Benjamin Francis Leftwich had a bumpy road to the release of third album ‘Gratitude’. Grappling with addiction and disillusion with the industry and songwriting, the album (out now via Dirty Hit) serves as a personal and professional breakthrough.
As such, it’s a record that screams of new beginnings and eureka moments, not least when he sings “look at the peace I’ve found” a matter of seconds into the album’s opening (and title) track.
With the album out now, we speak to Ben about the creation of the record, how he feels coming out the other side of it, and what comes next now ‘Gratitude’ is out in the world.
Listen to the record in full and read the chat below.
Hey Ben! ‘Gratitude’ seems to have been quite a while in the making - is it a relief to finally be releasing it?
I’m really proud of this record. I think it’s the most honest, beautiful and self-reflective I’ve made so far, and it feels great to finally be releasing it. It’s strange releasing records because I’ve been sitting on it for a while, but to others it’s brand new. I sometimes wonder if artists ever feel fully signed off on a body of work. There are always tiny details or moments which I still think about and consider how they might have been different but overall, I am deeply proud of this record and for the first time in my career so far, I have no reservations sharing it.
The album comes with quite a heavy subject matter - is it a cathartic process for you to get it all out?
Yeah, it really is. People ask me about the difference between my personal life and my musical life and the answer is always that there isn’t one. I think to be writing honestly and clearly about myself is cathartic and it definitely helps me. For a long time, I was out of love with music and myself. To be reconnecting and reengaging with music and song is a deep blessing which I am very grateful for and humbled by. It comes with a weight of sadness sometimes to listen back to songs from 'Gratitude' and remember the moments and people involved in the lyrics and some of the loss. But to be writing about it honestly feels like the right thing to do. I feel like there is an overall spirit of compassion, tolerance, acceptance and surrender in the songs, both to myself and others, and I am grateful for this. When I was younger I toyed with writing from an angry or vindictive place, but it was never right, helpful or honest.
What have you learnt about yourself from the writing and recording of it?
I have learnt that music and song is a gift I am incredibly lucky and privileged to have and be growing with. I have learnt that to let other beautiful women and men in to the creative process on all levels blesses me, the songs and my own journey in music. I have learnt that I am a baby in this game and I always have more to learn and to keep my eyes, ears and heart as wide open as possible. I have learnt that I have many flaws and that to show vulnerability and to feel everything more clearly is what I need to do. I have learnt that I have the most wonderful, artist friendly and wise record label and management with Dirty Hit. I have learnt that I have an amazing opportunity to soundtrack my own life with these songs. I have learnt that I need to stick as close as possible to recovery in my life on the road, in the studio and at home. I have learnt that I am incredibly lucky to have beautiful friends and family who love me, and who I love. I have learnt that it is OK to write lots, but not always write what I consider to be “good” or “valid”.
"There were definitely times in active addiction where I didn’t want to make music and didn’t believe in it."
Was it important for you to share your story through the album, or is it simply natural for you to write down what you’ve gone through in song?
Yes, it was important to write with honesty and clarity. I am really proud of 'Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm' and 'After The Rain', but I feel like there is less ambiguity lyrically on this album, not that clarity in a lyric necessarily makes it “better”. I never wanted to make a “recovery” cliché record, but I definitely feel like I have written about my experience trying to get clean and getting to the point of surrender in a way that feels right to me, in the context of where I am at in my own recovery so far, and in life with no drugs in my system. 90% of the album was written in the run up to getting clean and going to treatment. It’s funny listening back to 'Gratitude' and the 'I Am With You' EP and hearing just how much I was longing for surrender and on certain songs, just how ill I was. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to write a song sober as it’s not something I have ever done, but I wrote 'Look Ma!' the week after coming out of treatment and I think it is one of the most important and beautiful songs on the album. I feel like, as artists, there is this stupid myth that we have to be in pain or cause pain to create “authentically”, but this bullshit comes with a human cost and I don’t believe it to be wholly true. We can observe.
Was there a time when you felt the album might never arrive, or were you always confident it would get there?
There were definitely times in active addiction where I didn’t want to make music and didn’t believe in it. There were also times I didn’t want to be alive. However, I think as soon as we were in the studio and I had engaged in recovery, I was proud of what we were making and fully believed in it. There are long nights, hard moments and self-doubt at points in the recording process, but I think this is only natural and shows passion. And the passion is the fuel for the art.
The album incorporates a bunch more electronic elements than before - were there particular influences at play when you were creating the record that inspired you to add more of these elements?
To be honest this wasn’t really a conscious decision. I think it’s more of a reflection of the music I love and listen to obsessively now. I kind of went into this album with the mindset of whatever is right for the song and is genuine, will be there. Sometimes we would add stuff and then take it away. In live and in the studio my general mindset is less is more, especially in this age where we have SO many options at our disposal with immediate functionality and technology available. It’s easy to get lost in all that and start second guessing ourselves as artists and to start second guessing the audience.
I have always loved a band called The Blue Nile and I think they were a strong reference point for me, maybe subconsciously, in their use of sound as a versatile painting brush to finesse a song. I listen to a wide range of music every day for many hours. Everything from trap, to opera, to classical, to folk, to metal, to mainstream pop. I am at the point where I just like what I like, and I don’t try and pretend to like something to appease my own ego or aesthetic. I am pleased there are so many men and women out there creating freely and beautifully, and my heart breaks for those who don’t have the luck, privilege or opportunity to ever flex that muscle.
You worked with Beatriz Artola among others on the record - is it important for you to try and collaborate with new people at every next step?
It’s funny you ask that. I think I often get stuck in a comfort zone and want to stay there, and I need guidance out of that place! Jamie Oborne (Dirty Hit main man) and I always have this conversation after every record where I’m like, I want to work with them again! And he’s like no Benny, spread the wings. I am deeply grateful for this, as it's helped me to keep evolving and growing as an artist. It was truly amazing to work with Beatriz. She is a sonic wizard and has an amazing ear in all respects with song. She was a pleasure to work with and pushed me in the right ways to get the best out of me. She is probably the hardest working person I have ever met. I worked with lots of amazing artists and producers on this record, Beatriz, Joe Rubel, Lazy H, Josh Grant, Jamie Robertson, Hayley Hutchinson, and many more. I am grateful to have such a gifted network of artists I am lucky enough to call friends.
With ‘Gratitude’ out now, what are your plans moving forward for the rest of 2019?
I start a long UK & Europe tour in March and then into festivals. We have plans for USA & Canada too. I feel like with every campaign we always end up going on the maddest little trips to places we’ve never been, and I love this. Last time we went to Russia and Asia and Portugal for little mini tours which was sick. Also, I'm writing again and am planning to release another record in 2019, which I am already deeply engaged in and proud of.
'Gratitude' is out now via Dirty Hit.