Singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich, 21, from York, is an up-and-coming artist. His sudden rise to fame has occurred partly as a result of the high radio profile of songs including ‘Atlas Hands’ and ‘Box of Stones’. His recently released debut album Last Smoke Before the Snowscreen, produced by Ian Grimble, was recently named Album of the Week on Radio 1 and XFM as well as Album of the Day on BBC 6 Music. This summer saw him performing at festivals including Reading & Leeds, Green Man, iTunes Festival, Bestival, and Glastonbury. Catching up with Ben after this very busy period, I asked which of his recent gigs had been the highlight of his summer.
Glastonbury, Ben replied – a festival he regards as “‘the greatest in the world.” He confessed that playing there was “daunting at first,” but the tent was “really full” for his show and there was “a nice vibe”. He stayed for the whole weekend and also listened to Cold War Kids, Coldplay, the Guillemots, Elbow and Paul Simon. Though his main influences are singer-songwriters (including Kate Bush, Elliot Smith, and Nick Drake), his listening tastes are not restricted to any particular genre. “I love all different types of music,” he told me. “I listen to anything as long as I like the song and it means something to me.” He accepts that tastes can differ, and doesn’t believe there are rules that govern what makes a good song – for example, although he doesn’t like Scouting for Girls, he recognises that there are other points of view which can also be legitimate.
When I interrogated Ben about the song-writing process, he described his approach as largely instinctive. “There’s no real rule or formula to it for me. I just sit with my guitar and jam…and it comes together.” Once a song is written, the alterations are minor, and if something isn’t working, he simply discards it. “I’ll never change it too much,” he told me. “I’ll never force something.” Most of the work, then, is to do with enhancing the sound of the record using different instruments and acoustics – a process Ben is passionate about. In addition to his favourite acoustic guitar, Ben relishes the sonic properties of many different instruments, including harmonium (which was used on his recent album), but is less enthusiastic about electronic instruments, which he described as “not really my thing,” – probably, he agreed, because he prefers his music to sound natural and timeless.
I asked Ben whether he could give us any hints about what he is working on now and what might be on his next album. He didn’t give too much away about his new material, but told me that he is definitely writing a great deal and a vision is gradually coming together. He would like to work with Ian Grimble again, and perhaps also with some different producers. Asked whether there’s anyone else he’d like to collaborate with, he mentioned Mike Skinner of The Streets (who recently did a remix of his song ‘Atlas Hands’). I asked him whether he thought his voice sounded like Chris Martin, a comparison that has been made by critics. He replied with a laugh, “It’s hard for me to say whether there is or there isn’t, but I’d take that as a compliment, I think Chris Martin’s got an amazing voice.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given his performing career, Ben admits that he is rather shy, and sometimes wishes that he could be invisible on stage, and would prefer for people to be able to hear but not see him. “I love performing, but I don’t really like attention. It’s a weird mix.” I asked him whether he would ever use his profile as an artist to campaign for a cause. Yes, he said, he wants to do some shows for Amnesty around Christmas time, because “Amnesty’s a charity I really believe in, and I want to support that as much as possible.” He told me that the best thing about touring life is that “you get to chill a lot and hang out with your friends and see new places” while the worst thing is that “you miss people close to you.” His family and friends, he said, have been very supportive of his career.
The sudden popularity of his music took Ben by surprise; he has said that if it hadn’t taken off, he would probably have studied creative writing. So does he still write, aside from the songs? “I like to write poems sometimes but I don’t think of myself as much of a poet or a storyteller or whatever. Yeah, I do a bit of writing…but nothing too serious.” He still enjoys reading, though, and gives his favourite book asThe Life of Pi, “a story about a guy in a boat with animals” which functions as “a metaphor for a discussion on religion and spirituality.” But he doesn’t have any ambitions to pursue another career. Music is something he wants to do, he says, “for my whole life.”
Benjamin Francis Leftwich performs at the O2 Academy, Oxford on October 18th.