ENRG Music’s Bryce Arthur caught up with Benjamin Francis Leftwich ahead of his show at The Caves in Edinburgh.
Benjamin is an incredibly interesting guy. He seems to exist somewhere else, as if you’re actually talking to a mystical astral projection of Benjamin Francis Leftwich. His chat is immediately intense, real and personal without a lot of preamble. This open attitude can sometimes verge on being pretentious, but Benjamin is the least pretentious guy around. Benjamin doesn’t pretend, he just seems to say what comes to mind, as any question I asked seemed to release a long stream of consciousness, filled with interesting wee nuggets about who the hell Benjamin Francis Leftwich really is.
We chatted about his ongoing tour and his third album, Gratitude, which was released earlier this month. The above description of Benjamin makes for a reasonably good description of Gratitude as well, with a lot of synthy sections of Ben’s high, haunting, almost ethereal vocals. It’s also very lyrical, without a huge number of obvious choruses. Benjamin clearly has things to say, but the combination of the atmospheric production, his voice, and his ever-present acoustic guitar serve to tell the story far better than lyrics alone can.
The album differs considerably from Leftwich’s previous two LPs (Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm and After The Rain) because of the level of production – this album has a lot more electronic sounds and is much more layered, which all adds up to a very modern-sounding album.
I figured it was a conscious choice to make Gratitude a very ‘2019’ album, but Benjamin disagreed: “I don’t think it’s a conscious decision, it was just me being more honest with the creative process, the writing process and the recording process than ever before. The truth is, because of a lot of the music I’ve fallen in love with over the past few years, my mind and my heart have opened, and I’ve learned I really love a lot of current music.”
He continued: “It wasn’t that we dialled it in for the sake of being current, it was just about what was the most honest thing to do with the song. That’s my rule, it’s always about doing what’s right for the song. If it just needs to be simple and acoustic, that’s chill, but if it needs a bit more production, more flavour, we do that. I like when production acts as a story, when the sounds and the feel of the music help a really basic song build, and grow, and come alive.”
He spoke a bit about who’d helped him put together the album, too. Beatriz Artola, a New York based producer with some very prestigious credits, oversaw a lot of the process. But other names – Joe Rubel and Lazy H – who are more familiar to Benjamin helped with the creation of the album too. “I’m really lucky,” says the singer, “that at this point I’ve got a network of great brothers and sisters who are very gifted at writing and producing and designing, and all this sort of stuff. So we just try to create what’s most honest and most beautiful.”
So what comes first? The honesty, the story and the message that needs to be put across, or the actual sound of the song? I asked Benjamin, and he answered in his own trademark way: he told me what I wanted to know by telling me literally everything else.
“As I’ve grown up, I’ve become less fearful. In After The Rain and Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm there was a lot more ambiguity in the lyrics – not that clarity in lyrics makes a song better – but on this album I could tell you what every single song was about, every single situation, the depth of every situation. My dad always used to say – God bless him – he was an academic, and he used to say: “being direct in a message helps the creative process”. It doesn’t necessarily make it better, but it helps it, and I’ve really enjoyed writing like that, with no fear and no ego.”
There was a little pause when Benjamin talked about his father, which – as with any chat with Leftwich – revealed a lot. The artist lost his father to cancer a couple of years after his first album, which undoubtedly influenced the tone of his second work. Gratitude also deals with similarly life-changing themes; after a heavy year of touring for his second album, Benjamin spent a stint seeking help for substance abuse.
Recovery, rehabilitation and renewal are all big themes on the album, and although it’s a tough subject, Benjamin doesn’t fear being raw and open about his struggles: “It can be hard but I don’t think being raw is a bad thing. It means I’m being more honest, I’m hiding less, I’m not twisting meanings or using metaphors to disguise the truth. I know who I am, what I am, and I think writing – and in terms of press – speaking honestly is the right thing to do. I mean, as long as I’m not preachy with it. My journey isn’t more or less valid than anyone else’s. But for me, I would not be here if I carried on the way I did at the end of my last tour.”
Leftwich asserted that talking about his issues was something the album needed, something that he needed himself: “I needed to talk about it, to admit that I was powerless over all these self-destructive behaviours. In my experience, talking about shit and putting it on the table is the only way to deal with these things.”
Benjamin is touring across the UK and Europe for another couple of months, you can find tickets here.
By Bryce Arthur