gifted creatives on this album… Josh Grant, Elsa Hewitt, Matt Ingram, Jamie Robertson, Hayley Hutchinson, Felix Rashman… and many more. To be in such a calm headspace in the studio definitely helped me enjoy the process more. I would be lying if I said there weren’t some really late dark nights where I was sad and second guessing everything and really being cruel to myself and having doubts around the music but I think that is a fairly normal part of the process for any artist right?
You are playing a headline UK and Ireland tour in support of Gratitude including a Belfast date at the Empire Music Hall on Sunday 24th March 2019. Are you looking forward to the Belfast show?
BFL: I’m really really looking forward to being back in Belfast. I’ve always loved it there, I used to come over all the time and play McHugh's basement bar which I loved. So much of my favourite music is from your part of the world… Foy Vance, Snow Patrol, General Fiasco, Blue Americans, Rosie Carney, Travis Is A Tourist, Bap Kennedy… and lots more that I’m probably forgetting right now.
What can fans expect from the shows?
BFL: I think the shows will be like an hour long calm, beautiful trip… I will be playing with my friend Oliver on stage with me and we’ll play several brand new songs as well as a mix of older songs. I may play a cover as well and maybe some new unreleased songs. I’m just kind of going to feel it out every night. I’m flexible and it’s a real blessing to have 3 albums of music and several EP’s to play with.
It’s wind down time after a show how do you unwind or recharge?
BFL: That’s a great question, I think the truth is it’s really hard. I remember doing a tour of China last year and I literally slept for only 4 hours for the whole week. I find that the adrenaline and my busy head can really keep me perked up. So I’m trying to learn new ways to be calm after the show. My road routine is a work in progress… We’ll see…
Your label Dirty Hit Records is having a lot of success. It must be a great time to be with the label.
BFL: Yes, Dirty Hit are amazing. I am truly grateful to have even a part of that family for such a long time, it is one of the true blessings of my life. To have been a fly on the wall there and seen so much great art come in and grow has been deeply inspiring. I am lucky enough to get to hear a lot of new demos from the new and established artists and I’m constantly blown away by how good everything is. The 1975, Marika, Little Comets, QTY, Ben Khan, AMA, Wolf Alice, Wake Owl, Caleb Steph, The Japanese House etc… It’s all so special. And I feel like each artist really lives in their own lane and lives well, and is encouraged to do so.
I meet a lot of artists every day who hate their management or label or publisher and I am always reminded how lucky I am to have such a good, honest and musical relationship with my sisters and brothers at the label, staff side and artist side.
What are you most grateful for about being able to be a musician every day?
BFL: The fact that I get to create and live and that I love what I do. It’s a rare blessing, and more than ever I am truly thankful for it. I feel like I have a gift that I am very lucky and privileged to be able to share with people. I essentially have a tool that if I so choose I can engage to soundtrack and diary my time here on earth. To hear how deeply the music affects and moves some people is truly humbling and encouraging.
Out of all the records in your collection, who do you have the most albums by?
BFL: Haha, great question… Bruce Springsteen, Drake, Kanye and my all time favourite band, The Blue Nile.
What have you been listening to recently that you could recommend?
BFL: The Japanese House, The 1975, J Cole, Julien Baker, The Blue Nile, Fenne Lily… off the top of my head.
Benjamin Francis Leftwich Tour dates:
21 - Button Factory - Dublin
22 - Cyprus Avenue - Cork
24 - Empire Music Hall - Belfast
25 - St Luke’s - Glasgow
26 - The Caves - Edinburgh
27 - Wylam Brewery - Newcastle
29 - York Minster - York
30 - Gorilla - Manchester
31 - Leaf - Liverpool
2 - Junction 2 - Cambridge
3 - Open - Norwich
4 - Assembly - Leamington
6 – Cavern - Exeter
7 - Thekla - Bristol
8 - The Globe - Cardiff
10 - Church of St John the Evangelist - Oxford
11 - Union Chapel – London
12 - St Paul’s Arts Centre - Worthing