Interview: Benjamin Francis Leftwich

Anna Byrne sits down with the singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich, to talk about touring, writing and the negative aspects of cats

2012 is going to be a good year for Benjamin Francis Leftwich. Ed Sheeran and Ben Howard have forced Britain back in love with young men playing the guitar; being a singer-songwriter isn’t something to cringe at anymore. It’s fine again.

An internet success story of the most relaxed kind, Leftwich is widely known for being disarmingly unassuming and more than a bit surprised by his own success.  Considering the manic speed of some artists’ catapult into mainstream fame, Leftwich has enjoyed a far more natural journey, which certainly makes sense when you meet him. In a typically straightforward explanation, he puts his success down to “just playing music and writing songs. I recorded a lot of songs, put them online, signed to an independent label and stuck with them. My first gigs were to 100 people, then 200, then 500, then 1000, so it’s just kind of grown like that. I feel pretty good about it.” And understandably: so far, so weirdly stress-free. “I try not to think about it too much. I put my stuff online because I’m proud of the songs, because I wanted people to hear them, to listen to them and like them. I’ve been with my management since I was 17, and they set up an independent record label to put stuff out because we were tired of waiting around for other people to do it.”

Having played a long run of solo festival shows last summer, Leftwich is now touring with a full band. “It’s nice to have the band around me. The album is pretty much an acoustic record, but there are bits of percussion on it, so it’s nice to replicate that. It’s wicked to be surrounded by my friends. They’re all amazing musicians and I trust them.”

With an album release, there will inevitably be favourite songs which an audience expects to hear – does he want to try out any new songs? “I do like to play new songs on tour – I’m playing one tonight called Manchester Snow – but obviously people tell you, “No Ben, try not to play too many new ones!” But I’m really proud of the new song and we’re hopefully going to record it properly soon.” The intensity of life on the road, however, means that new songs aren’t necessarily all that easy to come by: “It’s hard to find the time, but I tend to feel quite creative when I’m on tour, so when I do get the chance to jam or pick up the guitar, there’s usually some good things happening. I usually record a couple of demos when I’m on tour. I’ll often go back to other, older stuff.”

Despite his seemingly effortless progression from guitar-playing teenager to widely-acclaimed artist, Leftwich is quick to bat away any references to himself as successful: “Not successful, no. I see myself as doing well, playing good shows, and I’m lucky enough that people come to the gigs. I felt successful when I was 16 and I started playing guitar and I realised that I was happy doing this. To me, that’s success. Whether I’m playing to 50 people or 5000 people, I’m happy in what I’m doing. It doesn’t feel like a job where I have to keep getting better. I guess I just feel really blessed to be in this position, but I still feel like my song-writing can develop.”

Having his finger on the pulse of what is out there musically is extremely important: “I pick the bands that come along with us. We’ve been lucky enough to tour with Daughter who came on tour with us for a year. They’re some of my best friends in the world, and they’re amazing musicians. Ned from Monument Valley came along for a while – he was great. I’ve got Spotify so I’m always listening to new music and trying to hear new stuff. I found this amazing band online called Wolf Alice. Nobody’s ever heard of them – I think they’ve got about 6 views on YouTube – but they’re some girls, maybe 20 years old, and they play really chilled out, stoner, acoustic stuff.” And would he ask a completely unknown act to join him on tour? “Yeah, I’d definitely rather ask an unknown band.”

As a 21-year-old who started playing music full-time so young, he is open to what awaits him in the future: “I want to stay creative and music is going pretty well for me right now. I always wanted to travel and see new places, but I’m lucky enough that I get to do that now with music. I’m quite content at the moment. I quite want some new cats this year.” Sorry? “Yeah. I had two but one of them died, unfortunately. Squeak is still alive – the other one was called Bubble. He disappeared for two years and then came back, but he was a bit ill and tired, and refused to eat anything that wasn’t really nice cat food.” Maybe he went somewhere super swish for two years? “Yeah, probably. Maybe he went to Waitrose or something. Cats are a bit like that though aren’t they? I don’t know if it’s arrogance. I think it’s more that they just don’t give a shit.”

Aside from being a great natural talent, Benjamin Francis Leftwich is grounded, artistically exciting and a genuinely nice guy. He’s also brilliant live. My advice? Go to see him play at these smaller venues before it’s too late.

Anna Byrne