Benjamin Clementine – Interview – 2015

A most extraordinary story reached the end of it's riveting first chapter when Benjamin Clementine was announced as the winner of this year's Mercury Music Prize, for his debut album, the aptly entitled, At Least For Now. Although he had quickly crept up as one of the bookies' favourites it still seemed unlikely until his name was announced by Lauren Laverne live on television, beating off competition in the form of SOAK, Florence & The Machine, Gaz Coombes, Jamie XX, Aphex Twin, Eska, Wolf Alice, C Duncan, Roisin Murphy, Slaves and Ghostpoet.
A notoriously reticent and uncomfortable speaker, the spotlight inevitably shifted to this tall, rangy and young musician of Ghanaian heritage… "I don't know what to say… I'd like to thank music," he said, confirming his desire to focus on his passion, rather than his heritage or troubled background. But, the moment called for more: "I can't believe I have actually won this…" he hesitated. "If there is anyone watching, any child, youngster, student – I never thought I would say this – the world is your oyster. Just go out there and get whatever you want to get."
Poignant words from this idiosyncratic singer, songwriter and pianist. Made the more so by the recent events in Paris, a city where he had spent a few years developing his craft, and where he was 'discovered', and which was now in the forefront of his, and much of the world's, mind. Perhaps suddenly a favourite with the bookies because of the Paris attacks, Clementine became overwhelmed by the sudden realisation of his achievement and how it was intricately wrapped up in his experiences of Parisian life and its people and the tragedy that has just befallen it, Clementine broke down, emotion sketched on his face, completely lost for words. In an act of both solidarity and communal celebration, he then asked all the other prize nominees to come up on the stage to share this moment, going on to dedicate the award to Paris. While the televised ceremony was frustratingly dreary and unimaginative in its production, this moment will live on in the memory. "I know it's about music, but I dedicate this to what happened in Paris." He then composes himself before sitting at the piano to give a particularly emotional and heartfelt rendition of I Won't Complain, a song on his debut EP release, Cornerstone: "It's a wonderful life, it's a wonderful life, traversed in tears from the heavens/My heart is a mellow drum, a mellow drum in fact/Set alight by echoes of pain 24-7,24-7/I dream, I smile, I walk, I cry…" It's not even a song off the winning album, Clementine instead preferring to improvise his choice of songs, as he is won't to do live.
I ask him about his time in Paris and how it transformed his music. “I don’t want to talk about that, I’d rather we talked about the music,” he said to me just a few hours before the Paris attacks that shocked the world. "I feel like my story overshadows my music." I argue that I'm just trying to gain some context, in his own words… " I walked a lot. I did that in Paris a lot, and observed people," he says by way of explanation. "I didn't speak to people much, I was on my own all the time. I was homeless and busking, and living nowhere, living in the streets. I couldn’t speak the language so I had to just get on."
The story goes that in childhood he took to literature from a very early age, devouring poets and writers in large quantities, even bunking off school to do it. And when his oldest brother Joseph (whom he has remained in contact with) brought home a piano to learn himself, Clementine was immediately drawn to it, and quickly developed his own style, much of it inspired by listening to Classic FM. " When I was about 10, my brother brought a keyboard to the house, and he was trying to learn it. Every time he finished I would go on it, trying to imitate what I was hearing. I didn't really know what I doing. I was doing it because I liked it." After his parents divorced he left his Edmonton home (he is the youngest of five siblings) and went to live in Camden, sharing a flat but always struggling to pay the rent. When he finally managed to catch up, he suddenly upped sticks, and moved to Paris in 2010, still not 20 years of age, with next-to-no-money, and nothing but a suitcase filled with uncooked spaghetti. He then begged the driver of the bus to Gatwick to let him on for free, lying that his parents lived in Paris, and were ill. After finding nowhere to stay, he ended up sleeping in doorways in Paris in the depths of winter. After a time living rough, he began busking to earn some money (initially by just singing acapela) and spent the next three years sleeping in hostels across the city, before he was spotted by two French producers on the Métro, who then introduced him to a business mogul and together they set up a label as a vehicle to release his material, culminating in the Cornerstone and Glorious You EPs. After gaining a fair amount of traction in France and Europe, he came over for a spot on Later… with Jools Holland (he still hadn't played a single UK gig at this point). This prompted EMI to sign him only last year, and he decided to make his way back to England, where he is still looking to set up some kind of roots. "I don't really have a home at the moment. I'm living in hotels. But hopefully next year…"
Clementine said he only started dreaming about becoming a professional musician after three years of busking in Paris, initially armed with just a book by George Orwell, and an acoustic guitar, as he recounts in his Winston Churchill's Boy song off the album. People on the streets started giving him encouragement and he began writing his own songs. “I didn’t ever think it would get here, and I didn’t have anyone who could help get me here. In England, no-one had heard of me … I always said, unless England accepts me I’m going to be very sad."
In comments made after the Mercury ceremony he said: “I realised that we are all equal and that it’s all about helping each other and I learned a lot of things from Paris. In Paris I learned to grow up as a man. I am English but I do truly respect Paris, the people of Paris. They love art." Following the attacks he even made his way to the Bataclan (scene of the death of 89 victims) to pay his respects: “I went… for a little bit and then I felt free,” he said. “I felt like a weight had been pulled off my shoulder.”
One thing we can be sure about is his determination to make something of himself. Not only did he teach himself the piano (and other instruments) from an early age, but his adventures in Paris, where he learned to busk in order to buy food, has given him a steely resolve to do what he loves. "I sang on the streets, in the trains, people gave me money, and I saved it to pay for an instrument," he says. His time spent on the streets of Paris helped him to find his own unique voice, and break free from traditional song structure. And it was on the streets that he was talent spotted, his life transformed. "You sacrifice everything. I dedicate all my time to music." And as a self-confessed loner, he's learned to wear it all on his sleeve, and to let the music do most of the talking…. "It's me speaking directly to you," he says. "You can’t fool people… I only tell people what I think about, what inspires me. I do music to tell people my thoughts and opinions about everything. I think my music is getting heard because I believe in what I do, and I am saying some things that are real."
Clementines' emotive, autobiographical and dramatic songs are largely based around his self-taught piano playing, and his from-the-gut, sometimes free-form singing, cumulatively able to communicate his deepest yearnings and self-examinations via an atmospheric musical palette that is almost classical in sound, but primarily based on feel, rather than any orthodox technique. His raw poetry mixes love and hope with rebellion and melancholy, and features alternating rhyming verse with prose monologues. Influenced by the likes of Antony Hegarty (another former Mercury winner), Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Nina Simone, Erik Satie, and a plethora of French singers and writers, he veers from the contemplative to the impulsive, sometimes in one song, taking us on a mini-journey through his thoughts and stories. He is both open and vulnerable when in song, although he takes great care in crafting songs. "Songs are my wings. They're what I use to fly. It's very important for me to put everything in the right place," he has said. Almost completely biographical, much can be learned from his lyrics, for instance on At Least For Now's opening track, Winston Churchill's Boy, a lyric that appropriates parts of Churchill's famous 'Never was so much owed by so many to so few' war-time speech, and resets it to his own life and history, where he has to fight for recognition and respect, most likely from his parents and peers. "Never in the field of human affection/had so much been given for so few attention' he sings in that broad-based tenor. It's perhaps his most 'epic' song, encapsulating everything that matters to him:"Nobody knows what's on the boy's mind/Nobody sees what he's been picturing/We all make a living by what we get/But we make a life by what we give… one day this boy will stand in front of a pulpit/As the world gives him a minute."
And then there's Adios, a three-part song that includes a segued interlude of Clementine just talking, and which means a great deal to him"Adios – that was a weird one, three part songs, different parts," he says, about this song that details his growing maturity, and the realisation that he couldn't hold everyone else responsible for the problems he faced. "We always blame other people when things go wrong… you think family and friends will stay by your side and you realise they never do. But that's life. You go to the shop and you try to ask for a job and they say no, and then you blame society. You keep on blaming. That's a sign of weakness, I've learned… With songs like Adios I will write lyrics, and I will play the piano, and then I'll work them together, but I don't know how it will turn out… I record myself all the time, talking, and one of those recordings was included on Adios,"
He says he's "not a good pianist and not a good singer, and would prefer to be a storyteller, and a writer. Armed with countless dictionaries of quotations that he has collected over the years ("I met up with my brother a couple of weeks ago, and he gave me a book of quotations. Another one, another dictionary!") his songs – and even during the course of this interview – are strewn with quotes from the likes of Orwell, Churchill, George Brassens, and Benjamin Franklin, to help tell a story, his story: "I know that what makes my music what it is are my words," he says. “I am an expressionist; I sing what I say, I say what I feel and I feel what I play by honesty. The minute I stop singing, I’m back to being shy,” he says. “I’m soft-spoken because I never really talked to people,” he has said. “ I still don’t talk to people much; I talk to myself a lot. Only in the last couple of months have I started to talk to people more… I think I have something to say. I am happy and fortunate that I have that."
He's desperate to do more. He once claimed to have 500 songs, but that many had been lost whilst living the vagabond life in Paris. But, he knows he is for the moment locked in to the record company way of doing things… "I'd like to record more, I've got the songs. I'll slip in new songs when I'm performing, without really thinking about it. I do improvise my set list, depending on what I'm feeling." It's just another reason to admire this singular artist; one who has had no formal training, who failed at school and by and large has been a self-contained musical unit. Even though the album features other instruments, most of them were played by Clementine, and he even produced it himself. On the live stage, it is just him, often wearing a trench-like coat, and with no shoes or socks on… "I'd like to do more poetry, " he says about his other main ambition. "Writing is what I really want to do. I don't think I'm really a singer. Do you know Strange Fruit?" he asks me. "I'm nothing like Billie Holiday, but lyrically that means a lot to me (it was actually written by a teacher called Abel Meeropol, but Holiday made it famous). I'm writing about Syria, refugees, Baltimore…. I think it's important to talk about things happening now. It's fresh then, rather then get it down in a year or two when it's not so fresh or happening. It's really frustrating that I can't record them now. But, that's how it works. I need to settle in with the record company…"
To add to his frustrations, he's got a book of poetry waiting to be published. "It's called Through the Eyes of a Wild Greyhound," says Benjamin. "It's finished but I'm waiting for a publication date… " It's perhaps here that he might be most happiest, as a writer. "I did some readings in Holland recently, with some other poets, and I really enjoyed that. I would like to do more.
Jeff Hemmings