Read on for Part 2 of Impact‘s interview with singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich…
How did you start making music?
My dad played the Beatles [and] Nina Simone around the house when I was three years old. At that age you don’t know what it is you like about it. You just feel something from music in a really intrinsic and raw sense. I was always obsessed with it from thereon in really. I remember sitting by the radio waiting for my favourite songs to come on. You had tapes that you put in and switched over so I ripped songs off the radio that I liked and put them on a tape. I’m definitely into songs. Of course there’s something beautiful about how an album works with continuity and flow. Songs individually though, are about how can you move someone lyrically, melodically in say three and a half minutes.
“When you’re young still you can cut out a lot of music because you don’t think it’s cool but actually I think it’s a really good thing to be open minded and be a sponge”
I discovered lots of bands in school. Placebo were my favourite band for a long time! Of course the godfathers and godmothers of my generation of songwriting were people like Damien Rice, Jose Gonzalez, PJ Harvey, Bat for Lashes. My taste in music is always changing and evolving. When you’re young still you can cut out a lot of music because you don’t think it’s cool but actually I think it’s a really good thing to be open minded and be a sponge and let those moments of inspiration come into your creative process instead of just blocking it out.
Yeah, not gonna lie I walked in here and you were listening to hip-hop and I just, I don’t know I wouldn’t have put the two together in my mind.
Haha! Yeah that’s funny! Obviously I can’t relate to a lot of the stories or the language in that kind of music and it’s not language I would choose to necessarily use. However I don’t find it offensive and what I love about it is that it’s a real unfiltered, visceral energy. It’s creative output and it moves me.
I really wish I listened to more hip-hop, I wouldn’t even know where to begin!
Start with Drake’s Take Care. It’s a really beautiful album, I think you’ll like it.
“I think it was the first time, for me anyway, that an artist had broken into mainstream hip-hop and done something that other people would be too scared to do”
What about it do you like?
Well I love how varied it is. Every song has it’s own flavour, character and energy. I love the production, his producer 40 is an amazing artist in his own right and someone I’d really like to work with. And I think it was the first time, for me anyway, that an artist had broken into mainstream hip-hop and done something that other people would be too scared to do, which in essence at points means singing love songs. I obviously sing a lot of love songs and I can definitely relate to him on that level. But just musically:: rhythmically in terms of how it flows and melodically, it’s good. I think you’ll like it. If you don’t then get in touch and say that was a bad recommendation!
“Ultimately love is the one human emotion that everyone carries; whether you’re on the other side of the world in some horrific situation or labelled as a terrorist sympathiser”
So you said you write a lot of love songs. I mean I guess different people have different reasons for doing it, but is it a way for you to understand? A way for you to let go? What sort of things run through your mind?
I just like them. It’s as simple as that. All the best songs of all time are love songs. You can dress them up in other ways. Ultimately love is the one human emotion that everyone carries; whether you’re on the other side of the world in some horrific situation or labelled as a terrorist sympathiser. Everyone is capable of love so I think it’s something everyone can relate to. I write love songs because I feel like writing them. There are different stories in them, referencing those kind of emotions. I get asked if I’m religious all the time because there’s so many references to spirituality and God on the first album, and the second in fact. I can write other kinds of song but a love song to me is quite spacious. I find it totally liberating.
A lot of your songs have been quite personal to you in terms of how you’re feeling, what you’re seeing and what you’re taking in. Do you ever look to make political statements through your songs? Do you ever look to comment on social issues: the environment or race or something you see in the news or on the street?
I feel like other people can attempt that stuff better than I can. I watch and read a lot of documentaries or articles on all those topics. It’s something that I think if and when the time is right it could find its way into a song, but I don’t feel a need to put it in there. At least not very directly and not right now. I mean I have respect for people that do but at the same time I think some people can go into that world and it can come across as being preachy which is not something I would want to do. I’m pretty left wing but I don’t care to force those opinions on other people, or to try and push them into a song for the sake of doing a political song. Bob Dylan is one of my all time favourite artists and he did that [political songs] but he was living in a very turbulent time so those songs worked better at the time.
“I’m so pleased I get to raise my children in a world where artists like that exist, I really am”
From your perspective, why wouldn’t they work now?
Well it could work in the sense that it could move someone but when’s the last time someone did it? (Starts humming ‘Where is the Love’ by The Black Eyed Peas). That is my ideal song because it’s not too preachy. They’re not talking about specific things going on in the economy. They’re just sharing a message of hope and love. Connecting with the human condition through inclusive things like hope and love can sometimes be more politically progressive. Kendrick Lamar is an amazing example of someone who’s putting forward strong messages but at the same time he’s able to do that through an appreciation of pop music. ‘Blacker the Berry’ is very, very, very racial and he sounds so angry when he’s singing it which I love. But he was born in Compton; I was born in Yorkshire. We’ve lived very different lives and credit to him, I’m so pleased I get to raise my children in a world where artists like that exist, I really am. But it’s not me. It’s not what I signed up for and it’s just not my thing right now. Maybe one day it will be.