The young Brit has gone from busking in Paris to being the most shared artist on Spotify. Now back in London, he doesn’t want his backstory to overshadow his music. And with a voice that’s been compared to Nina Simone’s, there’s little chance of that…as Tim Lewis writes in this report for London’s Guardian. Follow the link below for the original report and a video of the artist performing.
I’m due to meet Benjamin Clementine at the covered market in Edmonton Green, north London, but I bump into him as we both leave the train station. He’s hard to miss: a rangy 6ft 3in, cheekbones like violent slashes, hair up and backcombed into a Frank Gehry-esque swoop. It turns out that the 25-year-old singer-songwriter doesn’t do small talk; he is either forcefully opinionated or dauntingly silent. As we skirt a roundabout, he is urgently explaining all that is beautiful and problematic about the scruffy, clearly deprived neighbourhood where he was raised.
“Why are there not cabs in Edmonton?” Clementine asks, his voice low and rumbling, scarcely distinguishable from the traffic. “Why are there cabs in central London but not here? And if they’re going to be here, they should be cheaper. And travelcards, they’re expensive. If you live in central London, that’s probably fine for you, but in places like Edmonton, where you’re almost out of sight of London, you’ve got to pay more and more to get into central London. How does that work?”
We’re in the market now; a hungover Monday morning where business is slow everywhere but Lidl and Iceland. One day Clementine wants to buy a piano – “no, two or three pianos” – and put them in the concourse for anyone to play. It would give Edmontonians, as he calls them, an opportunity that he only belatedly had. “Put pianos everywhere!” he says triumphantly.
Clementine has a reputation that exceeds his output, just two EPs, seven tracks really. He first appeared last October, playing a song, Cornerstone, on Later… with Jools Holland. The skittish host introduced him as having been found busking on the Paris metro and that made sense: his singing was raw, his breathing so erratic that he looked like he might pass out. But his power and presence were unmistakable as he sat barefoot and alone at a grand piano. People searched for a shorthand to describe what he sounded like and a consensus was soon arrived at: “If Nina Simone had been a man.” Backstage, Paul McCartney, a fellow guest, made him promise he’d keep at it; the following week, Clementine was the most shared artist on Spotify. Not long after he was picked up by a major label, Virgin EMI.
Biographical details then trickled out. Clementine was the youngest of five, born to parents of Ghanaian descent. He left school at 16, had a bust-up with his family and ended up in Camden, effectively homeless. Aged 18, he relocated to the Place de Clichy, sleeping on the streets. before living in a hostel. Down and out in London and Paris: a sequel. Out of desperation, after a revelatory visit to Sacré Coeur, he tossed his grey Kangol cap on the ground and started singing a cappella.
Growing up, Clementine had little exposure to music and it was this naivety that now made his singing so confusing to classify. In his teens he had caught Anthony and the Johnsons performing Hope There’s Someoneon television; then on the radio he’d heard the avant-garde French composer Erik Satie. Unconsciously, he had married the spirit of these two influences with poetic lyrics to produce his own material, both original and epic.
This morning in Edmonton, Clementine is keen to downplay the fairytale. He appears concerned, almost, that the biographical stories are so rich that they will end up overshadowing the music. “This isn’t something we should talk about,” he says. “Because it happens every day, people are homeless every day. It’s all about, ‘He got into a train, this guy discovered him and he signed a record deal.’ It’s nonsense. That never happened, zero. I was on the train, I did play, but I also played in bars, in the streets, at birthday parties for people who discovered me on the train.”
Clementine tries to pick apart other elements of the creation myth. He’s pretty sure it was Anthony and the Johnsons he watched in his living room with his parents, but concedes it might have been Boy George. “People want a beautiful story,” he sighs. “Hopefully my life story is still beautiful but that metro stuff doesn’t make it much more pitiful.”
So what is that story then? “I fell in love with the piano when I was six,” Clementine remembers. “I saw a girl in my class who had a toy piano. I asked if I could play and she said no, so I waited till she went for lunch and I took it home. I played, I heard sounds, I just liked it, I didn’t understand why. Next day, obviously, I brought it back, after a bit of trouble with my parents. I got into detention but that was one of the best days of my life.”
Clementine admits he was mischievous as a child but his rebellion was rarely conventional. He would bunk off school but spend all day at the library, picking books at random off the shelves. He found himself particularly drawn to poetry, especially William Blake, TS Eliot and Carol Ann Duffy. His older brother Joseph told him to read the dictionary, and Clementine sought out rare and archaic words, attempting to incorporate them into his vocabulary. His fondness for dictionaries endures, to the extent that he has decided as a side-project to write his own in 26 volumes. Words, he insists, are merely “someone’s interpretation”, and his version will be what they mean to him.
I ask Clementine for an example of an entry in his personal dictionary. He looks at me warily, like I might steal the idea: “I think you’re pushing it now.”
Clementine was always slow to make friends and one senses that he retains a wariness. “I didn’t like anyone particularly at my school,” he says. “It’s my own fault; I didn’t really open up to anyone. The thing is: I was quite slow when I was younger. I might have been smart, I don’t know, but I was slow talking to people. And as you can see, I don’t talk very loud.”
He’s right; Clementine practically whispers, in marked contrast to his vocals on stage. “The minute I stop singing, I’m back to being shy. I’m soft-spoken because I never really talked to people. I didn’t learn to do it.”
Clementine is evasive about the exact familial disagreement that ended with him living in exile in Paris for five years. He has said that his parents were strict, very religious, that they wanted him to become a lawyer, but this morning he is only interested in clarifying one point. “I didn’t leave Edmonton,” he says. “I left my family. I had to leave because of my issues with my family. But that’s as far as we get with family.”
Clementine returned to live in London in the new year, just as his career started to take off, and he is now looking for a place back in Edmonton. He won’t say if he has reconciled with his family, who all still live in the area. “Don’t want to go into it but I’ve learned to treat everyone the same way,” he says. “If you walked up to me and asked for a penny and then my brother – my blood brother – came up asked me for a penny, I’d give it to you if you asked first. It’s as simple as that.”
Here’s the contradiction with Clementine: while he is clearly reserved and private, his lyrics are invariably autobiographical, unabashedly personal. This is particularly evident on his stunning new EP, Glorious You, released later this month. He started writing songs in Paris and quickly realised, from the poets he admired, that they were pointless if they didn’t say something about his particular experiences. “I don’t think I’m a singer, I think I’m an expressionist,” he explains. “But it takes time to put it in people’s minds that this guy is not singing, ‘Baby, I want to have you.’ This guy is actually thinking about what he’s saying. This guy has something to say.”
One of his frustrations since returning to Britain is how little ambition there is in most song lyrics. “Having a spell in France, they put a lot of detail into the lyrics, it’s very important because everyone is listening to what they are saying. It’s like a play. But I’m quite fortunate because, with me, it’s not a play. It’s real.”
Nowhere is this honesty clearer than on a new track, Adios, a farewell to his childish ways. Clementine talks with little sensationalism about his time sleeping rough: he always found food relatively easy to come by, he insists, and once he started making money from busking he moved into a hostel near Pigalle, where he lived for almost two years. But, as he sings on Adios, the main realisation he came to in Paris is that he couldn’t hold everyone else responsible for the problems he faced.
“We always blame other people when things go wrong. For example, family to friends, you think they’ll 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. You don’t stop blaming people. That’s a sign of weakness, I’ve learned.”
There is certainly much about Clementine that is impressively self-made. Without lessons, he taught himself to play piano, guitar, drums and, despite not reading music, he is responsible for the strings arrangement on Glorious You. His vocals are equally untutored: to make money in Paris he would sing “ridiculous cheesy covers” with a band; the problem was that, however hard he tried, the songs would never sound remotely close to the originals. “When I die, I want them to play The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams,” he says. “If someone asks me what’s my real ambition, I’m an expressionist right, and I want my voice to sound like that violin playing The Lark Ascending.”
This statement gives a hint of Clementine’s self-belief. He already has the material for an album but his label – “people who think strategically about these things” – has advised him to hold back. Beyond that, there is his dictionary, and he’d like to record classical music and release a collection of poetry. He also has grander schemes for the regeneration of his little corner of north London – alluded to in another new song, Edmonton. And in October he will be a star turn at the Observer Ideas festival at the Barbican (for more details of the event see box, left). What will he do with his 20-minute slot? “I will show up,” he says enigmatically. “I will show up and give them my all. Give them what I have, and if they accept it, they accept it. And if they don’t, they don’t.”
Very little about Clementine is predictable; so far, all of it is worth watching.
Benjamin Clementine’s Glorious You EP is released 25 August on Virgin/EMI. He headlines London’s Emmanuel Centre on 29 October and will perform at Observer Ideas at the Barbican in London on 12 October
For the original report go to http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/aug/09/benjamin-clementine-barefoot-troubadour-singer-songwriter-interview