Benji Totten

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Course Studied: BA Music (Popular)

Year of Graduation: 2015

Top Career Highlights:

  • Playing guitar on a BPI-certified Gold album (Goodbyes, Lost & Found - Jorja Smith)
  • Playing in 5 continents in one year
  • Releasing music through major labels that I’ve produced and co-wrote - it took me a long time to achieve this so I’m really happy it’s starting to take off

Guitarist Benji Totten is an integral part of BRIT Award winner Jorja Smith’s (Best Female Solo Artist) band. This involvement has led to appearances at Glastonbury Festival, alongside international tours in the USA, Canada and South America.

Benji caught up with us to discuss life on the international touring circuit, a unique NPR Tiny Desk performance and his experiences of studying Popular Music at Leeds College of Music.

What was your earliest musical experience?

My earliest musical experience was my first guitar lesson at the age of 6. My teacher at the time, Ray Parton, was already teaching my older brother the guitar and I felt left out, so my dad ended up bringing me in. Ray was such an inspirational teacher who made me feel comfortable and kept the lessons fun and engaging. I was playing old soul tunes at the time and getting used to the fretboard, but even though I was so young and it hurt my fingers to play, I had enough encouragement from my family to keep it up. 

What drew you to Leeds College of Music and the course in BA Popular Music?

My older brother was finishing up his three year course in Popular Music at LCoM. I’d already been up to Leeds a few times and checked the conservatoire out, and thought it was a great city and a great place to study. I also knew a lot of my friends from London would be up in Leeds so I saw it as the best fit for me. 

The course allowed me to build on what I’d been taught from The BRIT School and delve into other aspects of music - such as production and songwriting. 

What was your favourite thing about studying music in Leeds and what did you think of the community at LCoM?

My favourite thing about studying in Leeds would be the city itself. It’s got such a unique, student-run soul to it. I loved the fact it’s not a huge city, so you can get around and see everyone easily. Each area has its own vibe going on, such as the city centre, Hyde Park, etc. which makes it a good playground, socially and creatively. 

I felt the music community at Leeds was small, yet really driven and competitive. I played at a weekly jam night called ‘Subliminal’ regularly, and really connected with the musicians there. Being alongside other likeminded producers and musicians pushed me to try out new things creatively, and open my boundaries more than they were before I came to Leeds.

You’ve built a very successful career as a guitarist and producer since leaving LCoM. How did you establish your connection with Jorja Smith?

I knew the Musical Director of the band, Amane, from my 4 years studying at The BRIT School. When I left Leeds in 2015 I started working in a secondary school in the music department as a Teaching Assistant. After about a year of that I decided it was time to get back involved in the London scene and establish myself. I made a promotional video of myself playing as many styles as I knew how to play, and put it on YouTube. I basically said in the caption ‘if anyone’s got a gig, I’m around. 

Soon after I got a message on Facebook from Amane, saying he was starting a band with Jorja. I knew of ‘Blue Lights’ but at the time she’d never played with a full band, and had a much smaller following. Her rapid success ended up taking us around the world on multiple tours, and I’ve been playing with her ever since!

You have extensive experience working as a session musician. What is the collaborative process like working alongside artists like Jorja Smith and Kali Uchis?

I really believe that establishing a friendship and real solid relationship with an artist is key. Obviously you need to be able to play and be versatile and reliable, but as you spend 95% of your time touring - sitting in dressing rooms or on a tour bus and 5% of your time on stage, it’s key to actually get along with who you’re working with. Your relationship and vibe on stage will always show how close you are in real life.

Jorja, our band and entire team are extremely close as we’ve all shared so many experiences with each other. This makes touring so much more enjoyable as it just feels like you’re going away with your family to provide great memories for a room full of people every night. 

As for the collaborative process, I guess my role is really to make every artist I work with’s life as easy as possible. I like to make sure I have the best quality gear I can get, and that it all works perfectly 100% of the time. Also if I have to rearrange a song for an acoustic performance or write a part for a song, I want to make sure it’s not too intrusive on the original and actually supports the artist, not just shows off my chops as a guitarist. It’s the musician’s job to make sure the artist is as comfortable on stage as possible. 

Your work takes you all over the world – what has been your favourite venue and performance?

There’s been quite a few notable venues and performances over the past few years, and all for different reasons. 

Glastonbury Festival just for the overall experience of Glastonbury - it was one of the best weeks of my life hands down. 

Touring South America was really special. The crowd response was unbelievable. They were so appreciative and really knew how to party. So that was fun!

Also our NPR Tiny Desk performance has got to be up there. We had to be at the NPR office at 9am after quite a big night on the last day of a 6-week long tour. We were all feeling a bit fragile and didn’t really know what to expect of our own performance as we’d been rehearsing it in sound checks quite casually for a week or so beforehand. But it actually turned out to be a pretty flawless show, and one of the most watched Tiny Desk performances of all time. 

What projects do you have lined up for the summer?

Other than more festivals, I write and produce music for a range of artists. I’ve been under management from Sound Collective for just over two years now, and they’ve been building up my name as a producer and songwriter. At the moment I’m trying to write as many songs as I can for as many artists as possible. I’ve had a few cuts this year so I’m just constantly trying to build that up. It’s a long game but definitely a rewarding one. 

What advice would you give to a prospective or current student wanting to study Popular Music?

I’d tell them to be themselves sonically. I know that’s such a cliché thing to say, but I feel like as a session musician or producer, your sound is a brand. And you need to make people want that sound on their record or as part of their live set. I strongly believe in being versatile and catering for as many sounds as possible but I feel that you need to have something unique that people remember when they’re thinking of hiring you. 

Also, try and play as many shows as possible. Not just to get your name and sound out there, but to build up stage presence. It’s such an important thing that only comes from actually being on stage. And it’s a transferable skill that works in the studio. As a producer you want to be able to control a session and keep the energy flowing. Being on stage and captivating an audience is similar to running a session; it’s all about keeping things moving and flowing accordingly. 

But most of all, HAVE FUN. Keep music fun and enjoyable, and put your own expressive mark on it, and it will reward you for the effort you’ve put into it. 

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Learn more about Jorja Smith and her work

Find out more about our BA (Hons) Music (Popular) programme

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Perfect opportunity from the @ASurteesTrust for students and @LCoMAlumni whose work is rooted in, or influenced by,… https://t.co/ZnOnmDxM6Z
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