AHEAD of June 18’s release of his fourth album, To Carry A Whale, York singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich discusses life, York, London, music, spiritual recovery, collaborations and the decade since his stellar debut, in conversation with Two Big Egos In A Small Car podcast duo Chalmers & Hutch.
YORK singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich will release his fourth album, To Carry A Whale, on June 18.
The following month will mark the tenth anniversary of his debut, the 100,000-selling Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm, made at the age of 21 when he became the Dirty Hit label’s first signing.
The new album takes its name from Ben revealing it is the first he has written and recorded entirely sober, a state he has maintained since spending 28 days in rehab in January 2018. “To Carry A Whale is an observation on what it’s like to be a sober alcoholic addict a couple of 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.
“My gratitude is my acceptance of that flawed character and the peace that goes with that, and the title acknowledges that.”
Such is Ben’s confessional nature in his song-writing. “I think that’s the deal I made with myself a long time ago. There’s no distinction between my musical life and my personal life and I write with compulsion,” he says.
“I still consider myself a baby [as a writer]. Maybe I should hide, but I don’t. I just kind of choose it; this way of being. It’s what it is. I’ll still answer your questions! I’m not here to hide things: a problem shared is a problem halved.”
Take the song Slipping Through My Fingers: “It’s that feeling of ‘Where did he go?’. ‘Where did she go?’. ‘Where did the time go?’. I think that addicts and alcoholics do have that mindset, very, very intensely, and it’s a painful mindset,” says Ben. “I describe it as a ‘hole in the soul’.
“So, writing such a song is cathartic. Totally. Singing from the heart, sharing my experiences, my hopes, that’s one of the things that keeps me well.”
What has Ben learned in the decade since Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm? “I’d probably say, ‘Speak to people you love about your problems. Don’t try to carry everything’ – and ‘well done on signing to an independent label’,” he decides.
After Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm in 2011, After The Rain in 2016 and Gratitude in 2019, here comes To Carry A Whale, comprising ten tracks led off by lead single Cherry In Tacoma, out now.
The recordings were made over a restless four-month span last year, divided between Ben’s home in Tottenham, London, Urchin Studios in Hackney, a hotel room in Niagara and a Southend studio owned by Ben’s friend Sam Duckworth, alias the musician Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.
Duckworth produced much of the record, sharing production duties with Eg White, noted for his collaborations with Adele, Florence + The Machine and Sam Smith.
Eg White, Ben? How come? “I’ve worked with a producer called Josh Grant for a while, a dear friend of mine, and one day he said, ‘would you like to go over and meet Eg?’. I thought. ‘yeah, I’d love to’, and on that day we wrote Every Time I See A Bird, which is on the new album,” he says.
“Then we worked on Cherry In Tacoma, which I started in America but then hit a wall with it, but then Ed helped to bring it to fruition.”
Ben thrives on co-writing, whether with fellow York songwriter Sam Griffiths, of The Howl & The Hum, or a couple of upcoming days with James Morrison. “It’s great to work with other people,” he reasons.
“Song-writing is a really special thing, a privilege and a responsibility, and it’s something that I love, but it’s good to leave your ego at the door. The song exists above us and we’re here to catch it.
“Occasionally you get an artist that goes it alone, but Kanye West co-writes, Taylor Swift co-writes, Adele co-writes. Ninety five per cent of the time, resistance to collaboration is only fear.”
Ben has relished recording with Sam Duckworth. “It’s really important, when there’s an energy there, you just have to grab it. Sam stayed with me at my place for ages when we were making the album. Some people do that 9 to 5 thing with their song-writing, which I respect, but it’s not my way and it’s not Sam’s way,” he says.
“Sometimes I might be going to bed, and then I’ll playing the guitar, and a song starts developing and you don’t go to bed!”
Just as Ben enjoys working with myriad musicians, so he believes in the need to travel for inspiration. “I’m not into the idea of just staying in any one city. It’s very limiting,” he says. “Early on, sometimes people want to put a belt around you to stop you from travelling, but I say ‘fly’.” Or as Sam Duckworth would urge: Get cape. Wear cape. Fly.
Travel has led to such new compositions as Sydney, 2013, Tired In Niagara and Cherry In Tacoma. “Tacoma is close to the Pacific Ocean, near Seattle, and it’s a place I’ve spent a lot of time; my godmother lives out there and I love to stay there,” Ben says.
As for a different form of travelling, going on tour to play his news songs: “We do have tours pencilled in, and I’d imagine I’ll be announcing them within the next two months.” Watch this space.
Track listing for To Carry A Whale: Cherry In Tacoma; Oh My God Please; Canary In A Coalmine; Tired In Niagara; Every Time I See A Bird; Wide Eyed Wandering Child; Sydney, 2013; Slipping Through My Fingers; Talk To You Now and Full Full Colour.
DO dream it’s over! Let’s hope Crowded House can live up to their name when Neil Finn’s band play Scarborough Open Air Theatre, Britain’s biggest purpose-built outdoor concert arena, next summer as we pin hopes on the Covid vaccination in the months ahead.
Crowded House, largely the family Finn, will be undertaking their first European tour in more than ten years in 2021, heading to the Yorkshire coast on June 8 for their first UK show. Glasgow, Birmingham, Cardiff and London await.
Formed in Melbourne, Australia, in 1985 by New Zealander Neil Finn, they will line up next summer with Finn, fellow founder Nick Seymour, Mitchell Froom and Finn’s sons Liam and Elroy.
Familiar favourites such as Don’t Dream It’s Over, Weather With You, Four Seasons In One Day, Distant Sun and Fall At Your Feet will be bolstered by new material. On October 15, Crowded House released their first single in a decade, Whatever You Want, accompanied by a video directed by Nina Ljeti, starring Mac DeMarco.
Fresh from Finn touring as part of the latest line-up of Fleetwood Mac, he had begun recording a new studio album in Los Angeles in January but once the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed, Finn and co switched to exchanging new songs via online files.
More fruits of those lockdown labours, the album Dreamers Are Waiting, will be released early next year.
Scarborough OAT venue programmer Peter Taylor, of promoters Cuffe and Taylor, says: “When we learned Crowded House were touring Europe, we just knew we had to try and bring them to Scarborough OAT. This is a real coup for the venue and the Yorkshire coast.
“Crowded House are regarded as one of the most influential bands of the past 40 years and their fans are utterly devoted. This will be an incredible show.”
To view Crowded House’s single Whatever You Want, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZggTaHMoQYs&feature=youtu.be