By Daniel Keane
At the beginning of Benjamin Francis Leftwich’s stunning new video for ‘Tilikum’, there is a dark shot of him staring out of the window, facing a distant grey sky, the rain about to fall. Perhaps no image has ever encapsulated the sombre beauty of his music so well: a powerful fusion of both moody desolation and undying hopefulness. Recently, he tragically lost his father to cancer, prompting an extended break from writing and touring. His new album, After The Rain, is set for release in August, and is a meditation on death and hope that – if ‘Tilikum’ is anything to go by- is set to be just as haunting and elegant as his last.
“I’m excited and nervous”, he tells me on a sunny afternoon in mid-April, soon to embark on a three month long mega-tour that begins in the UK and takes him all the way to San Francisco in late July. “I’m proud of the songs, and I’m excited to play them for people. Playing live is a great way to get your songs across in the purest form. I love that intimacy.”
Though his live setup is deliberately minimal, his songs are expansive ambient soundscapes that evoke sprawling landscapes and vast spaces. “I always say to producers: ‘we need to think of it in the headphones’, to have a collection of beautiful sounds covering the song. It’s a way of cutting off the rest of the world.”
This aesthetic of the beauty of desolation is carried through into Leftwich’s lyrics, inspired in part by the nomadic life of the touring singer-songwriter, forever on the road. “Touring was my life for 3 years” he admits. “That world of service stations and Premier Inns and flights. But I don’t see any distinction between my personal life and my job. It inspires the songs and plays a huge part in my life.”
Leftwich, unlike many other artists, in fact finds a comfort in this isolation: it becomes opportunity for meditation. “Loneliness is definitely reflective, and I’m okay with that” he acknowledges. I ask if this is at the core of his new song ‘Tilikum’, with its reference to the “motorway hotel” and the powerful image of the “rose, growing in the cold”. He chuckles. “You’ve cracked the code! Yes. The chorus is full of love, but the verses are definitely more cold.”
This is the element of Leftwich’s music that I enjoy the most: its essential sense of hope and its peculiar ability to capture the strange beauty of melancholy. Leftwich himself offsets his intensity with a sharp self-awareness and a laconic sense of humour. When I ask whether there are any major lyrical preoccupations on the coming album, his response is fantastically sardonic. “Death. Death, and hope.” He pauses briefly. “And a summer barbeque party with a paddling pool and Kanye West DJing the entire thing”.
The story of Leftwich’s rise to fame with his label Dirty Hit Revords is upliftingly authentic. It was in fact the 17 year-old Leftwich’s music which which inspired owner Jamie Oborne to begin the label in the first place. “We were demoing a lot, and there was a lot of labels interested” he recalls. “But Jamie texted me one day and said ‘I’m going to do it, I’m going to set up Dirty Hit. We didn’t release music for 3 years, but Jamie knows exactly when is the right time. I’m so grateful for his guidance. He’s an amazing man.” The label is now home to both some of the UK’s biggest acts, such as Wolf Alice and The 1975, to upcoming stars such as The Japanese House and Marika Hackman. Ben is understandably grateful for the opportunity. “That stuff doesn’t happen by accident. It happens through a genuine love of music”.
Leftwich’s aspirations were clear from an early age, as he absorbed folk, indie, country and classic rock. “When I was 16 and 17 I fell in love with Ryan Adams, PJ Harvey, Placebo, Bloc Party… Dad was always playing early Dylan records in the kitchen, and I loved the purity of the song-writing.” The influence of Ryan Adams, particularly early records like Heartbreaker and Gold, is felt palpably in the emotional rawness of Ben’s lyrics and his sparse, minimal arrangements. He appreciates the impact of American artists on his work. “The songwriting scene in America is amazing, and Canada. The background picture of my phone is a picture of a black bear I saw driving across Canada. Just seeing that stuff alone leads to creative moments.”
Our conversation comes to an unfortunate close, but I am left both inspired and excited for the release of the album. Amongst the myriad of folk artists forced by labels to overproduce and rearrange their music – and lyrics- for the purposes of a Top 40 audience, Leftwich is a beacon of authenticity. In all of his music, he manages to tread the fine line between passion and sentimentality, expression and objectivity; the perpetual challenge of the modern singer-songwriter. When one considers the changes in Leftwich’s life, ‘Tilikum’, alone, is proof that beauty can emerge from the very darkest of places.
Benjamin Francis Leftwich plays the o2 Academy on 23rd April. His album, ‘Before The Rain’, is released on August 19th via Dirty Hit Records. Watch The Video for his New Song ‘Tilikum’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxDOtHVwFEE
(Image Credit: Eva Blue)