BENJAMIN FRANCIS LEFTWICH
HAVE A BEER WITH BENJAMIN FRANCIS LEFTWICH
Following the release of his 2011 acclaimed debut album Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm, a record which has gone on to sell more than 100,000 copies worldwide and had over 150 million global Spotify plays, Ben's life was thrown into an unexpected path that altered the course of his musical career.
Coming at the peak of Ben’s success and stuck between tours, Ben invited producers to his hometown in an attempt to work on new material, to muted results. Now, five years after the release of his debut album, Ben returned earlier this year with the news of the Charlie Andrew (Alt-J, Money) produced new album, After the Rain. Written during some of his lowest months, the record is a creation that exists between light and dark; one that is delicate yet grand, melancholic yet optimistic.
We had a beer with Ben before his November show at Martyrs, where we discussed the time in between his two records, the making of After the Rain and his plans for the next year.
Drink of Choice: Amaretto
The Gig: Communion and Silver Wrapper Present Benjamin Francis Leftwich // Nov. 6, 2016 // Martyrs
Kristen: Let’s say you’re on tour and you stop at a gas station. What’s your guilty pleasure gas station buy?
Benjamin: In America I always buy those red vine things.
Kristen: Yeah, yeah, the licorice?
Benjamin: Yeah, yeah, the really long ones. They stick together, but I just eat loads at the same time.
Kristen: That's an interesting choice because I feel like those are the red-headed stepchildren of candy. No one says, “I’m going to 711 and I think I’ll pick up some red vines.” It’s always something chocolate, or skittles or something.
Benjamin: Totally. And if I’m in the mood for something salty I go with jerky.
Kristen: What do you do to kill time in the van?
Benjamin: I listen to music. It's pretty much all I do in the van: listen to music and sleep with my head on the window.
Kristen: What's currently going on your playlist?
Benjamin: A bit of the staples: Kanye West, Drake. But then there’s classical music…and I always listen to the Tallest Man on Earth, who is amazing. Ryan Adams…
Kristen: You have quite the range there, from Kanye to classical.
Benjamin: Yeah. I love all music. If there's an energy to it and I feel like the person is a real artist, then I'm into it. I think as you grow up, you become less bothered by what's “cool.” You just appreciate great music.
Kristen: Yeah, I feel the same way. I am now not afraid to admit that I like the top radio hits.
Benjamin: See? Right.
Kristen: I'll hear them and I find myself singing along and I'm like, "Damn it."
Benjamin: [Singing] “Baby hold me closer in the backseat of your Rover...”
Kristen: The lyrics...I'm not sure about them, but I sing along anyways.
Benjamin: Taylor Swift. We are never ever, ever getting back together.
Kristen: She turned a corner for me with that last album. Any other radio hits you find yourself singing along to?
Benjamin: Maybe it’s not come over here yet, but there’s an artist called Dagny who’s a female out of Norway, and her song “Backbeat” is on the Apple Music top charts. What else? Oh, Sam Smith "Omen,” and Dua Lipa’s “Be The One.” [Singing] “I see the moon / Oh, you see everything in red.”
Kristen: So tonight, you're going to do a medley of all of those songs, right?
Benjamin: That's an idea. You just completely changed my set.
Kristen: What's the least rock-n-roll thing you've done in the past week?
Benjamin: I went to the Mall of America. Is that un-rock-n-roll? Just kind of walked around ...It's a crazy place, isn't it? There's so many...There was a roller coaster park and an aquarium. Loads of food places. I bought a wallet. I own a wallet for the first time in two years now. I also bought a coat, and I was going to get a Bluetooth speaker, but I forgot to buy that. I was kind of rushing, because it took me so long to get there. I had to take two trains through Minneapolis to get there. It's a big place.
Kristen: Important question: how have you gone two years without a wallet?
Benjamin: I keep my bank cards in my bag…in a little holder in my bag.
Kristen: Don't you fear that you're going to lose everything?
Benjamin: Yeah. That's why I bought the wallet.
Benjamin: And today in Chicago I bought some shoes and a Cubs World Series shirt. Maybe I’ll sing the “Go Cubs Go” song on-stage tonight.
Kristen: People are still very pumped about the win.
Benjamin: Yeah, pretty big news, isn't it? Did you go to the parties?
Kristen: No, I actually hid in my apartment. Real celebratory, right? Are you a sports fan?
Benjamin: I quite like football.
Kristen: I’m assuming you don’t mean American football.
Benjamin: No, UK—soccer. I live in Tottenham, so I should really support Tottenham [North London], but ...
Kristen: What’s Tottenham like?
Benjamin: Very mixed up and I love it. Very multi-cultural. Very beautiful. It doesn't feel like London. I guess I would compare it to one of the boroughs in New York—in terms of the energy.
Kristen: Is that near where you filmed the video for “Tilikum”?
Benjamin: That was filmed on Dartmoor, which is a national park in the south of England. Super beautiful place.
Kristen: Yeah. I was watching it earlier and blown away by the landscape.
Benjamin: Thank you. I'm really into that video.
Kristen: Who came up with that creative concept?
Benjamin: Me and the guys of Mahogany came up with it. Together, we decided we wanted a location that represented the darkness in the song, but also the big, open, natural expanse and hope for the future. We were torn between Dartmoor and the Scottish Isles somewhere, but the Scottish Isles were a bit too fancy, whereas this location was a bit grittier. It was also a bit more humid. We were actually really lucky because it rained all day. I think that added to the video.
Kristen: It's funny how sometimes clouds and rain can actually make for better cinematography and photography.
Benjamin: Yeah, totally. Like Coldplay’s "Yellow" video was originally going to be bright—him walking down the beach—and instead it's him in the rain. It’s a classic video.
Kristen: Speaking of rain, let’s talk about your most recent record After the Rain. It seems as though there's an escapism to the record, but also a sentiment of wanting to go home.
Benjamin: Yeah, 100%. I think I've grown up a lot as a songwriter over the course of four years. I've been able to write what I think is honest, but as you grow up, your idea of honesty changes. Sometimes when you're young, you think the first song you make is the most honest you’ll ever be. Now, I can edit my thoughts a bit more. I think this record is a lot more colorful—dynamically production-wise and songwriting wise—and there's hope for the future in the album. But there’s also a lot of looking to the past as well. A big thing that happened in my life while making it was that I lost my dad. When something like that happens, it affects everything in your life: your anger, your happiness, your sense of self…everything.
Kristen: Yeah, I was actually thinking about that today. I went home to see my parents, and I felt so lucky to still have them here. It's so funny how when you get older, you think that you don't need your parents anymore, or that leaving home will be easier, but I feel like as you grow older, your roots become more important.
Benjamin: 100%. That's such a good way of putting that. I never thought of it like that. Yeah, losing a parent uproots you. You feel like you don't have a home really, and you've got to make your own home.
Kristen: Was your family all living in the same area?
Benjamin: No, my parents broke up when I was 4. My sister and I grew up with my father in York. Then at the age of about 20, I started touring pretty heavily, so I was very rarely home. Then after we lost him, I quit music for a while, basically.
Kristen: Did a part of you regret being away?
Benjamin: Yeah, of course.
Kristen: Did that influence the tone of the record at all, would you say?
Benjamin: Definitely. No one's ever put it like that, but…Yeah, it definitely influenced the tone of the record. Having hindsight's a funny thing, and it definitely gets into your mind and your emotional output. There's a song called "Kicking Roses" on the album, and I'm singing into the mirror. It's about being overly impulsive: [Sings] “Tell me why you're kicking every rose that you come across. Walking like a man, but you've been so lost. And I know that you say that your heart never breaks. Well come on lover, I see through what you say.” I say, “I know your heart never breaks,” but I'm singing to myself. We like to disguise “us” sometimes.
Kristen: Yeah, totally. Interesting that you bring up impulsiveness. Do you mean “impulsive” in terms of just your actions, your thoughts, both?
Benjamin: Yeah. I think sometimes—especially with this lifestyle and touring—you end up throwing things away before you've really thought about it or thought about how lucky you are to have them. I'm a stupid man as well. Sometimes men can just be really fucking stupid. You know what I mean? I felt very aware of that. That's what I mean.
Kristen: Yeah, it makes sense. Is there a song on the record that was a surprise—either for better or worse? Or maybe a song that you ended up throwing away that you were originally planning to include on the record?
Benjamin: There's a song I've got called "All Dressed in White," that I really loved that didn't end up on the album. Our neighbors, who I lived with after dad died, they let me stay there…They've got the discography of all my demos and that. There's like 100 demos. Linda, my neighbor, is always calling me like, "I've been listening to that song on the plane today." She's amazing. There are always things that don't quite make it, but we're also going to release a few new ones pretty soon—within in the next few weeks—that were part of the process of After the Rain, but I didn't feel were quite right for the album.
Kristen: Yeah, what goes into the decision making of what makes it and what doesn’t?
Benjamin: Just instinct.
Benjamin: Yeah, it's plain instinct: What makes the best quality of work and what works together musically, lyrically and sonically? Me and maybe two other people will sit down, on the phone, and talk about it and figure out. Those people might be a producer and manager.
Kristen: Yeah, I imagine the order of the songs is probably heavily debated, too.
Benjamin: Yeah, that's something I'm really keen on getting right. As soon as I wrote "Tilikum," I knew that was I wanted to open the album with and be the first song to come back with.
Benjamin: I felt like sonically it bridged the gap between the first album and the second album, whereas some of the sounds on the second album go more into the electronics and it's more of a production. I think the message is really kind message about hope...I love the message, and I wanted that to set the tone for the record.
Kristen: Yes, and it has one of my favorite lines from the album: “Be my light in the window at home.” I love that.
Benjamin: Thank you so much.
Kristen: If you could give your 21-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Benjamin: Anytime you feel like saying something or doing something, go and sit by yourself for 20 seconds and really think it through before saying it or doing it. That's pretty good advice, right?
Kristen: That actually is. I could benefit from that.
Benjamin: I think we all could.
Kristen: Although, I feel 20 seconds is kind of a short window. I might need more like...
Kristen: Like three days.
Kristen: What’s on your bucket list for this year, aside from using 20 seconds to avoid making impulse decisions?
Benjamin: I want to get to a point where I'm not taking drugs or drinking. I want to be totally clean, which would be amazing. That's something I really want to get to.
Kristen: And ironic that you’re telling this to A Beer with the Band.
Benjamin: There you go. Exclusive.
Kristen: That's great. Is there any reason for that decision?
Benjamin: Just because I'm out doing those things so much on tour, and I feel like I've done enough of them. I've experienced every country around the world pretty much, but I want feel what life and love and family would feel like without those things to affect the course of my actions. I want to be totally accountable for my own actions and thought processes.
Kristen: I think we could all benefit from that. Anything else you want to add?
Benjamin: No, just that I love Chicago and it's very special place to me. I'm very happy to be here and I'm really looking forward to the show.