The 31-year-old musician might now live in London but it’s swiftly apparent how much his roots in York – where he was raised by his late father, Adrian, a university professor – still mean to him.
“I have a lot of friends there and a lot of old neighbours,” he says. “Good friends who mainly work in York and the surrounding areas. I don’t have family there but I have people who are spiritual family, basically. I was back there in 2019 for a show at the Minster and I had two days there and I got to see people.
“But there’s ghosts for me there as well,” he adds, softly. “I grew up there with my dad and he’s gone to heaven.”
This week Leftwich releases his fourth album, To Carry a Whale, arguably his most significant since his 2011 debut, Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm, which then drew comparisons with contemporaries such as Damien Rice and Jose Gonzalez. The title alludes to his former addiction to alcohol; he became sober after a spell in rehab in 2018.
With one exception – Tired in Niagara, which was composed in 2019 in a hotel room on the border of the US and Canada – the record was composed in a four-month burst in between lockdowns last year.
“It was the first time in my life where it’s really been quite a concise and focused writing process,” he says. “My friend (Sam Duckworth aka Get Cape.Wear Cape.Fly) produced the album and it was the first time where I had a theme that we stuck militantly to, the theme of living with something heavy, which is where the title comes from. We got rid of a lot of songs that on paper were big songs but just thematically didn’t fit with this idea that I had for a ten-track album called To Carry a Whale.”
In the manner of David Gray’s multi-million-selling album White Ladder, the pair decided to follow a tight narrative arc. “I’ve always wanted to do something where I had the title, I had the song numbers and I had some of the actual song titles themselves before I got into nailing the songs,” Leftwich explains. “I wanted it to be called To Carry a Whale, which is about living with something heavy which is also beautiful, and it really enabled us to be very focused within the creative process and even in the visual aesthetic process with the label after we’d signed off on the masters.
“It was very much ‘this is what I want it to be about’ and it enabled us to be bold and push aside certain songs that I think some people thought I was crazy to not put on there, but they didn’t fit.”
From social media posts, it’s clear how Leftwich values his hard-won sobriety. By 2018, he says he had reached an “emotional rock bottom”. “I’d had lots of so-called success and praise but there was a hole in my heart and I kept breaking the hearts of everyone in my life that I loved,” he says.
“I was in a relationship with a woman who was in recovery and I was breaking her heart. I was sick and tired of anyone who would get near me and ended up being really sad. I just thought ‘something needs to change now’. I’d tried every form of self-reliance and self-will to get clean, which I’d wanted to be for a long time. All my own power absolutely failed me in getting clean and sober, so I needed a new power and I was ready to follow suggestions to get access to that power and grow my relationship with it.”
He remembers the first few days of rehab being “emotionally really quite tricky, wondering do I need to be here, all the kinds of classic denial of an addict or an alcoholic”. “I remember calling loved ones and crying a lot on the phone, I would call my auntie and very people around the world who I was close to.
“But for the most part,” he adds, “there was an amazing sense of camaraderie when you’re in rehab, there’s a sense of a lot of people together in the same boat. You go to meetings together, you have your dinner together, you have to be supervised at all times.
“But it was definitely hard because most people who go through rehab don’t make it, and many of them die soon after coming out. Some of the people I was in there with are dead now, so it was definitely a reminder of the seriousness of this disease.”
Nevertheless, he says, there are times when he really misses the routine. “I think I was 27 or 28 and it was the first time in my adult life where I wasn’t centre of the universe,” he says. “There was no tour manager, there were no venue staff running around, there was no studio assistant getting me everything I wanted, there was no screaming crowds. I wasn’t centre of the universe and I realised that’s what was keeping me sick for so long. I was right in the middle of my life and I failed to control it.”
Leftwich pauses for thought when asked how this period of self-examination had worked its way into his song-writing. “I remember when dad was around I’ve got this love song called Maps, which is 12 years old, it’s really direct lyrically,” he says eventually. “He always used to say, ‘I want to understand what you’re singing about’, which everyone has different opinions on. There’s a classic Travis lyric, ‘What’s a Wonderwall anyway?’ Sometimes it’s really good if songs are direct and clear lyrically, sometimes a bit of give and take is good as well, people make their own story out of it.
“I definitely felt I had done for ten years the kind of feel-based songwriting, and as I was going into rehab and a few months before and after as well, I was spending a lot of time in America and I started listening to a lot of country music. I fell in love with it, even the cheesy stuff, Don’t Take the Girl by Tim McGraw would be a good example, straight to the point.
“One of the ways I stayed sober was following suggestions that deflate my ego and fear. Sometimes the scariest thing that someone could do – and a lot of young artists have this – is to tell a story directly as it happened and mention all the specific places, the colours, the cities, the smells, the names even, and on To Carry a Whale, which is the first album written in that space, I know what every song is about, this my story, I want to tell it so maybe it will help someone else. It’s helped my songwriting in a way I’m less fearful, I’m not as scared of singing ‘I love you’ if I need to.”
To Carry a Whale is out on Friday June 18. Benjamin Francis Leftwich plays at Sheffield Foundry on February 24, 2022, York City Church on February 25 and The Parish, Huddersfield on February 26. www.benjaminfrancisleftwich.com