Benjamin Francis Leftwich has been touched by the music gods. They not only blessed him with a talent for penning and playing beautiful songs, but they also sprinkled in some bonus qualities like humility, grace and gratitude. They added one final ingredient and perhaps the most important when creating a tour de force, they instilled in him a profound love of music. Leftwich lives and breathes music. And you know what? We do too. It soundtracks his life, just like it soundtracks ours. He’ll watch movies and run home to find out what song he just heard. Yep, us too. (For the record, the Welsh lullaby Suo Gan in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun was his first audio/visual slap in the face). He has music idols (Bruce Springsteen), favorite songs (currently anything by Tallest Man on Earth), favorite parts of songs (Phoenix’s Love Like a Sunset when Thomas Mars’ voice comes back in), favorite parts of the part of the song….you get it. Yep, us too. So when we sat down with him a week ago over some beers before his show, we knew right away this interview would be different. This was not going to be your standard question/answer affair, this was going to be an hour (and subsequent hang outs) of sharing stories, swapping bands and geeking out over what we all love most. Yes, music.
If you are new to him, you should know he came out with his first full length album last June, Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm. It’s a very beautiful album, both lyrically and musically. It’s laced with delicate harmonies and has a nice fluidity from start to finish. Wonderfully dreamy and at points dripping with melancholy, Snowstorm also feels very inspiring and hopeful. When we mention this to him, our opinion of his album and how we’ve absorbed it, he lights up. “Thank you, yes I completely agree. Sometimes lazy journalists think that if a record is acoustic and slow it’s like cutting your wrist depressing music. I don’t believe the sound of a record depicts the nature of the feeling.”
We tell him that we find ourselves listening to the record when the sun is setting on the beach or while waking up with a tea in hand. So where does Leftwich listen to it? Or where does he want us to listen to it? “I’d like people perhaps to be on a beach with their friends at night time. I also like the idea of driving down a motorway when it’s raining, maybe at night. I think that’d really be cool…” At this point he puts his beer down and laughs. “But it’s hard for me to really answer that properly because I’d never put on my album and listen to it. I haven’t listened to it in 2 yrs.”
The conversation moves into lyrics or lack thereof. What about a lyric he’s written that he loves? Surely he’s thought to himself “nailed it” after writing something profound, yes? Again, he laughs. ‘Well, I’ve never thought that. Ha, yeah, BOOM! (his finger mockingly hits the table, then a pause) No, but Butterfly Culture and Pictures I really like…especially Pictures. I kinda know what the song is about but there’s still a level of ambiguity that I really like. When I’m listening to music, I love that. I never watch interviews with artists where they explain in detail what the song is about. I like that tension in songs when you’ve got your own idea of it.”
We then delve into the idea that some people connect with lyrics first in a song and others get hooked on the melody. Where does he find himself in the spectrum? “I think the two things are so intertwined. Some of my favorite songs, if I read it as a spoken word poem, I’m not sure I’d be that mad on it. But, when you hear the melody and where it takes you in combination with the way the words land…wow…and Tom Petty is a master of that.” Petty has been on his ipod consistently during the West Coast leg of the tour (along with Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, The Boss and Bon Iver). “You know that song ‘It’ll All Work Out’?..(he sings us a bit of it at the table)…amazing.”
How about lyric-less songs? The instrumental? Leftwich lights up again, excited to go down this alley of thought with us. “You know, music for me is just a big mix of everything in the world, just coming together in those 3 minutes of a song. I love classical music too. I think sometimes as well as the lyrics, the actual melody can tell a story. If there is this major moment (in a song) and then it goes into this minor thing where like the string section gets really dark …and you really don’t know what it means…there’s no lyric… but you know the guy that wrote it was obviously thinking something when he made it up.” We go on to discuss our top instrumentals of all time before ordering another round. Clearly, we’ve got more to cover.
Having mentioned earlier that he hardly ever talks about his own songs meanings, it’s surprising that he’s game to talk about “Shine,” one that lyrically moves us. “That’s one of the ones I feel good about. I’m feeling a cool vibe here and I never really talk about what songs are about but I had a little bit of beer so I can talk now. It’s about a girl I was with…” He goes on to talk about the fast and furious nature of the relationship and then the abrupt ending. Now in looking back, he’s glad he chose respect over ego. “It’s just that vibe of ‘let’s forget all the bullshit.’ A lot of people think all my songs are about girls but that is the only one that’s specifically about a girl.”
The Thong Song comes up. “By Cisco? That’s a great song.” Laughter followed by us requesting that he cover it tonight. Speaking of, what about covers? He has a cool one of Rebellion by Arcade Fire, Atlantic City by Springsteen and When You Were Young by The Killers. In terms of who he’d love to cover him…Phoenix. A band we can all agree is one of the greats of our generation.
We touch upon some highlights from his tour, like playing the Bowery Ballroom in NYC where he was able to pull out the plug on his guitar and play an acoustic set. Or when he ran this competition on fb where they picked a lucky fan to come play for privately in their living room. “I love doing stuff like that. In the UK, when we do festivals, besides playing on stage, my tour manager will meet a fan by the guest area and I’ll go to the tent afterwards and play a couple of tunes for their friends. I prefer doing that. Doing a gig with a big PA is one thing, but I write the songs when I’m sitting on my bed chilling with my guitar so it’s nice to keep doing it like that. It’s a nice feeling.” It’s also nice to hear that he has such a great (unique) relationship with his fans. “I genuinely care. If someone bothers to write to me, I take that as the biggest compliment in the world.” He reflects a minute on some of the letters he’s received, the impact he’s had. He’s being modest but we can tell he’s really helped some people get through tough times. “In general my fans are really cool. We always come out to the merch stand after the gig. We always come and say hi and it’s a nice vibe. I care. If someone has bothered to spend money and driven to see me, I’m going to be there for them. It doesn’t feel like an effort to chill with people.”
At this point his tour manager calls again to urge him to come back to the venue and he still asks for more time with us. We have just gotten to the meat of it all. But alas, he does have a show to play in an hour. We hit upon a new song he’s written that he really likes, discuss the perks of vinyl, the challenges of record labels, the never ending debate of hippos vs elephants (he’s an avid collector and even has an elephant tattoo) and things he’s learned from the tour. All in all he says, “It’s intense but it’s a fucking pleasure to do. It’s good for writing as well because you meet so many people…” Well, we’re glad to have met him for certain.
Leftwich played to a sold out crowd at The Troubadour. A few days later he treated us to an acoustic set at the edge of the stage at The Hotel Cafe. He played favorites ”Box of Stones”, “Atlas Hands”, and “Pictures” off of his debut album. He also played an oldie called “Maps” that was incredible (especially lyrically) and his brand new one “Is That You On That Plane?”. As I’m reminiscing right now, I’m overwhelmed with just how good he really was both nights. It was like the most relaxing massage. If only the venues had given the audience personal hammocks in which to relax and ‘special cigarettes’ to enjoy…that would’ve been heaven.
By Lindsay Colip
Photos By Douglas Heine