Singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich released his album “After the Rain” in Aug. 2016. He is currently on tour and will be performing at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro on Sunday, Nov. 13. The Chronicle spoke to Leftwich about his songwriting process, his tour and the reasons behind his hiatus.
The Chronicle: How has the tour been so far?
Benjamin Francis Leftwich: It’s been amazing man. We’re only like four days in. I’ve been on tour since March, though, so I’m pretty deep into it. But, its beautiful man. The shows have been amazing. Columbus last night was incredible, and we’re playing Pittsburgh tonight. I love touring here man. It’s an interesting place at the moment.
TC: Yeah, very interesting. So, you’re playing a show on election night?
TC: Oh boy.
BFL: Yeah, right. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
TC: Have there been any standout moments so far from this tour?
BFL: It’s all been amazing. I’ve loved each show. We’re playing places I’ve never been before, like Milwaukee. So, to see people actually coming out to shows and connecting, it’s been really humbling to be honest, man. It’s all been really beautiful. Columbus last night was my favorite show so far, though, I think.
TC: I’d love to talk a little bit about your new album, “After the Rain.” It’s really stellar.
BFL: Thank you so much!
TC: Yeah, so did you have any goals going into the album?
BFL: I wanted to make the most honest album. And I think your idea of honesty changes as you grow up. When you’re twenty years old, you think, “I’m impulsive. Whatever I crave, that’s the best thing, and that’s the way it is.” But now that I’ve grown up a bit and experienced a few more things, my idea of honesty changes. You really start to learn to re-edit your own thoughts and take your time with things and appreciate that songwriting is a craft.
So, I wanted to make the best album possible. I was really open to collaborating with people. Especially Charlie Andrews, who produced the album, he has become one of my best friends. Him and his engineer Brad. Me and those guys spent a few months in the studio working on it.
My goal was also for it to not be the same as the first album. I didn’t want to repeat that. I’m proud of the first album, but songwriting is a progression. I always say this album feels more colorful, you know, in terms of the sonic and phonetic and also the songwriting. The songwriting moments are really bright and visceral.
I’m always like, what if something awful happens to me tomorrow? Will I have said everything I need to say? And, of course, assume a week after finishing the album, you’re always like “Oh, I have something else to say.” But that’s when you make another album.
TC: You talked about songwriting being a progression. What has your songwriting process been like and has it changed over these last few albums?
BFL: One hundred percent. I can’t really remember how a lot of the songs on the first album came to be. You know, you have your whole life, all your time in bands, playing music and playing live to create your first album, as long as you don’t rush it, which unfortunately a lot of people do. And you select this body of work, and it just kind of lands on your lap sometimes. That’s how I feel about the first album. I’m very, very grateful for that, for all the opportunities and luck and privilege and talent that is afforded to me from whatever.
But what I think the main thing that changes is that I think of songwriting as a craft. Like, yeah, we could all sit in a room and write a chorus, but how do we get the best chorus possible in the context of the song? And I don’t mean the pop-iest or the brightest. Whatever is right for the song. Like, why is “Skinny Love” so perfect? Maybe it just landed on his lap. It’s just about what’s right for the song. Sometimes you have to work it a little harder and really dig deep and know that it’s sometimes alright to make mistakes or have days where you’ve tried and not to get to where you want to get.
TC: Was there a certain process you followed on this album as you tried to be more methodical in the songwriting?
BFL: No, man. I think as far as the sparks of the songs, they’re always from spiritual places. You know, they’re about feeling something really intensely. We ultimately write songs because we have to. And I always feel like the first two lines of the opening verse are the easiest ones to get. Sometimes finishing that off is harder.
But I found the process pretty pure. I don’t really have any formula. I like writing in a studio context where I have headphones and we can make sounds quickly and be getting things sounding good pretty fast. I prefer working like that, rather than sitting by myself with a guitar. The first album all came like that. That was all me sitting by myself with a guitar. This time, some of it was, but I did a bit more work with it.
TC: You took a hiatus after your last album, right? Why did you choose to do that?
BFL: There were many reasons. I was so tired out after touring the first album. I started [touring] pretty much two years out of school. I needed a break basically. Things were playing with my head. And then my dad got ill. We ended up losing him. And ultimately, I never thought that music would become my life like this. I feel very grateful for it. But you’ve got to live in the real world sometimes. You have to do good and do bad to give it the respect that it deserves.
TC: I imagine that touring and recording an album can really take a toll on you.
BFL: Yeah, man. But I’m grateful for it. Every time I play a show, I’m like, “I’m so lucky to be doing this.” I love playing music.
TC: “Shine” was named as Spotify’s Most Addicting Song of 2014, and I also feel like I hear your music all over the place nowadays. What did you learn from this quick rise with some of these songs?
BFL: I learned that songwriting is key. I think songs are far above me. I feel like sometimes I’m just…I don’t know what the right word to say is without sounding like a dick…I think songs are just very important, man. And I love all songs. With the internet now and streaming and songs being so accessible, I feel like we’re living in an age where good songwriting is everything. It’s everything.
I’m a lot more open-minded musically than I used to be. All I listened to was hip hop and rap five years ago. And now I’ve been listening to Vince Staples on repeat, you know? He’s one of my favorite artists at the moment. And I don’t know what I’ve learned from Shine being so successful, but I’m definitely very grateful for it. My favorite thing is that it inspired other people to make music. There’s like thousands of people covering it online. They play the song at people’s weddings or people’s funerals. As an artist, that’s the most humbling thing that can happen really.
TC: Absolutely. Has hip-hop and rap inspired you musically? Does it impact your songwriting?
BFL: It has definitely impacted my songwriting and the energy in the songs. The language and stories [in rap music] are unfiltered, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
TC: Do you have any tips for college students hoping to pursue music?
BFL: Be your own boss. Don’t let anyone rush anything. Remember that the internet is an unforgiving place, and if you put stuff up or you do sessions that you’re not happy with, it’s hard to take them down. And people are pretty quick to judge on the internet. And, ultimately, I’d say that happiness is the key to writing. And being smart! And all artists have to be slightly selfish. Not arrogant, but slightly selfish, and really look out for your own music and be smart with your ear and know who to work with and who to trust and remember that there are no qualifications you need to get into this industry. It’s all reputation, songs, and hard work. And luck.
“After the Rain” is out now on Vagrant Records.
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