If you haven’t heard of Benjamin Francis Leftwich, listen up. With this British singer-songwriter’s previously sold-out tours and “hypnotic, ethereal vocals,” you might want to keep your eye (or ear) out for the “Box of Stones” singer in 2016. Luckily for the New York City area, Leftwich is opening his North American tour on Wednesday, July 13 at Mercury Lounge. Good news for him, but bad news for us: the show is sold out, according to Mercury Lounge’s site and Leftwich’s page.
Born in York, England, to South African and Australian parents, the 26-year-old’s first album, “Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm,” peaked on the U.K. charts at No. 35. His sophomore album, “After the Rain,” is due out Aug.19, but you can check out the video for his single “Mayflies” after the interview.
Highway 81 Revisited had the chance to chat with this star on the rise on July 5 before his flight across the pond. Here’s what he had to say:
You’re kicking off your North American tour, but then end up in the U.K. and Europe by the end of September. You have a bulk of show dates listed for European cities. Where would you say your most… I don’t want to say ravenous, but excited fans are from?
(laughs) That’s kind of hard for me to guess. I feel like fans in the States are always more visibly excited at shows and kind of get a bit more into it. It’s weird, you know, ‘cause I’ve been on tour for so long before and I took a lot of time off, so it’s just strange coming back out and I’m playing to more people in places I’ve never been before, like Spain and Norway and places like this. I’m just excited about going everywhere.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get interested in music?
I’ve always fallen in love with music pretty quickly after I’ve heard it. I grew up in a house where my dad was playing The Beatles and Nina Simone. I remember listening to that at 4 or 5, and I think when you’re that young, you don’t really understand what it is that you’re loving, but I guess it’s the melody and the pace of the music – the emotion in it. I’ve always just been obsessed with songs, and I became teenaged, I got more into bands like Placebo, Fleetwood Mac, Interpol, bands like this. And then I went into my singer-songwriter phase where I fell in love with Damien Rice, José González, Ryan Adams, Springsteen, PJ Harvey, Tom Petty and now I listen to hip-hop (laughing), so I’m always just falling in love with music that has an energy and that I connect with, you know? But my instinct whenever I’ve sat down with an instrument, a piano or guitar, is always to create a melody and write songs. My first album, I was… there’s more of a level of ambiguity lyrically than there is to my music now. I’ve definitely come to understand songwriting – the craft, the discipline – so I’ve written more as I’ve experienced more being alive for longer.
How do you approach a song when you’re writing? Do you write every day or do you wait for a moment to hit you?
It depends. Sometimes I go through phases where I wrote every day, but a lot of the time, like you said, that moment hits you and you have that spark of inspiration or an idea or a lyric or a bit of melody comes. Sometimes you get lucky and you get the whole song very quickly, but in general, it’s about re-editing and re-crafting it and trying to stay in love with the bits that mean a lot to you and get rid of the other bits and keep working on it until it feels like a finished thing. I think with most songwriters that’s the hardest bit, you know? The craft bit. I got lucky on my first album. I had my whole life to write it. And it comes to a second album and I got the experience of being at home or being on tour, so the dynamics switches, but I do whatever is right for the song and it’s hard to say where it comes from, but it only comes from a moment or an idea of melody or lyric. But I also think about songwriting as an audio well. Like, “Aw man, what if something really bad happens to me tomorrow? If I wasn’t here anymore will I have gotten down what I want to say and will I have addressed situations in my life I really felt needed addressing,” and invariably as soon as you step out and say you’re finished on the record, you suddenly think (laughing), “Oh no! What about that? Or what about that?” I guess that’s the next album.
You’re already starting on songs for the next album?
Always, always. As soon as I got back from the U.K. tour I had been on, I went to the studio and started a new song called “I am With You,” which is one of my favorite songs I’ve written in a while. I’ve always been creative, but being creative is very different than having a body of work or wanting to share it with the world, especially when you know you’ll be listened to. The two things are very different, but I definitely, for personal reasons, I’ve taken a lot of time off between touring the first album and coming back with this. This time, I’m more in love with music than I’ve ever been, and I’m loving being on tour. I’m grateful, to be honest. I was asleep for a long time. As much as I’m not a new artist, it all feels fresh to me again and loving playing shows and reconnecting.
How did you approach the first album differently than your soon-to-be-released album, “After the Rain”?
I think I thought less about the first album. It came… “naturally” is the wrong word, but there was less consideration in it, and like I said, I had my whole life to write the album. Those were songs I had been collecting for a long time, and I was also very naïve to the whole music industry and the studio at that point – it was the first time I could really spend a long time in the studio. There’s a humanity and a natural, I guess a natural, feeling to the album. It’s hard to replicate again, so I didn’t want to try and replicate it again. I feel like the thought process going into that was… the title kind of says it all, “Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm.” It’s that last moment of not knowing but throwing your soul essentially out onto the world stage, and this time it was more considered in the sense that I think the lyric is much more direct and the message is much more direct on [“After the Rain”]. When I’m singing the songs on this album, I can place geographically or emotionally in my mind exactly the moment I was on the spark in terms of my songwriting sense, where ever that song came from, and that was something that was a more conscious decision on my part.
They’re two really different albums, and I hope to make a third album that is different again. And honest! I think the idea of honesty changes as you grow up, whether you’re a musician or not. When you’re 19, what you think is real and truthful is totally different to how you think about things when you’re 25 or 26. Not to say it’s better or worse, but I like the vulnerability of debut albums from a lot of singer-songwriters. I also like, I think Ryan Adams would be a good example, “Heartbreaker” is impulsive and brutal and romantic. Even “Easy Tiger” is a lot more tight, I guess, in a songwriting sense, but not to say better or worse. They’re different records.
What do you do when you’re not touring? Anything you’re trying to get in before you don’t have time?
(laughing) That’s a good question! No one’s asked me that in like, a year. Eating good food that you can get in London and trying to see friends when possible, but to be honest, I don’t have much time even we don’t have tour dates. I’ve been doing a lot of promos recently and talking to people and meeting people, going around Europe a lot and playing in radio stations and that kind of thing. I’m in music, and there’s not a moment where I don’t love music. I’m not playing in my house, but whenever I’m home and I’ve got a moment, I’m listening to music or catching up on bills or trying to figure out life (laughing). I always said I don’t seen any distinction between personal life and musical life, so when I’m in music mode and touring mode and emotionally engagement with the songs, there’s not a whole lot that happens. I speak to my sister every day on the phone, on text, and same with my mum, but it’s not a whole lot else. Just eating and thinking about the next time I’m playing and I’m feeling grateful.
Is your family still in York?
That’s where I’m from. I lost my dad in 2013, so I moved out of York to North London after that. My sister lives in Australia and my mom lives in London.
Sorry to hear about your dad. My dad was a musician and taught me to love The Beatles and Stevie Wonder…
Oh, what a hero. Amazing!
…and he passed also in 2013.
Sorry to hear that.
Yeah, sorry about your loss, too. You’re first album was already out by then, correct?
Yeah. About 2011.
Did your dad play music?
He played a bit of the piano, but he loved music and he loved singer-songwriters. He was an academic by trade and he was really tight with words and he was always pushing for… he was like, “Man, you should try and get the clearest message possible in your songs,” and that’s definitely an energy that’s stuck with me.
You’re mostly self-taught, having taught yourself guitar at age 13. It must be in your blood.
(laughs) I guess so, yeah. My dad’s mum was a piano teacher, so maybe there’s a link.
If you could play with one musician, dead or alive, if you had your dream gig, who would it be?
Wow. Do you mean play and be on stage and sing with?
Ooo, good question. Bruce Springsteen?
“Nebraska,” his album, is one of my all-time favorite debut albums, and he’s just got such an amazing voice and he’s just such a hero of mine. I’d love to hang out with him and write a song with him. I think it’d be amazing.
Anything else you want people to know?
My new album “After the Rain” is out Aug. 19 and I’m looking forward to playing America lots this year. It’s been too long.