In Conversation: Benjamin Francis Leftwich

"It's been one of the craziest gifts of my life…"

Benjamin Francis Leftwich is in a good place. In fact, he’s probably happier than he’s ever been. Does that mean he’s made a cheery record? Not really; that wouldn’t be like him. Even he jokes that he’ll have to get around to doing that eventually – but for now, he’s sticking to what he does best and the end result is some of his most honest work to date. 

Best known for his gentle, acoustic output, fifth album ‘Some Things Break’ sees Leftwich expanding on the sonic soundscapes of previous albums ‘To Carry A Whale’ and ‘Gratitude’. Here, he incorporates choirs, piano and subtle drum beats, which supplement the rich, pared-back musical palette that has defined his sound for the past decade.

Signed to Dirty Hit since the inception of the label, ‘Some Things Break’ arrives at a turning point for the singer-songwriter. Now over five years sober, Leftwich finds himself in a position to look back more objectively, providing a moving reflection on his experiences. It also follows a busy period working as a co-writer, recently collaborating with the likes of CMAT, Holly Humberstone and labelmates The 1975.

Paul Weedon found him in great form when he caught up with him last month to chat about the new record and the unique experience of watching his song ‘New York’ evolve into a megahit by The 1975.

First and foremost, how are you doing, Ben?

I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m more at peace than I’ve ever been. I’m still human, and I get angry and lonely and tired, but that deep well of realness I go to is just something that I’ve always done. It’s what I love. I came up listening to ‘Every You Every Me’ in my bedroom and ‘Adam’s Song’. Things like ‘This Year’s Love’. It sounds a bit sick, but I want stuff to hurt a little bit. No rain, no flowers, you know? Thanks for your question and your kindness in that. I’m good, man. I’m not perfect. I have to do things to stay well. I’m in a fellowship, which helps me a lot, but I really love this album, and I loved making it with my friends.

There’s a lot of vulnerability right from the outset. You open with ‘I’m Always Saying Sorry’. You articulate some things on that track that are quite difficult to articulate, I think.

I love that in other people’s music – articulating something in a way that you didn’t know it was possible to articulate. Even a melody can do that. If you think of ‘This Year’s Love’ and the melody. Fuck me, it’s the most heartbreaking thing ever. My intention is honestly always just to go from my heart. I know it sounds cheesy, but I’ve been freely given a gift and I’m more aware than ever that I’ve been given something that’s a responsibility and I think opening with that song and the kind of brutality of it is just really human. When the microphones are off and we’re sitting around with our mates, I don’t buy that everyone is 100% spiritually fit all the time.

You’ve always been candid about your experiences in your songwriting. Does the distance between now and when you went into recovery leave room for a little more objectivity?

That’s a great question. I think when someone like myself gets sober, their problems start. Alcohol drugs were my solution. When I put that stuff down, all this fear and anger and judgement and lust starts flooding in, which is why I work a program where I get contact with a higher power that I choose to call God. The real blessing of that is that my fear gets diminished. I’m not putting my hope in me anymore…  I think I have been able to go deeper than I was willing to go before and there was way less fear. I was a taker for so long, and it feels like I’m giving more on this album. 

That definitely comes across.

In a way it’s selfish because when I give and when I’m of service, whether that’s co-writing, being in recovery or taking calls from artists and sharing my experience, peace just falls out of the sky. Before, I think I was trying to chase peace. It’s the difference between self-help and self-abandonment. For me, self-abandonment is where the peace is. When I abandon myself to the flow of life itself – the pain and the light – I’m less likely to call an ex-girlfriend who’s married at two in the morning and say, “I miss you”. That’s never a good vibe. 

Some writers can shelve something if it’s not working and come back to it years later. Do you do that at all?

Every time I make a new album, my manager and I go through demos, old ideas and things that didn’t make the album. Every time we get to the place where it’s like, “This is yesterday’s spirit”. On my own stuff, I’ve always written in the containment of that album process. Once in a blue moon I might have something, like I’ve had the title ‘Under the Stars at the S.U. Bar’ for ages. That was going to be an album title, but it might be a song title. I think every songwriter has a Dropbox full of songs that they swear if only the right person releases it, it’s going to be a hit. But there’s so much more to it than that… There’s a song I wrote when I was 17 and in a band called ‘Plans’, which has a chorus that’s so good. I’ve always thought that I’d love to get that in, but it can be lazy as well. Think of all the great writers who keep doing stuff. Take someone like Drake or J Cole. They just keep coming with these bars. And you’re like, how have you not done that before? 

Streaming has changed the way people consume music. There’s no guarantee people will hear the songs in sequence, but I get the sense that it’s something that’s important to you.

It really is. I’m well enough to realise that just because I like it, most of the world doesn’t. But as soon as I had ‘I’m Always Saying Sorry,’ I knew it had to come first. It’s got to take someone’s head off from the start. I use the word “love” a lot on this album, so I considered the idea that there was too much love in some songs, so they needed to be moved around. I work with my managers and the adults around me to make calls on single releases, but I like the consideration of it. I like that part of the art and I only go from my heart. I’ve made lots of mistakes with that stuff as well. 

In what sense?

I say this to kind of protect my own ego, but I hope that if I ever met Springsteen, he’d be gracious enough to tell me that he’s released some songs that he doesn’t love. It would help to hear that. Especially on my second album, I was so messy then. I don’t want to say the wrong thing, especially in an interview, but there are some songs I don’t like. But I’ll get messages from people like, “This song saved my life”, you know? That just reminds me to kind of get out of my own way.

You and Matt Healy are good friends and labelmates. He’s been a big champion of your work and the song ‘New York’ has an interesting history. He road tested it in support of Phoebe Bridgers back in October 2021 and the bridge he wrote evolved into ‘Part of the Band’. How did that happen?

We’ve occasionally shared songs. We’ll text once in a blue moon. We went to LA together way back through Jamie [Oborne, co-founder of Dirty Hit] when we first met and he would play songs. I wrote this song, ‘New York’, on Zoom with my friend, Josh Finn, this emo legend from York. His artist name is Wounded Bear. He’s this amazing guy who never had a deal. We wrote this song, and I was like, “Damn, I love this.” I text it to Matty like, “I just did this. I’d love your thoughts.” And he was like, “Man, I love this. Can I do a version? Can we put on the album?” My thing with songs is whoever can get the song into the most hearts possible should do the song and Matty can get into more hearts than I can. We had a bit of back and forth and then he played it when he did a surprise slot with Phoebe Bridgers. He’d written that beautiful bridge, “At home, somewhere I don’t like, eating stuff off of motorbikes”. And I was like, “Man, that sounds sick.” Thanks to God, my hands are less on shit than they used to be, you know? 

And then you ended up collaborating on the latest 1975 record.

Me and Jimmy Hogarth, who’s a legendary record producer, were writing a lot together with artists. We were having a good run. Jamie called me and asked if we were up for doing some time with Matty for their album. We did a week and we wrote the chorus of ‘Oh Caroline’ and a song called ‘Human Too’. I think they could have had ‘New York’ for sure, but it was kind of my song. I imagine that Matty couldn’t quite get his head around singing it emotionally, perhaps. They wrote better songs in my opinion anyway, like ‘Looking For Somebody (To Love)’. I mean, fucking hell. It’s scary how good that album is. 

I played the opening track to death last year.

My god, that “Just some bloke in the Philippines” lyric? I was in the Dirty Hit office and Jamie was playing me some of the new album. He played me Part of the Band and it sounded kind of familiar. And it was then that I realised they’d used the beautiful bridge that Matty had written for ‘New York’ totally by himself… It’s a privileged position to be in, but I’m so unbothered about it. I’m like, “Where’s the best song? Where’s the vibe? Where’s the artist’s heart? Do that.”

It’s a healthy mindset to be in, especially when you’re sharing with friends and labelmates. You hear stories about decades-long disputes over royalties and stuff.

I used to be a taker and I was forced by my own poor behaviour into a position of honesty. The truth is Matty wrote that bridge by himself, and it’s an amazing bridge. Then he wrote new verses and I didn’t write on it. And I love them. I’m a big, big fan and they’re truly one of my favourite bands. I mean, the audacity of some of the lyrics: “I’m sorry, but I’d rather be getting high than watching my family die,” and “Then you took a picture of your salad and put it on the Internet”? It’s just like, you’ve ruined it for everyone Matty, basically. Absolute savage.

While we’re talking about Dirty Hit, you were one of their first signings. How has it been seeing the label evolve into what it’s become?

It’s been one of the craziest gifts of my life… I was so difficult and spiky to Jamie [Oborne] and some of the OGs during my first album and through my second album and yet I’m still here. I don’t really know why. I’ve recently extended my deal for a few more albums and I love it. Everyone’s got different experiences, artists are artists and we all expect the world, but people forget that A&R and managers are humans too. They’re not like Terminator. I’ve just had the best time here and I hope to always be useful here. Maybe that won’t always be in records. When I have nothing left to say, I want to stop making albums, but God has, for whatever reason, put me into this co-writing game. There’s a publishing house at Dirty Hit now, which my heart is set on to be useful for. The proof is in the pudding: the Little Comets debut album, Marika Hackman, Japanese House, The 1975, QTY. I love it. 

Your breakthrough came around the time ‘Shine’ was remixed by Kygo. The blog reigned supreme and separate remix EPs were a thing. That feels like a bygone era now. What did it mean for you to see your tracks find their way into other pockets of musical culture at the time?

It’s funny actually, there was a kid on my last American tour in 2019 who had only heard the remix, so he saw my name and thought he was coming to a tropical house show. He came in board shorts. I think he was on something and he was raving. He was so fucked. He came to two shows, was the nicest guy, bought all the merch, but it was just like he was on another planet.

Amazing.

The thing is, when the tropical house thing was happening, which was like 2012, I was so asleep. I was just waking up, getting in the car, going to the airport, going to China, playing a show, coming home and getting wasted. It was that on loop. I remember my friend Cindy called me one day and was like, “Shine is the most repeated song played in the world on Spotify this year.” It went in one ear and out the other. Even you describing it as a “breakthrough,” to the outside world, yeah, the streams go up and it’s on all the blogs. I got a call: “There’s a new DJ from Norway called Kygo, he’s got a young manager called Myles [Shears] and they’ve remixed your song. It’s got a million plays in a day”. I was like, “That’s awesome.” It wasn’t anything more than gratitude. Honestly, it’s probably to my detriment, economically, that I don’t really have the kill-your-friends energy. In fact, I’ve got the opposite. My hipster horse has had to be seriously defeated. I’m the guy that would call Jamie Oborne upset when my songs got played on the radio.

What was it that bothered you?

It was pure fear. What will other people think of me? It was a mix of fear and arrogance – an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. I was guilty and it wasn’t anyone else. But it took me 10 years to even admit that my first album had been somewhat successful, or that I even had a career in music. My faith has helped straighten me out emotionally and spiritually. 

You’ve got an extensive body of work now. When you’re configuring a live set and including those early songs, can it feel like you’re playing the songs of a different person?

In a way it does, but I am so grateful for them. I’ll always play them and my heart is still in them, so I can still perform them. I’ve got a song called ‘Elephant’, which is one of my favourite songs. I love playing that song, so I’m gonna play that on tour, and I’ll play some of the new album. But I feel like I’m self aware enough that I know that most of the people who are coming to the show have been there for a while. I’m not having a star boy moment. I kind of do it like I do the album: What’s going to be really intense and sick to open with? When do I drop that new song? What do I save for the encore? I consider it carefully.  Jamie Squire [touring keyboard player for The 1975] is going to come on tour with me, which is gonna be amazing. It’s gonna be a new kind of sound live, but a lot of old favourites and some new ones as well. To be honest, I’m probably gonna play some that aren’t even out yet. There’s room to have some fun with it.

— 

‘Some Things Break’ is out on February 9th. 

Benjamin Francis Leftwich tours the UK in April:

April
4 Leeds Brudenell Social Club
5 Kendal Brewery Arts Centre
6 Edinburgh Summerhall
8 Manchester Band On The Wall
9 Bristol The Lantern
10 London EartH
11 Cardiff Acapela Studio
13 Dublin The Workman’s Club

Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap
Photo Credit: Harvey Pearson

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