One of 2011's most hotly-tipped folk acts is York-bred singer-songwriter Benjamin Francis Leftwich. We sent Will Saunders to London's Borderline to catch up with the man himself before his sold-out headline show.
“Male. Twenty… One.” It’s an inauspicious start to VF’s meeting with Benjamin Francis Leftwich, who takes our request to sum himself up in three words perhaps a little too literally. The snippet, though, perfectly embodies the endearingly earnest and shy offstage demeanour of a young man seemingly both overawed and enthralled at the prospect that his music and growing profile could warrant such a thing as an interview.
Raised in York and nourished by a healthy diet of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Elliot Smith, Leftwich is a self-taught guitarist with years of songwriting and onstage experience that belies his relatively tender age. His entirely acoustic sound wears the Elliot Smith influence on its sleeve, whilst also strongly evoking comparisons with Iron and Wine.
“I like playing acoustic – that’s what I started with and wrote the songs on, so that’s what I’d like to stick with,” Leftwich states when explaining his “organic and natural” philosophy. He describes his live shows as “just me and my guitar playing the songs through,” but this enormously underplays the captivating nature of his performances. Ben’s craft is best revealed when he bravely steps away from the mic and effortlessly captures the rapt attention of a silent audience with two songs performed completely unplugged.
Such skill has certainly led to a raised profile, with current single ‘Pictures’ generating heavy airplay on Radio 1. Leftwich “doesn’t consider it a breakthrough”, and isn’t “bothered about chart positions… only that it’s getting out there through word of mouth.” The capacity crowds that have been filling out intimate venues nationwide certainly indicate that this most old-fashioned of hype generators is working well in his favour.
Indeed, these crowds are the subject Ben discusses with the most animated vigour. He’s keen to distance himself from the incessant shushing that often renders folk shows hushed like a school assembly, and is clearly in tune with his audiences’ responses: “I’m not [a shusher]. If someone’s paid to come and see you, then to tell them to be quiet isn’t cool at all. If you capture them, they’ll be quiet. The sign of a good crowd is one that gives back just as much as you give them, [and] you can see when people are really into it. It’s always a great compliment when someone’s touched by what you do.”
Leftwich wears the badge of singer-songwriter with pride, saying, “It’s what I do so why label myself anything else?” But when conversation turns to his lack of the most traditional of singer-songwriter staples, the beard, he becomes uncharacteristically defiant: “I want to be smooth, you know… I can grow a beard but it’s been done. Who needs a beard? It hinders the vocal mix.”
Already confirmed for Glastonbury Festival, Bestival, Summer Sundae Weekender and Lounge on the Farm, this summer is set to be a busy one for Ben. He cites Lounge on the Farm as a particular favourite due to the “chilled out vibe,” and July will be a return to the venue that saw him make his festival debut as a wide-eyed teen. “I don’t think the set was amazing or anything like that, but I enjoyed it a lot,” he claimed, presumably with the standard line in modest understatement present and correct.
“FML” jokes Leftwich on stage at the end of a wonderfully innocent anecdote involving Pizza Express and a confused rickshaw driver. You can’t help but feel that such fatalism, even with tongue firmly in cheek, won’t be on Ben’s emotional radar for too much longer if his stock continues to rise with such velocity.
The ‘Pictures’ EP by Benjamin Francis Leftwich is available now. Head to benjaminfrancisleftwich.com for more.