Benjamin Francis Leftwich releases his debut album ‘Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm’ this week. I first spoke to Ben in March for Goldenplec but had the opportunity to catch up with him last week, when he was just home from Glastonbury.
How was Glastonbury?
‘Glastonbury was amazing, I couldn’t believe how many people turned up to my show, very very good. My main show was on the acoustic stage on Saturday and it was incredible.’
Glastonbury is one of the highlights of the musical summer, what made it so special for you?
‘It was the first time I had played a festival on the main stage where the tent was rammed and it felt like one of those moments where it felt like it was really working. People were really into it and people knew the words. Just to be at Glastonbury and all the history of the festival was kinda overwhelming but it was amazing.’
It shouldn’t be too surprising that people are getting to know you now, you’ve been featured on BBC Radio 1 and the likes of XFM and you’re in the top five in NME radio. It’s going places for you!
‘It’s great, the thing is, I don’t always hear about those things, I don’t know each time I get played on the radio. I don’t read all the magazines that write about me, I’m aware that things are going well but it’s always kind of nice just to play a really good show with people there.’
I guess, if you don’t read everything it’s going to keep you more grounded because you can’t get into your own hype?
‘Yeah, that’s one of the reasons I try to stay a little bit clear of all that, there’s loads of work that still needs to be done from my point of view as a songwriter and there’s still loads of places to go. The songs, the two E.P.s and the album, those songs are written and recorded and they’re out in the world. For me, it’s about trying to stay focused and stay of top of things.’
How do you feel about the album now that’s it’s coming out?
‘I’m really looking forward to it, it’s going to be interesting to see what people think of it. Hopefully, people will like it and it will be really nice to finally have it out there.’
The production on the album is so sparse, so beautiful and so delicate, you worked with Ian Grimble (Manic Street Preachers), but one of the surprises for me was the female backing vocalist. Who is that?
‘She’s called Haley Hutchinson, she’s from York and we’ve known each other for a little while and she’s got an amazing voice so I was like ‘Haley do you want to come sing on a few tracks?’ I didn’t really expect her to say yes but she did and it was amazing. I think she’s got an incredible voice and I think our voices work together really well.’
Do you think it could go to the stage where Haley would join you when you’re playing live?
‘Yeah, definitely. We speak to each other quite a lot, we’re pretty close mates. I guess if she wants to come on at some stage and do some songs that would be amazing. Hopefully at least we’ll do a couple of tours together or something.’
Your lyrics are very heartfelt and it seems that there are themes of want and wanting to be connected on your album. What inspires you to write?
‘I think anything and everything that says something to me as cliched as that might sound. I read a lot and I go out and I party and I see things and I do normal stuff that everyone else does. Maybe I’m kinda weird or have a weird take on somethings. The songs lyrically, take from things that everyone experiences at some point.’
I read somewhere that you said you didn’t want to get very commercial or get involved in the whole branding type thing in music. How do you think you are going to be able to avoid that ?
‘A lot of the things that are going to happen in that respect are really out of my control, I don’t like.. for example at Glastonbury I wasn’t hanging out in the hospitality tent and talking loads of shit to everyone. The music industry is so small and everyone knows each other so it’s a bit weird. In terms of the commercial side of things I’m always going to write and record honest songs and that’s as much as I can do. People are going to write stuff about me and say thing and try to put me in brackets because that’s what they think they need to do. For me, it’s about the songs and nothing else really matters.’
I guess now, especially when the album’s coming out there are questions that keep cropping up in interviews that you wish wouldn’t. What are they?
‘I like it when people ask about lyrics and talk about lyrics but I think the question ‘What is that songs about?’ is just not a really good question to ask. Say I was listening to a Foy Vance record, which I love, the last thing I’d do is ask him what they song’s about because it would ruin it for me. I think the good thing about music is the level of ambiguity in it, in good music anyway. It can mean something to someone, personally, or it can mean something completely different to someone else but it’s still the same song. If everyone in the world talked about what their songs were about then no one would listen to music. I think..’
If you hear a song when you’re a kid, twenty years later you can remember where you heard it or that summer.. songs can become attached to memories too ?
‘Yeah, that’s why I’ll never be like, right this song is about a girl, this song is about whatever, I try to keep it more of a loose narrative.’
Now that the album is out, are you thinking about writing for the next one or you allocate yourself writing time, what way do you work?
‘To be honest I don’t really have any formula to it. When I’m on tour the guitar is always going to come out of the van and into the hotel room with us and we’ll jam. I’ve written a load of songs that haven’t been on the two E.P.s or the album, whether they are songs for a second album I’m not sure I’d maybe like to do a couple more E.Ps. Maybe. For the second album, I really want to go away somewhere with a couple of mates for a couple of weeks and the producer and chill and jam out and get a real organic vibe going.’
If I give myself this week, you’re writing all week then you’ve got four days of gigs and you’re writing that night, it doesn’t work like that. It’s physically impossible. The songs sort of come at the right time. Does that make sense? It’s tricky to give myself time to write, like write this, all these deadlines and that sort of crap. For me, they sort of come when they come but to answer your question, ‘Have I started writing for the second album?’ Yeah, there are a couple of new songs that I’ve got that I’d definitely like to record for the second album.’
Do you think that you’ll work with Ian on the next recordings or would you like to try something different?
‘I really do want to keep working with Ian, I’m not sure. It would be really nice to have him come along and have him produce it again because we had such a good time and he’s amazing sonically. I think, probably yeah. It’s so far away I haven’t had time to properly think about it. I quite like the idea of maybe working with two producers. Ian knows my music really well and knows me really well and we’re quite intense when we’re in the studio. It would be nice to work to have someone who I have been working on a more consistent basis there as well to mix the vibe up a bit. I really like the idea of working with two producers and everyone throwing their ideas in.’
You have been touring up and down Ireland the UK for the past couple of months, been on tour with Noah and The Whale and now Glastonbury. What’s the best thing you’ve learned about yourself in this time?
‘Just to always to figure out how to get back into the songs when I’m performing them. It’s not that I’m not connected to them or anything, it’s just that they are slightly older than a lot of people think so it’s been really cool trying to get back into the songs and the ways I play them live, to really get into the performance and into the zone and I think I’m learning that craft really well now. I’m in a really good place creatively too so I think I’ve learned just to stay focused on the music and not just listen to any of the things that are being said about me.’
You’re running a competition on your website for a fan to win a gig in their house. Who came up with that idea?
‘It was my idea, a couple of months back then we didn’t talk about it for a while. My manager called me and said ‘Yeah, let’s go for that’. I was like ‘Definitely, cool!’ I think music sounds best when it’s just there and in the zone and there’s people there. We’re not going to take any speakers or microphones or anything, it’s just going to be dead chilled and acoustic. I think it will be really nice, hopefully some people will apply for the competition. I think it could be a really nice vibe and hopefully it would be a really cool show.’
Here’s the point where I ask Ben to pick three numbers from my twenty questions list, here’s what he picked.
Two. If you found a genie’s lamp but it only had one wish left, what would you wish for?
(deep breath) ‘Phew, that’s a good question, I’d wish for (takes another deep breath) a lifetime supply of pancakes and ice cream.’
Eleven. If you could make a supergroup with your musical heroes who would be in it?
‘Would I be in it as well? (Yes) I’m going to say Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z (deep breath) and Sigur Ros. It would be epic, it would be so good!’
Nineteen: What do you consider the most rock star thing you’ve ever done?
‘Em. Em. Leaving a trail of socks hanging across smoke alarms in Travelodges in Ireland and England. (laughs) It’s true.’
Hotels around Ireland can prepare for another trail of socks, Ben’s on tour here this month:
July 15 Dublin: Sugar Club (supporting Liam Finn)
July 16 Cork: Cypress Avenue
July 17 Galway: Roisin Dubh
July 18 Limerick: Dolans Upstairs
July 20 Dublin: Whelans Upstairs
July 21 Belfast: McHughs
Here’s the video for Ben’s current single: