“I still need to learn when to put a song aside”, Benjamin Francis Leftwich tells Clash, “I am talking about perfectionism in terms of the creative process, but if there was perfectionism, there wouldn’t be anything for the listener or for the creator to kind of get around and explore.”
Words such as creativity, exploration and perfectionism are never distant in the singer-songwriter’s active mind, even when things are bright and healthy on the creative front; musically and lyrically. But as much as productivity and creativity are currently at a peak, he has not at all forgotten how he felt just over a year ago, when the reverse could probably be said.
“At the end of 2017, I was burnt out from two years of touring, which I was very lucky to have done, travelled around this wild and wonderful world. But I was ready to put down all the things that I was using to cope.”
Having spent some much-needed time recovering, enjoying some quieter and less intense times, Benjamin is now finding himself making full use of studio time, writing lots of new material as much as collaborating with other musicians, artists he respects, friends and musicians, whose work he also happens to love.
“Since January I have been writing loads of new songs that I want to make later on this year,” he concedes, “I am not going to pretend that I am constantly being creative with my own music but I just caught away with it and I wrote six really honest songs that I just demoed. When I have a song I can record it on a voice-memo, if that is the vibe, then I know I am onto something good.”
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There seems to be no degree of neurosis on display. Benjamin is not one for pretending, he is not into the idea of faking things or being dis-honest. There continues to be an inspired, personal touch to every project the York-born and bred singer-songwriter gets involved with.
With plenty of intense, emotional depth, deep thinking, self-realisation, and subsequently, seeking help and guidance, what has become clear to Benjamin is this is not only about the creative process he goes through as an artist, it is about being a human being and possessing the ability, and stamina, to deal with whatever problems, or needs, that might appear on the horizon, at any given point in time.
His third album is about to see the light of day. Titled 'Gratitude', it is a smooth, harmonic and hugely satisfying record, packed with variety and mesmeric arrangements, all within a close-to-bursting-point range of proximity. It is a very catchy and poppy record. With such a varied taste in music, loving everything from The Blue Nile and Frightened Rabbit, through to J. Cole, Drake to The 1975, this should come as no surprise.
But inevitably, the new release also signifies something far more intimate and personal; involving a statement that embodies an important message. Contrary to his previous two albums, his message gets communicated with even greater clarity, it is less polarised in terms of its expression. By the singer-songwriter’s own admission, this is a good thing, and he sees it as a sign of progression.
“It feels like it is the least ambiguous record that I have made ever,” he admits, “the word gratitude came from the idea that I am grateful to have been slacked down by problems of my own making at a time and to get to a place where I can surrender and say ‘I can’t do this anymore, I need help’, I am grateful for being able to accept that.”
“Not that I think ambiguity is a bad thing in song-writing, but for the first time I know what every song is about in detail, whereas before, I believed in the songs, they meant something to me, and they meant something to other people but I couldn’t go through the whole album and tell you ‘this is about this reference, or this is about so and so, this reference is about when I was in this person’s house’, but I am just grateful to be able to see things from a clearer view.”
“There is a lyric on the album where I talk about the fact that I can see that I have landed on the ground and it goes, ‘look at all the peace I have found’. It is like waking up and being able to say ‘there is a little bird chirping in the garden, and that’s amazing’, rather than being like, ‘I can’t deal with it, it is 7am, and how can I get this sound out of my head?’”
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Exploring some of the related problems that often come with addiction felt necessary to the singer-songwriter, and he wrote a song called 'Tell Me You Started To Pray'.
“It is about about the first time that someone who loved me, and who I loved has said ‘I started praying for you’ because they could see the kind of chaos I was in”, he reveals, “the kind of damage I am capable of causing when left to my own devices in terms of not being there for people that I love, whether it is family, romantic relationships, friendships or people at the label.”
The album is more outward-looking, it has more diversity and there is a sense of seeing a bigger picture than before. Perhaps, this also does correlate with the impressive range of artists and producers he chose to work this time, including Beatriz Artola, who oversaw things, a collaboration that worked out really well.
“It was amazing to have the opportunity to work with Beatriz. I would present her with a song, she would be like ‘try this’. She is someone, who can tell when stuff isn’t finished, she would say things like ‘show me different ways of getting around this’ but in a creative and musical way. She was really amazing and with so many other people involved that was what we needed. You can imagine this part of the process getting a bit sticky but it was great in the end.”
“She is the only producer I have ever worked with who can’t play an instrument, which is mad because everyone can play usually play the piano or something. But she is really good with structure, very good at speaking with singers. She said, she is no good with beats, but I left the studio for an hour and when I came back she had a beat sorted, it was a really good beat and it was perfect for the song. It was a real pleasure to work with her.”
Being surrounded with some of the best people in the industry is to be cherished and he knows that things are incredibly healthy on that front. He is signed to a good independent label, a label that has an identity, and these things can still make difference to an artist.
“Dirty Hit has been one of the blessings of my life. I feel genuinely incredibly lucky. I have grown in the process and learnt how to communicate better with the people at the label. I have been there pretty much since day one, it was me and a band called Little Comets who were among the first to get signed.
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He is excited about the new material he has been working on, and spending a lot of time with other musicians working on projects means the world. He has an obsession with elephants and his interest in releasing a record where they form part of the main theme, probably makes sense.
“The songs are still in the writing stages,” he reveals, “but I want it to be a six or seven track record about seeing grief without any chemical or spiritual mask. I choose the word elephant because it is like the elephant in the room, something that hasn’t been addressed yet.”
He considers himself to be on an on-going journey of learning, it is never-ending and he wants it that way. There seems to be no trace of arrogance or big ego to be detected, and surely this is a healthy creative position to be in. As a human being and an artist, he continues to start again, when it comes to understanding his own life and his creative possibilities.
“I am not an angel, and I am always learning and being guided by great friends, family and people around me,” he says.
“I feel like I have got energy back, it comes and goes,” he concludes, “I have got a lot to write about again, stuff that I wrote about from a different perspective before. Rarely have I released a song that I don’t like but sometimes I am maybe less proud of a song. I would love to revisit some of those situations and write about them again, from my current perspective, as opposed how I was four, five or seven years ago.”
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'Gratitude' will be released on March 15th.
Words: Susan Hansen
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