If ever there was proof that reverse psychology works, Benjamin Clementine is it. These days the 28-year-old artist, composer, poet and musician boasts a Mercury Prize, two full-length albums, a cover on The New York Times and a cult-like following from London to Paris. But the fairytale of today was the least likely scenario for a young man forbidden from following his passion earlier in life.
He stumbled onto the power of music by accident and life literally changed from there. After developing a fascination with the piano through his brother in his teenage years, Clementine discovered he had a strong propensity to classical music – a revelation that frightened his parents and threatened their plans for their son’s future. But strictly forbidding the child from playing any instruments and discouraging Clementine’s growing interest in music was both futile and fuel for the fire that had already been well lit. The more they pushed, the more he pulled. It took just a few months for Clementine to master his imitation of composers like Erik Satie and Claude Debussy as he continued to secretly perfect his craft on a small keyboard hidden in a room at the top of the family home.
And while his father’s dreams of having a lawyer for a son ended there – as did Clementine’s academic pursuits which saw him fail most of his GCSEs and quit school at 16 – a legend was born instead, starting with a clean slate as a stranger in a foreign land. After a brief homeless spell in Camden, Clementine set off on a career-defining adventure on the streets of Paris where he knew no one and lived day-to-day on busking change but acquired almost a lifetime of wisdom through keen observation of human beings. The result earned him a Mercury Prize in 2015 for debut album At Least For Now.
“Your state of mind follows you wherever you are,” he says. “When I first came to Paris, I wasn’t very happy and I didn’t really know fully why I’d come. I didn’t come from a great place, so mentally I wasn’t in a great place. I would say now that I was probably pretty naive leaving just like that, and even though I’d had a bad experience with people I didn’t want to pity myself or carry that around. I don’t like to blame. When I got to Paris I didn’t really have anywhere to live, but I just accepted the situation as best as I could. I just knew that my family life wasn’t the best, I came from a strict family who had other plans for me, and I felt I had to leave.”
The key, as Clementine can confirm, is taking a negative and transforming it into a positive. Sure, it sucked being banned from the one thing that brought him joy as a teenager, and it was never part of the plan to literally run away from home – but the awful experience the young musician endured in his earlier years served as a contrast to the kind of life he wanted for himself. Nothing and no one can extinguish true passion, Clementine adds, as the heart wants what the heart wants.
“I believe that my upbringing has been a blessing in disguise. Growing up how I did has somehow helped me when I look over my life now. You have to find the positive in the negative. The way I was raised and the fact that I did not listen to a lot of pop music, that led me somehow to forge my own way of making music and listen to it in a different way. Even now, most of the time if and when I do listen to music, I listen to classical music. But with music being almost this rare thing when I was growing up, I feel like it has helped me develop a healthy instinct for it. When I’m making my music, I think it’s helped my approach to be different from other artists. Even though I now see things as a blessing in disguise, I still certainly wouldn’t treat my own child the way that I was; I would play them my favourite music and I would let them play the music they like. I would definitely want them to play an instrument. Actually, even if they didn’t want to, I think I would still ask them to seriously just listen to Mozart for a few minutes. That’s all I ask! If their dream is to become a plumber, then that’s fine with me – but seriously, please, ‘Just hear Mozart once!’”
Clementine confesses that once he finds music that touches his soul, he stays with that music for a very long time, but that’s not to say that he’s an advocate for recycling the same thing over and over again. He lists Bob Dylan as an inspiration and an example of an artist who embodies musical evolution, progress and a daring spirit. One should always keep moving, always push forward, and always have the courage to break boundaries, he claims.
“I embrace everything. From the first album to the second album and now working on something new, I have to keep doing something different from the last thing. Because I change as well. I admire the bravery in people like Dylan. Dylan had the courage to say ‘I want to play the electric guitar, this is what I want and it’s where I’m at now’, so you have to follow where your soul is taking you. Because it’s a journey, it’s always going to have different destinations. It’s a journey – this life, this career, being an artist – and as you live you discover different sides of you which are a part of you. It’s how you mature and how you learn from and about yourself. You make mistakes in the process but you have to embrace them too.”
Much like Dylan before him, Clementine makes music that reflects the times. And to all those who believe artists should stick to what they know and steer away from politics and personal opinions – well, would they say it to Dylan too? What would his music be without social commentary?
“Music addresses the times,” Clementine explains. “My first album was about my ‘time’ in Paris as a loner learning all these life lessons, so I was addressing a certain ‘time’ in that album. It couldn’t have been written now because my life is different, it could only have been written then. And I can only write now what my life reflects at this time. Artists are inspired by ‘the times’, we can’t ignore the times, they are vital, and we live in a time where we can express ourselves through different mediums. Luckily, I can play instruments and that’s the way I try to reflect them. The more we address the bad things happening in our times, the more we go after them and talk about them, eventually this way we can dismantle them and they become smaller issues and soon they go away. For me, it’s impossible to write about things that aren’t reflecting my experience, so even though I have loads of songs that I’ve kept safe and never released from my time in Paris, it wouldn’t be truthful or honest to myself to release them now.”
Ensuring his music is a “sign of the times” is one thing, but keeping boredom at bay is just as crucial for Clementine who – living up to his experimentalist reputation – makes an odd announcement. On a future release, hopefully not too far down the line, he plans to lace his Nina-Simone-like vocals and soulful, folky minimalistic song-writing with the most unexpected genre of music – heavy metal. But given his penchant for the unconventional and unexpected, should it really be surprising?
“I’m really curious about it,” Clementine insists. “Seriously. I really have a crush on metal and heavy rock music. At the moment I would like to see if I can do some more research and see what I dig up and what I like. I have to figure out what I feel like I want to get into more. I just find it so intriguing the way that these guys sing and the whole attitude around it. It’s not just rock and roll, it’s beyond that. It’s metal. I don’t know how to explain what draws me to it, but I really like the way that these guys come across where they just do what they want to do. I love that. They don’t believe in restrictions, they don’t believe in boundaries, they just let it out whatever they want to express. I can hear that from their music, it’s powerful. I like that a lot. Just in general, with my next release, I want to test myself as much as possible. I’m excited about seeing how I can move away from reality and go off more into surrealism as well. I’d also love to work with new artists.”
Someone a bit leftfield, no doubt, someone who we’ll least expect. And while Clementine ponders his next possible collaboration, he reflects on what he’s learned from those who have helped him on his path so far, Damon Albarn being one of them. Clementine says the former Blur frontman taught him that hard work is equally as important as talent in this business and that looking forward at all times is the key to actually sticking around. After recording and producing I Tell A Fly in Albarn’s Studio 13, Clementine says he realised he was finally where he’d always dreamed he would be – a moment which led him to make a promise to himself that he would never be a “15-minute artist”.
“For me, I realise that I have strong ambitions. My first album got me the Mercury Prize, which was great, but the best thing for me was the exposure instead of the actual prize. Before that, nobody knew anything about me or my songs, and that prize made me feel that someone cared about my music. I’ve heard of “the Mercury Prize” curse before, Damon told me that it’s like “carrying a dead albatross around your neck”, but as much as I love him and respect him, I don’t know if it’s true for me. If it was, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. Just after I won that prize, that’s when I met Damon. Success has a different meaning for everyone, though. For me, it’s been a real plus and I’m very grateful for it, but it’s not the height of my ambitions. It’s something I see as a thing to help me get to where I want to be.”
It’s more like a perk, rather than some kind of game-changer, Clementine explains – like a pat on the back or a wink that signals you’re on the right track. Other than that, it’s the feedback from the people that really matters, with Clementine confessing that reviews really do matter to an artist. Or at least, they should.
“Because I’ve come to understand that when the press writes something, people read it. People do listen to the media. Whatever the press write, this could form someone’s opinion about what they think of me. It’s important to make things clear and make sure that I’m not put in the wrong context, it’s important to keep an ear on what’s being said about me because nobody wants to be interpreted the wrong way. It’s always flattering to hear positive feedback and to have people be kind to my music. When I’m playing live, sometimes I’ll get nervous because I know that playing the piano and performing in general, all of this could somehow backfire – but people are coming to the shows and they are giving me the benefit of the doubt. I’m so grateful that they want me to play my music for them. I think we all just want to be loved and to be cared for. We are all unique people and we are all wondrous.”
For Clementine, the love has been coming from the United States just as much as his home turf in the UK. Following the release of At Least For Now he was featured on the cover of The New York Times, as well as performed for the second time at the Burberry menswear show in 2016 (his song ‘I Won’t Complain’ was also selected for the Mr Burberry ad, directed by Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen). Fast-forward to 2017 and he’s just performed for the second time on Later...With Jools Holland and says he feels like he’s come full circle in a way.
“He’s a lovely person, I did a few songs on his show,” Clementine says. “The first time I played on television was on his show. That stays with you because playing on television is different from playing live or doing your own show – you have to follow certain protocols and it’s all very strange at first, but I got to meet so many great musicians like Paul McCartney and Alex Turner. It was another one of those times where it feels like confirmation that I’m doing the right thing. This time around they had LCD Sound System and Liam Gallagher. LCD Sound System – I really, really like them. Liam Gallagher – he...had an “aura”. But all these experiences, they are all wonderful. My thinking is: ‘The more of it, the merrier, as long as it’s right’. It’s about longevity. But that depends on the stories you tell. People love escaping into beautiful music and movies. A lot of us have stories that are quite ugly, so we love watching movies about people in love because it gives us hope and helps us forget. The same goes for music. As long as we’re telling beautiful stories, I think people will listen.”
I Tell A Fly is out now via Virgin/EMI. For more information about Benjamin Clementine, including his forthcoming UK tour, please visit his official website.
Photo Credit: Lola Schnabel