Motley staff writer Ryan O’Neill sits down with Benjamin Francis Leftwich after his recent Cyprus Avenue show to talk about intimate gigs, returning to music and The 1975
Organising an interview via Facebook Messenger and hotel rooms are far from what one might consider ‘official protocol’. Yet it’s here in a modest and (somewhat) tidy city centre hotel room where I sit with Benjamin Francis Leftwich, a little more than thirty minutes after having a surprising message response flash up on my phone telling me I could do the interview if I could make it here.
Benjamin is amiable and relaxed, greeting me warmly at the hotel entrance as he stands alone quietly smoking. He has spent the day in Cork on a day off from his current tour, enjoying the resplendent views of the city and the rickety charm of the Shandon Bells, a stone’s throw from where we sit now. It is this current string of dates in support of his new album After the Rain which has brought him here; he is fresh from a characteristically mellow gig in Cyprus Avenue the previous night, a venue he remembers fondly from his last performance there in 2011.
“I loved it! I played [Cyprus Avenue] five years ago and I have really good memories from that. I know it’s a legendary venue here and it’s amazing to get to come to these places. I may never be here again… although I hope I am! I had a walk around town today, went to see the Shandon Bells and up Patricks’ Hill. It’s a really sweet town.”
Indeed, there was a palpable, rather unique sense of intimacy at last night’s gig. With the crowd mostly sat on the wooden floor of the small stage room, Benjamin periodically stepped away from the mic, instead singing and playing unplugged while perched at the edge of the stage, his hushed tones and soft guitar picking audible thanks to the deferential silence of his audience. “I feel like it went really well and that I performed in a really deep way. I feel like that’s how music is genetically meant to be heard, you know. I’m lucky that I got to play in such a small venue where the audience was so respectful. I played in Whelans the previous night which was just chaos; I loved it and I really enjoy playing in Dublin, but that gig was like a party while this one was more like a séance!”
While the stresses which come with performing in front of vast crowds are well-analysed, less so is the arguably equally daunting prospect of playing in a hall so small you can count the individual faces in the audience. In these sort of environments, the littlest things are more noticeable and are often more off-putting. This is something Leftwich agrees with when he says “You know, sometimes you go on and during your first song you see two people whispering at the back of the room and you wonder if they’re saying ‘This is shit’ or whatever, whereas there’s a 90% chance they’re probably not and are actually enjoying it. But you can’t help these things.”
In terms of success, Benjamin’’s career trajectory has been somewhat unorthodox. Having gained considerable popularity and critical acclaim with his debut album, Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm, released in 2011 on Dirty Hit Records, Leftwich abruptly stopped touring and releasing music in 2013, reappearing three years later with his current sophomore record. This sudden public and creative withdrawal was due to a number of factors, perhaps the most significant being the tragic death of his father after a short battle with cancer in 2013.
The idea of losing a parent is one that would make many balk at the idea of continuing their day job as normal. Nonetheless, pre-booked commitments forced Benjamin to go on tour in England almost immediately after his father’s death, something he remembers with mixed emotions.
“I can remember vividly those moments on that tour, my mind was just screwed. But it can also be therapeutic to go out and be connected with music, the one thing I know. It was hard, but I am very lucky. [My father’s death] was something terrible that happened to me, but I’ve had many good rolls of the dice and I am very grateful for where I am now.”
Despite the unexpected nature of his hiatus, Benjamin tells me he never stopped writing during his break. ‘Tilikum’, the opening track on his current album, was something which he knew from its earliest conception was going to be the first track on the record, despite the song being written back in 2014. Having gone into the studio several times when, in hindsight, he felt the timing wasn’t right, he then met Charlie Andrew, producer for Alt J amongst others, and whom he cites as a big factor in kick-starting his creative process again.
“He’s incredibly acutely focused, maths/science minded, but you could never tell. What he shows is this open, blissful creative zone which is silently backed up by years of this knowledge and focus. It seems like a weird thing to say, but if he ever reads this interview he’ll know what I mean!”
Benjamin has always been obsessed with music, spending hours writing and compiling playlists of his favourite artists even during his time away from the limelight. Not limiting his ears only to the sort of ethereal acoustic music he plays (he cites Irish artists like Damien Rice and James Vincent McMorrow as favourites of his), Benjamin has tastes reaching in all directions; in a couple of breaths he manages to mention a new hip hop artist called 6LACK, James Bond music and ‘Colours of the Wind’ from the movie Pocahontas. He also cites Kanye West and a traditional Arabic singer Fairuz as artists whom he always goes back to, revealing the diversity of musical appreciation he holds.
Today, 27-year old Leftwich remains on Dirty Hit. Given the current roster the label has, he is undoubtedly in good company; fellow label mates include Wolf Alice, The Japanese House and recent Brit Award winners The 1975. Of the latter, Leftwich is emphatically complementary in praising for their recent international acclaim:
“They’re an incredible band, I love them both personally and musically. Their recent transition across albums has been genius and they’re exceptional songwriters. Their success is deserved and to have been expected. They’ve changed people’s lives on a massive scale; whether that’s their intention or not is none of my business and not something I have an opinion on.”
“But to have a song like ‘Me’ (from their third EP) so close to one like ‘Heart Out’ and ‘Robbers’ (both from the band’s self-titled debut album) and have those one year away from a song like ‘Somebody Else’ (from the band’s second album I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It) is something really special. I think they’re a seminal band today; I still have some of their original demos on my laptop and they sound just as good as the finished ones!”
For his part, Leftwich can’t put his finger on when precisely he decided to fully pursue a music career (“I think people just are musicians or they’re not”). He grew up playing in bands in school in York before going out on his own (“I was a control freak who wanted to write sad songs!” he jokes) and barely remembers a point when he considered doing anything else, believing that his hunger and talent have helped forge the success he has achieved so far. Summarising his experience in the music industry so far, he eloquently concludes:
“I’ve grown up a lot between age 20 and 27. It’s important to be selfish with who you surround yourself with, not wasting time on fake love, bad music or bad people. I’ve learned now that it’s easy to see through that. I’ve just always want to create. If I can make money from creating so that I don’t have to spend time not creating, then that’s all I want. I’m really proud of the albums I’ve put out; they’ve changed my life more than I could have begun to imagine.”