Benjamin Francis Leftwich on Songwriting and British Culture

You may already know him from his popular song ‘Atlas Hands,’ currently at almost 1.8 million hits on YouTube, but the best is yet to come from English singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich, whose mesmerizing, breathy vocals and smooth acoustic guitar riffs never fail to captivate a room. His lyrically and melodically powerful music creates an enthralling atmosphere — live or produced, Leftwich’s music has a way of charming any one who hears it. At age 23, he already has a collection of relatable, enchanting songs and we can only expect more in the future.

I sat down with Ben before his show at World Café Live in February and learned about how he creates his enchanting songs as well as interesting facts about his homeland and some cultural differences.

S: How did you get your start in music?

BFL: I’ve always loved listening to music, as young as I can remember. I remember listening to the radio and liking stuff. Not necessarily understanding why I liked it but I liked melody, sound, and rhythm. I’m a big music fan and whenever I get a spare second I am listening to music that I like and new music. I wanted to try and play music as well.

S: Did you start singing or playing guitar first?

BFL: My instinct when I pick up a guitar is to always try and write something new so I’ve always kind of jammed along and sang a little bit. So, I guess guitar. I always thought I could be better at guitar than I could be at singing but now I see it the other way. I don’t feel like a good guitarist and I don’t feel like I want to be a good guitarist but I feel like its hard for me to be able to write songs without it.

S: You are basically getting to live the dream of every singer/songwriter, getting to tour around and play your songs to people who love them all over the world. What do think that helped you become this successful?

BFL: I think by writing songs that connect with people. People can talk about like a lucky break or a moment in time and of course there are those things that can help but if people didn’t like the songs, they wouldn’t buy a ticket to a show. So, I kind of see it that simply. I feel like I can do a load better. I don’t think my songs are the best in the world but I don’t think they are the worst in the world either. I think by constantly touring for the past couple of years and never taking time off to have a break. I’ll play every show that’s offered to me. I’ll try never to cancel any shows. I think I canceled 2 shows in the past 3 years. I will always try and play guitar when I’ve got a spare moment. I will always try and do my best, no matter if there is a million people at a gig or 1 person at a gig.

S: You never really had a breakthrough moment?

BFL: I think that some people assume that getting signed, getting a record deal, or getting a publishing deal is a moment. But, that’s kind of the easy part. You still have to write the songs and you still have to tour the songs. I think there have been moments with my writing where I’ve had a night where I’ve written a couple of songs in a night that I’m really proud of. I’m still progressing, still touring. I’m lucky enough at home to play big shows. It’s kind of different here, and I like that though.

S: You’ve talked about how important songwriting is for you. What begins a song for you?

BFL: Sometimes a song happens by itself. It makes sense to me afterwards. Sometimes I’ll sit down with an idea or a message of how I want to write and the story that I want to tell. There is no real rule. It’s always different.

S: Could you run us through a sample songwriting situation? How does it start and do you ever know when it’s finished?

BFL: No, that is always hard. You just want to keep going and keep going back to things. I will sit down with a riff of sorts and try and find a melody, try to find something that I want to write a song about. This morning I decided I wanted to write a song called “Was It a Dream?” about something that happened a long time ago. It was really important to you but it was so long ago that it could actually be a dream. I just kind of go and flow with it.

S: How long will that process normally take or does it vary?

BFL: It completely depends. Sometimes I’ll write it all first or second time through. Sometimes I’ll have a riff for like a year or two. I’ve got a riff that I’ve had for soooo long. I know I could fit something to it but I know that I need to wait for it to happen and for it to be good as opposed to rushing and singing about milk or something. You know you could do it and finish and get to the end of something. You want it to be good and you want to be able to say this is the absolute best it could be.

S: What is the most important part of a song for you?

BFL: I attach equal importance to melody and lyrics.

S: You’re main instrument is obviously guitar. Have you tried writing songs on other instruments?

BFL: I guess whenever I’ve been in a studio and there has been a bass. If I haven’t got a guitar handy, I’ll play on it. If there is anything that I can pick out, even just one note on a piano. I suck at piano but just to figure something out, I’ll try.

S: A lot of your lyrics involve nature imagery, do you connect specifically with nature or is just a coincidence?

BFL: Where I was born and where I’ve grown up is a beautiful part of the world, like Yorkshire. The countryside is amazing. People travel from all over the world to come and visit. The town itself is beautiful as well. I think subconsciously that’s always crept in. The reason there is so much reference to nature in the songs is because it’s something that I know from experience and because I’ve grown up around it.

S: What song are you most proud of on In the Open?

BFL: “Is That You On That Plane,” I actually wrote it in Sydney on a beach called Avalon. I just really love the message of it. I remember exactly what I was thinking when I wrote it. I really like the production on it. I played a bit of electric guitar on it, which was a nice change.

S: I think that you really feel that one the most while playing it on the EP.

BFL: I agree. There’s just something about it. I’m dead proud of the other ones. Without meaning to sound arrogant, I’m dead proud of that one though, and I think it’s great. I don’t play it live much but when I do, if the moment is right, it’s a cool moment.

S: Do you think your sound has changed a lot from your last album?

BFL: I wouldn’t say it’s changed a lot. My rule is to always do what’s right for the songs. Acoustic guitar will always be my main instrument. My voice changes as I grow. The way I play guitar changes. I worked with a different producer on the last EP. But I wouldn’t say it has changed. I think the songs are different but that’s not something I worry about. People don’t listen to my stuff to pick apart the sonics of it. They listen to it to grab a song that they really get here or there.

S: Our issue is all about the British invasion this time around. What is something from English culture that has come to America that you think shouldn’t have?

BFL: Do you have Made in Chelsea here?

S: I don’t think so.

BFL: That should probably not have come over here. I was on the soundtrack to that by the way. So, I’m a hypocrite.

S: Is there something that America should have from British culture that we don’t have?

BFL: Normal pancakes. Flat, thin pancakes. Not fluffy ones. You can fold them up nicely.

S: Are there any English bands that haven’t come to America yet that you would recommend?

BFL: Lots of Irish stuff actually. Fionn Regan, Foy Vance, Bap Kennedy, The Staves. I think they’ll come over here pretty soon.

His show at the intimate upstairs portion of was a new experience for him, as he had never played a venue where he was so close and connected with the audience. He often stepped away from the microphone and gave the audience a chance to hear his music in its most natural form. With interspersed moments of his English humor, he kept the crowd on the edge of their seats all night during his set of carefully selected songs. Getting to hear his signature vocals live was a delightful experience.

With a packed touring and production schedule all the way through summer, Leftwich is as dedicated as ever to his music. “Sometime in the future of the world” we will be graced with some of his new music. He ensured me that he will only release it when its right: “If one person falls in love with the next thing I do, or 100,000 people fall in love with it, I’ll be happy if I’m proud of it.”


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