Benjamin Clementine

[Interview by Simon Price / Photography by Shawn Dogimont / Styling by Mélina Brossard]

Hobo #17 – London, March 2015. “Home”, according to Benjamin Clementine, “is just a concept.” A sense of unbelonging is central to the 26-year-old’s art. The youngest of seven siblings, born in Ghana but raised in the tough North London suburb of Edmonton by strict Christian parents, the softly-spoken and shy Clementine spent his teens keeping his head down to avoid trouble, while secretly teaching himself piano in his bedroom.

At the age of twenty, disillusioned with London life, he absconded to Paris without a euro to his name, sometimes sleeping rough, and busking on the Metro to survive, as well as washing dishes in the city’s hotels like his hero Orwell before him (a coincidence Clementine didn’t discover till later). The time spent singing other people’s songs – a bit of Leonard Cohen, some Bob Marley, a few French numbers by Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré (even though Benjamin doesn’t speak the language) – to commuters on Ligne 2, between Nation and Porte Dauphine, honed his performing skills and instilled the confidence to effectively stand naked in front of the world. After a couple of years travelling around France, he made the right contacts to allow him to put out two EPs, and has now released his debut album “At Least For Now” via Barclay, the legendary label of Brel himself.

With his high cheekbones, a shock of upswept hair reminiscent of the young Chuck Berry, his trademark overcoat and his habit of going barefoot, he’s an immediately striking presence and a photographer’s dream (it’s no surprise to learn that he once earned money from modelling). But it is his extraordinary music, stark and startling, which has won him the most attention. His style – for which he has invented a word, ‘Benimalism’ – is invariably compared to Nina Simone and Antony And The Johnsons (one of a handful of influences he cites, along with Jake Thackray, Jimi Hendrix, Erik Satie, operatic tenors like Luciano Pavarotti and the English folk tradition as preserved by Cecil Sharp).

Notable admirers include Paul McCartney (who told him he was “amazing” after a performance of his breakout song “Cornerstone” on BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland) and Bjork (who picked him to play at the Wilderness festival). In France he’s already a star, and things are beginning to happen for him elsewhere, including – importantly, for Clementine –  the United Kingdom.

‘Home’, on the day we meet, is swish Shepherds Bush hotel K West, a celebrity stopover (it’s Prince’s temporary residence when he’s in the UK), where his main form of company is his bedside reading: a doorstep-thick collection of composer Benjamin Britten’s correspondence, Letters From A Life. But home, as he states, is merely notional. Benjamin Clementine has the air of an alien, in both senses: The Man Who Fell to Earth sense, and that of being alienated, a permanent stranger in any crowd. And yet, his music is profoundly human, powerfully expressing such universal emotions as betrayal, abandonment and loneliness. Which is where we shall begin.

Simon Price — Are you a natural loner?
Benjamin Clementine — I think another name for God is ‘solitude’. For example, it’s by being alone that a woman can find some sort of self-esteem, and bounce back again. It’s by being alone that an artist becomes an artist. The realm of solitude is an artist’s home. You’ve got to be alone. To pay attention, to redefine what you’re trying to define. There’s an extra sort of awareness when you’re alone. When you’re with someone, that’s great, but I believe you miss something sometimes. Sometimes you waste your time, when you’re not-alone. I’ve been single for a while now, and if I wasn’t, I would only hurt somebody because I’m so used to being on my own. Maybe in the future I’ll open up more, and I’m not totally adoring or praising solitude, but it means a lot to me.

— Does that solitude become more difficult to maintain, as you become more successful?
— It’s easier. Because the more success you get, the less you can trust people. The more you keep your little team around you, and the more you’re aware and questioning the motives of others. And you freak out a little, too. Because the only people I have are my family, and I love my brothers, but… they have wives and children, so they don’t see me much.

— Are they pleased that you’re doing well?
— I think so. Man is very proud. Maybe it’ll take them a little time to realise what I’ve achieved. But even if they don’t, that’s life. We all beg for attention, and if I’m not getting their attention, that’s alright. When I came back to London I saw one of my brothers, and I think he was very proud of me. He didn’t say it, but I could tell.

— You mention freakouts. What form do they take?
— Um… I’m more famous in France than I am in England, and I do really freak out sometimes in Paris. I get recognised a lot, especially in my neighbourhood, the 10th arrondissement. You go into a restaurant and they play your music as soon as you enter. And I like to be polite, so I can’t really get angry.

— Do you see At Least For Now as just the first installment in a long-term career, or have you put absolutely everything you’ve got into it?
— The former. I’ve actually planned what I want to put out, and when. I don’t just want to get popular. I want to cement myself.

­— Writer’s block is never a problem, then. The songs just pour out of you…
— I like to think so. I’ve got quite a lot to say.

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— Even when you’re writing in the third person, there’s a sense that this album is autobiographical.
— I disagree. Of course it’s inspired by my life, but I’m talking about human beings. I’m talking about loneliness. It’s human behaviour. And I’m addressing it to anyone out there who’s struggling.

— Your song “Edmonton” is clearly about your real experiences. What was life like there, as a teenager?
— I remember one pathway that was really scary. My mother would go the long way around to avoid it. But I walked down it. Every time, I saw a guy with a gun or a knife, but nothing happened to me. They found me quite weird, maybe. I dressed in suits, and nobody else did that. I even wore a suit to go to the corner shop. I was too strange for them to even talk to me. And they knew I wasn’t a rich man, there was nothing I had that they wanted to take. But one day when I was thirteen, I took a walk to Ponders End after school, and I met two guys, gang members, who asked “Whereabouts are you from? Which end are you from?” I was shocked, cos I knew what they were asking me. Luckily for me, the bus came, the doors opened, and I literally walked backwards into the bus, and the doors shut on them. And I started writing that song.

— Has the fact that your unusual upbringing sheltered you from most pop music, and that you’re a self-taught musician, helped you to avoid cliché in your work?
— Exactly. I’m very lucky to not have followed what was happening in my youth. People around me were listening to hip hop, and pop music that was as cheap as they come, but I didn’t really hear pop except for what people sang at school. I didn’t really talk to anyone. I just sat in my room and played the electric piano, which belonged to my elder brother, and every time my parents walked in, I’d pretend I was reading. I was scared, because obviously parents will always want you to be successful and get a normal income. And I had to respect that, but I also had to find a way to do what I wanted to be doing. And because my parents wouldn’t have paid for me to go to lessons – they’d see it as a waste of money and would rather get me a maths tutor – I had no choice but to teach myself. So I’d go to the internet and find some chords. I Googled a station called Whisperings: Solo Piano Radio. I heard Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopaedies and just thought, wow. I just pressed a note, and started trying my luck.

— The structures of your songs don’t follow a simple meter of three or four beats to the bar. There’s a fluidity that has more in common with Romantic composers such as Chopin than with contemporary pop.
— Well, these guys are my idols! They are amazing. But I don’t want to believe that I’m the only guy living who likes that stuff. I want to think there are loads of artists out there, who aren’t winning Brit Awards but who are doing something interesting. Well, everything is interesting in some way: even those guys who don’t write their own songs, maybe their performance or their charisma is interesting. But there are artists out there who deserve more recognition. If you look at Laura Marling for example, obviously she’s recognised, but I don’t think she’s recognised enough. Marling is our Joni Mitchell, maybe. FKA Twigs is more creative than anyone right now, even if she isn’t my cup of tea. She might not be avant-garde, whatever avant-garde is: it’s just a cliched name associated with artists we can’t really understand. But I’m just here to enlighten the younger ones, even though I’m nowhere yet. I just want young people to be inspired. I want them to realise that they can do so much, with so little.

— The term ‘singer-songwriter’ is a loaded, poisonous one nowadays. Do you feel any kinship with other singer-songwriters?
— I don’t see myself as a singer-songwriter. I don’t know what that means, to be honest. I mean, who isn’t a singer-songwriter? I get your question, and I like Leonard Cohen, obviously. He’s a legend. But…

— Nowadays ‘singer-songwriter’ has come to mean homogenous young men and women, usually from quite privileged backgrounds, playing dull navel-gazing songs on acoustic guitars.
— Exactly. I am not from a privileged background. Even though people assume, from the way I speak and the way I conduct myself, that I might be the son of a diplomat or something. But my father wasn’t a rich man, at all. The thing is, quite often, people from working class families don’t know a way of bringing out their art that isn’t clichéd. The reason I sound original is that I haven’t followed the way that people in my place, Edmonton, would want to represent themselves. They’d either be doing R&B, or hip hop, or pop. Actually, most of them are pregnant and receiving benefits. So that inspires me, to not be like that. And I’m not just talking about North London. South London as well, Clapham, Lewisham, anywhere like that. So I’m lucky to have discovered William Blake, and philosophers like Immanuel Kant, even though when I was younger, I didn’t really understand a word of what I was reading. These guys were crazy. My older brother really helped me a lot, and pushed me to read.

— Your songs are so rich with allusions and references. Words are obviously your forte.
— I consider myself a writer. I express myself with words. I don’t think I’m a good singer. In fact I don’t even consider myself a singer. I consider myself an Expressionist. I’m not singing, I’m speaking. I’m not forging it. With singers, you’re talking about people like Michael Jackson or Pavarotti. With me, it’s more of an expression. It’s a mixture of emotions, honesty, frustration… and it’s why I don’t sound like Beyonce, it’s why I don’t sound like Ne-Yo, it’s why I don’t sound like James Blake or Adele. I’m getting to the stage – and I’m almost there – where I can do whatever I want.

— The way you’ll suddenly switch from singing into shouting, or making unusual noises, even laughing, throws people off balance.
— [laughs] I can’t see their faces when I’m singing…

— But when you were busking you could. Did you frighten people, do you think?
— [laughs] I sang with all my strength, and I never used a microphone when I was busking, because holding a microphone is when it becomes work. But no, I was mostly doing cover versions at that point, and I was smiling. Because I needed to eat, so obviously I didn’t want to scare them!

— So when you’re driven to sing by economic necessity, it affects your approach?
— Yeah, I had no choice. But I realised that actually, they’re the ones that need me. Not the other way around. They gave me money, so I could eat. But I’m also creating something here that some people need and want. They liked a guy from England trying to sing in French – they appreciated the effort.

— Can you still picture the very first time you busked?
— So… I went to Montmartre and, stupid me, I had a bag of spaghetti – raw spaghetti I’m talking about, not tinned – and some shoes and clothes and other stuff, and I thought… “What the hell? You thought you’d come to Paris and live in a mansion? And have a cooker and a shower?” I felt so stupid. So I dumped my things, put on a Kangol hat my brother had given me a couple of years earlier – he might have stolen it, actually – and wandered around for fifteen minutes. I went to the Place de Clichy, the first Metro station I saw. I hesitated for a little bit, then walked down through the corridor, and stood right next to the exit. It was winter, and snowy, so I could feel a cold breeze coming from the left, and warmth from the right, because the Metro is very warm. Every five minutes, there was a rush of people coming past, so I put my hat down, and started singing a cappella. Not even a guitar. I didn’t know what to expect, really. I didn’t know what I was doing.

— And how about the final time? Were you aware of it being the final time?
— No. I just got confused, again and again. Because I was playing next to the Cannes Film Festival, or another film festival in Normandy, and I’d see actors like Vanessa Paradis, or Christophe Lambert, and I’d play “Cornerstone” on the piano, and they’d come up and praise me… and the next day, I’d be back to singing on the Metro. And people on the Metro would say “Good luck”. And I thought “If only they saw me yesterday!” But it taught me that however big you might get, you can always go back to square one. It gave me the luxury of understanding what life was really about. When I’m on stage, I still think I’m singing to the same people I was singing to on the train. People who come to my concerts, they still take the train. They’re not billionaires with executive cars, and drivers to pick them up. When I play in Paris, they could literally be the same people from the Metro. That’s what I like about it.

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— What was the lowest point?
— At one point I thought the world was not a place for me. You know? I’m not saying death was an option, but… it was close. I was pretty much being fooled by my demons. But I was wrong, because there is room for everything, and there are people out there who hear me and take heed.

— What’s your concept of success now?
— I’m not interested in success. I’m excited about the possibility of making more music. But I just want people to… ‘feel’ me. I think success, for me, is when I had nothing, and I fought hard to have something… that was pretty much nothing in any case. I value nothing more than all the things around me now. This is my success. Not a lot of people can achieve this understanding, or get to the position I got to, five or six years ago. But, this attention that I’m getting will make me create more of my vision for the future, and that will be success, for me. Those are my two definitions.

The privately-educated rich kids who win Brit Awards when they’ve barely begun their careers will never understand that first step you made. They skipped it.
— I’m not sure. I know what you mean, certainly, if they’ve been to private school. Some people ask me, “Why do you sing for rich people?” But firstly, my music is not for rich people, and also, I think “Where were ya? If it wasn’t for rich people – some rich people, anyway – do you think you’d have discovered me?” We’re all human beings. It’s an argument that just isn’t viable. Some rich people find a way to live better, because they find out that money won’t make you happy, so they might even appreciate truth more than poorer ones. When Christopher Bailey invited me to perform for a Burberry show, which is a question people ask me all the time, I met the man and he was amazing. He talked to me, and I totally forgot that he was a millionaire/billionaire. Of course it’s a paradox, someone like me singing there, but all the other fashion designers who aren’t as big as Burberry, whether it’s Ozwald Boateng or whoever, they showed no interest in me but Burberry did. Even radio didn’t pick me up.

— In another interview recently, you said “I know I’m weird… but come on!” Do you think your unusual style is an obstacle, for some people?
— We’re quite closed-minded in England. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. No-one else would start their album with “Never in the field of human attention had so much been given for so little attention”. Or in ‘Quiver A Little’, when I start laughing, who does that? Maybe Noel Coward will joke and say something a little stupid, or Jake Thackray will talk about a woman’s bottom, but that isn’t weird. That’s just humour. Plus the fact that I am from Edmonton and, excuse me for saying it, but I am of this colour… and I am not singing about women taking off their clothes. So it is weird and it is strange… but come on! [laughs] Give it a chance, you know what I mean? I might sound like I’m begging, but we’re all beggars. We all beg for attention in life. When we’re babies, we cry for months.

— On the subject of colour, have you experienced any racism in the music industry?
— No. I’m trying to think of anything, but… I guess, cos I don’t really have much of a relationship with other musicians, I haven’t heard their stories. There might be, but I think we should be more clever than that, and leave ignorance to the ignorant. If we’re talking about life in general, some people say Parisians are racists, or you think about racism in America with all the shootings, or what’s going on in Syria, these people, they are racists… but where doesn’t it happen? I like to think that my music is more powerful than what anyone could say about my colour. And my music isn’t about colour. It’s about the human being. I’ve met so many people of different colours and races who have pretty much said the same thing: “Thank you, it touched me”. We fight so hard to see our differences, when we could just laugh at our similarities.

— In the song “Then I Heard A Bachelor’s Cry” you sing “I know God created me beautifully”. Let’s unpack that. You’re aware of your beauty, and you believe it was God who made you?
— In the context of that song, the next line says that beauty kills. It’s one of those phrases that comes out naturally. I’m talking about what God has created, which includes death. And the fact that beauty kills shows that nothing is perfect. And imperfections are beautiful, too…

— Have certain Christian beliefs stayed with you from childhood, then?
— When I was younger, I read the Bible every Sunday. It’s the reason I was drawn to William Blake, maybe. He talks like he was the second Jesus or something, with the visions that he had. Obviously he was seen as a mad man in his time, by his peers. When I became a young man and started living alone, I started seeing things differently. The church I used to go to, I totally left. But I’ve always believed there was someone with me, since my grandmother passed away. This woman showed me love that I think no-one else might ever show me. With God, and Christianity, a lot of people are scared to go deeper. But life puts you in a place where, one day, you will ask vital questions. And you might find answers and you might not. Overall, with Christianity, it’s very hard. People don’t really want to talk about religion, with everything that’s going on in the world right now. But each man will decide, in the right place and the right time. And I believe in karma. It’s nothing to do with religion: karma is a force of nature.

— In “Nemesis”, there’s the hilarious line “And if chewing was to show you how much I cared, I’d probably be wearing dentures by now”. Is that the closest you’ll ever come to writing a straightforward love song?
— [laughs] That’s for my third album. “Nemesis” wasn’t meant to be on this album, but other people wanted it on, so I compromised. My third album will be the love album. I used to date a lady who, by coincidence, lived on the same street that I slept on when I was homeless in Paris. And that coincidence inspired me to write that song. I actually wrote a whole play, about my life, and these were the songs. And “Edmonton” was meant to be the first song on the album and “Winston Churchill’s Boy” the last, but we switched it around just because that was too predictable.

— What’s the significance of describing yourself as Winston Churchill’s boy?
Well, come on, you should know I’m quoting his “Never in the field of human conflict” speech. Personally, I think that man could have been anything he wanted to be. I would describe him as a man who didn’t care, and just did what he wanted to do. He’s pretty much one of my idols. I know he was from a quite well-off family and I’m from a working class family, but he had problems too. His father didn’t like him, from what I’ve read. His wife’s name was Clementine, I found out recently. He was an inspirational speaker, certainly: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

— Churchill is a British national icon, and a hero to right-wingers (though not exclusively so). For you, a black man and an immigrant, to call yourself Winston Churchill’s boy is quite a subversive and provocative statement.
Ha! As always, I say that I don’t care. If right-wingers want to come to me, “How can you say you’re Winston Churchill’s boy?”, I’ll sing it against them. And black people might say the same thing: they might rather I called myself Nina Simone’s boy, or Jimi Hednrix’s boy. But I never like to say the obvious thing.