Dirty Hit's Benjamin Francis Leftwich talks joy in sobriety ahead of Wedgewood Rooms gig | Interview

Benjamin Francis Leftwich’s career hit the ground at speed.
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He was the first signing to Dirty Hit Records, which was started by his manager as a home for Benjamin and the soon-to-be-massive The 1975.

And in 2011 his debut album Last Smoke Before The Snowstorm cracked the top 40. He was at the forefront of a wave of young men with acoustic guitars and big feelings – Ben Howard, Michael Kiwanuka, James Vincent McMorrow.

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A couple of years later his track Shine was remixed by tropical house king Kygo and it went on to be awarded the curious accolade of ‘most addictive song of 2014’ by Spotify – it was the song that was repeat-played most often that year.

Two more critically acclaimed albums of indie folk followed, and he has amassed more than 500m streams with his heartfelt songs.

But behind the scenes Benjamin was falling into the grips of alcoholism.

In January 2018 he spent 28 days in rehab. He’s been dry ever since and recently marked four years of sobriety.

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Benjamin Francis Leftwich is at The Wedgewood Rooms on March 3, 2022Benjamin Francis Leftwich is at The Wedgewood Rooms on March 3, 2022
Benjamin Francis Leftwich is at The Wedgewood Rooms on March 3, 2022
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His latest album, To Carry A Whale, is the first he’s recorded totally sober, and as he explains, its title is a reflection on that.

‘It’s an observation on what it’s like to be a sober alcoholic addict a couple of years in. A whale is heavy to carry. It’s going to hurt you to carry it.

‘But it’s also beautiful, and it’s a miracle to be able to carry all that at all.’

We spoke shortly before his UK tour in support of the album was finally due to begin – for his first shows since early 2020.

Benjamin Francis Leftwich is at The Wedgewood Rooms on March 3, 2022Benjamin Francis Leftwich is at The Wedgewood Rooms on March 3, 2022
Benjamin Francis Leftwich is at The Wedgewood Rooms on March 3, 2022
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‘We were on a UK tour but we cancelled a few of the shows at the last minute as the pandemic hit.

‘My last show was at Kendal Brewery in the Lake District,’ it was March 14, ‘then we came home and went into lockdown the next week.’

The current 26-date tour was going well – until Benjamin tested positive for Covid, forcing him to reschedule several dates. He was hoping to resume the tour at the end of this week.

When that 2020 tour was pulled, Benjamin had already begun work on what was to become To Carry A Whale.

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‘At that point I had maybe one or two songs for it,’ says the softly-spoken Yorkshireman. ‘There was Tired in Niagara, which I'd recorded in Canada, and I also had Cherry in Tacoma which I'd recorded when I came home from tour.’

So what had been the driving force behind these songs?

‘The catalyst for me, if I have something in my heart that I want to write about, and I feel inspired to pick up the guitar and sing, then I'm going to do it.

‘I know that the moment it's God's purpose for me to write songs, but that may change at some point, and that's okay as well. But I would only ever want to release music that I believe in and that I feel is honest, y’know?’

Being sober was key to the project and helped Benjamin to see the final shape of the album early on.

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‘I was always on stuff, and by doing it that way, it kind of forced my hand. By making it in recovery, one of those things I've been taught in the recovery community is to be fully honest and transparent.

‘I can't hide anywhere.

‘We wrote 20-30 songs for the album, but I already knew that I wanted to call it To Carry a Whale – I wanted it to be 10 songs, I wanted it to be about living with alcoholism and being sober.

‘It allowed us for the road to be narrow and for us to quickly realise, “okay, this works”, or “this doesn't work”, and just follow that.’

With such nakedly autobiographical songs, does he ever worry about putting too much of himself ‘out there?’

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‘I just kind kind of fall into the truth and I've never hid it.

‘Sometimes people ask me, what's the difference between your personal life and my musical life? and my answer is always: not much.

‘For better or worse, I'm open-hearted and open-handed in what I put in my music, and obviously I try not to hurt anyone or throw anyone under the bus, or anything like that, but in terms of my own experiences, that's my mode of communication and release.

‘I don't think of it as a "sober album,” – like singing about recovery and singing about meetings, I think it's quite a spiritual album. It's placed in a lot of real places, Sydney 2013, Niagara, Tacoma in the Pacific Northwest. But it's grounded in surrender, and that's my truth.

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‘I wouldn't be able to tour the world and sing and talk about my music if I wasn't singing about stuff that wasn't real in my heart.’

When asked what made him check into rehab, Benjamin says: ‘It was having nowhere else to turn and really hitting an emotional rock bottom and realising that I had all the praise and success in the world, but I had a hole in my heart and I tried everything.

‘I tried to quit myself for so long and I realised I was powerless, and my own powers were insufficient to get me where I wanted to go.’

Life on the road can be notoriously tough for those in recovery, with temptation everywhere.

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But having already toured America, Europe and the UK since cleaning up, Benjamin says: ‘It's been really beautiful. I think they were probably the best shows I've ever played, I'm lucky.’

And has there been temptation to fall off the wagon?

‘Whether someone's in recovery or not, the hardest time for an artist is always when they get home after a long tour.

‘Then suddenly their crew's not there, and the tour manager's not there, and you're kind of sat by yourself. It's quite a weird thing.

‘When you're touring, you're in such a bubble, it's such a weird way of living and travelling – waking up in a new city all of the time, meeting new people... it's strange when you get home.’

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During lockdown Benjamin lived alone, ‘so it's just me and God. My producer was around sometimes, but most of the time it was just me by myself.’

But the relative solitude of lockdown worked in Benjamin’s favour as he threw himself into making the new album.

‘I wrote and recorded a lot of the songs at home.

‘I'm so lucky that I've got an amazing community which kind of moved online during the pandemic. I'm very lucky that I'm always around other people on a similar path, and I can stay relatively level-headed if I'm willing to surrender and do the work

‘I quite like time by myself and to do my own thing – I'm selfish like that!’ he laughs.

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Talking with Benjamin, it soon becomes clear that conversation is peppered with references to God and a higher power. It seems this is something which has come to the fore in his recovery.

‘I wouldn't say I've always been a spiritual person.

‘I've always been aware that there's some thing that's big and beautiful that I can't quite understand, but I think definitely, turning towards and leaning towards a loving power greater than myself, that was the only thing that worked for me, to stop me from dying. And I had tried everything else.’

Benjamin Francis Leftwich is at The Wedgewood Rooms, Southsea on March 3. Go to wedgewood-rooms.co.uk.

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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