NOW living in North London, singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich heads back home tomorrow (25/2/2022) to play The Citadel, his second church gig in York after his sold-out Minster concert in 2019.
The 7.30pm show is part of a 26-date tour from February 1 to March 4, showcasing To Carry A Whale, his fourth album for Dirty Hit Records, released last June.
Recorded over four months in his Tottenham home, at Urchin Studios in Hackney, in a hotel room in Niagara and in a Southend studio owned by Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly’s Sam Duckworth, who shared production duties with Adele collaborator Eg White, it was the first record to be made by Ben entirely sober.
He has maintained that state since spending 28 days in rehab in January 2018, and it is reflected in the album title. “To Carry A Whale is an observation on what it’s like to be a sober alcoholic addict several years in,” he says. “A whale is heavy to carry. It’s gonna hurt you to carry it, but it’s also beautiful, and it’s a miracle to be able to carry all that at all.”
Carry it he does, but Ben is thriving on his creativity at 32. “I’m very lucky to do this, to write songs. I’ve been given a gift and I’m the custodian of it for now,” he says.
At the time of this interview – pre-tour in January – he was in a West Hampstead studio. “I’m working with Jimmy Hogarth and Bonnie Kemplay, a new artist with Dirty Hit,” he said. “We’re just jamming, writing a bit with Jimmy, who’s a legendary producer who’s also worked with Sam Griffiths [Ben’s fellow York songwriter and frontman of The Howl & The Hum].”
Ben is now on the road, playing solo around the country. “That’s been a been a big conversation with my managers and label: should I play with musicians or go it alone – and we decided I’d do it totally solo, with just my tour manager James Kellegher and a sound engineer,” he says.
“I kind of like it this way. It gives me freedom with the set list and logistically it’s easier to tour this way. That’s how my bread is buttered. That’s how I started.”
Add the support acts Elanor Moss and Wounded Bear (alias Josh Finn), and “it will be three musicians singing from the heart and hopefully breaking hearts too,” says Ben.
Expect a few piano-based numbers in an acoustic set where all four albums – 2011’s Top 40 debut Last Smoke Before The Storm, when he was Dirty Hit’s first signing, 2016’s After The Rain, 2019’s Gratitude and last year’s To Carry A Whale – will be represented.
“Of course, I want to do songs from the latest record, but I have four to pick from and I’m under no illusion that people aren’t coming to see me for the songs they first loved,” says Ben. “If I play songs they don’t know, then the line between disrespect and a musician’s right to autonomy is a fine one, but it should always be an opportunity to play new songs.”
Whereas actors and dancers must be disciplined team players, always on time for rehearsals and performances, rock musicians tend to be born out of rejecting rules, codes of conduct and 9 to 5 rituals.
“It’s funny; I’ve got really into musical theatre – randomly but now I love it – and that’s a world where you train hard, you’re on a contract, whereas the life of a musician…you turn up when you want, you might turn up high, you might be drunk; you might cancel the gig if you don’t feel like playing, but that’s why so many great songs have come out of that madness!” says Ben.
“Artists are very difficult to be around. We’re very prideful; we’re a nightmare to be in a relationship with; we want to be the centre of attention.”
Yet, for all the baggage that goes with the outsider’s role, at the same time he feels a calling, a responsibility even, to create songs. “I believe that the songs are above us, to reach for, and if we limit a higher power, a god, when we can pluck magic out of nothing, then we limit the potential for beauty,” says Ben.
“For me, I have so many situations where songs come together in different ways. I think it’s like, ‘I’m not God, I can’t do this on my own’, but sometimes songs land on my lap, like when I was writing my first album on my own out of necessity.
“But so many wonderful songs come out of collaborations, though it takes a long time to be open hearted enough to entertain the thought that my ideas might not be my best just on their own.
“Allowing someone like Sam Duckworth to be the co-captain of the ship gave To Carry A Whale a cohesive energy that really benefited it.”
Artists are sensitive, says Ben, to the point where “sadly it’s no secret that lots of us decide we don’t want to be alive anymore”, as he struggled after his father, University of York politics professor Dr Adrian Leftwich, died from cancer in April 2013.
“It’s hard to explain. Single parents, teachers, are the real rock stars, but we do have things we struggle with, and it’s good to talk about it. There’s a lot of witchcraft around, but the only touchstone to spiritual growth that I’ve experienced is suffering.”
From there, as well as “from above”, come the songs of To Carry A Whale. “It was an honest record; I surrendered to it, I said what I wanted to say, people are discovering it, and I’m really looking forward to playing the songs at The Citadel,” he says.
“I last went there for a religious ceremony when I was at school [he attended Bootham School], so I know it’s a magical place to play.”
Looking to the future, Ben already has a producer lined up for his next album. “It’s half written, but whether it’s a year or ten, it will be finished when it is,” he says. “I’ll colour it in as it goes along.”
Benjamin Francis Leftwich plays The Citadel, Gillygate, York, tomorrow (25/2/2022), supported by Elanor Moss and Wounded Bear, at 7.30pm. Box office: thecrescentyork.com. Also playing The Foundry, Sheffield, tonight; The Parish, Huddersfield, Saturday.