Benjamin Clementine is something of an enigma.
From busking on the streets of Paris to being a Mercury prize-winner in 2015, Benjamin has been on a journey that at once thrills and fills one with dread.
If Down And Out In Paris And London was written in the 21st Century, it would surely be some sort of homage to Clementine’s life.
There is romance, pain and brutal honesty in Benjamin’s story. We spoke to him to find out more about being an Alien, a playwright as well as an autodidact.
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Both your fans and the press have hailed you as a number of things, primarily writer, singer, poet and most recently playwright. How do you straddle all those perceptions of you at once?
I embrace it. Whatever people want to call me, that’s fine. Really though, I’m just Benjamin. I don’t consider myself a singer. I am an artist. That’s who I am, an artist. How people want to perceive me, that’s up to them.
But the latest album was written as a play?
Yes, I thought of the new album as a play, but it’s not a play until it’s performed on the stage. A playwright is Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, not me. When I’m done with music, then yes, I’d like to be a playwright. That side of art interests me more than anything else.
This album is more experimental than your debut, what kind of reception are you expecting?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t bothered. It’d be nice for people to appreciate what I create. The most important thing is that people who need it hear my music. More so than people who come across it by accident.
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The most important thing is that people who need it hear my music.
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What do you mean, people who need to hear it?
I tell a lie, I want to reach out to young people. I’m talking about 15-16 year olds. I’m telling a story through my music, and coming to them through music rather than the pictures and videos they see in the media. Music is the number one way to reach children and kids. It’s not something to scare them away, music should be used to encourage them and remind them how fortunate they are. Whenever they are feeling rejected, music should help remind them they are one of the lucky ones.
At what point do you feel happy with what you written?
I’m almost never happy with what I’ve written. I sometimes wish I could go back to the studio and re-record some of the songs that are already out there. Writing is a constant process of creation and inspiration. My work springs out people nearby that I encounter, and out of my surroundings. I’m constantly exposed to the different ways things can work, and that influences my approach to music. Everyone wants to be perfect, but in truth, none of us are ever perfect.
As we talk he seems at once deeply intense and wrapped up in his own thoughts, there is a melancholy tremble that seems to surface intermittently. This is randomly pierced by a more open, engaged voice that responds to our questions.
It makes the interview uncomfortable in a way that can only be described as edge of your seat. His voice makes is enough to make you uneasy whilst hanging on his every word.
Your time in Paris is well documented, but can you elaborate on how it shaped you into the writer you are today?
Before I moved there I knew nothing about Paris. Now I know that Paris is the city of fashion. It is the city of vanity. When you’re in a city as big as London and haven’t even travelled to the centre, you dream about going to another city. For me, that was Paris.
When I finally left, I can only say I was very lucky and fortunate. I wouldn’t have lasted a day doing what I did there in London. French people tend to be very closed off to begin with, but within the space of a minute they can open up. They care a lot about the arts, maybe that’s why Dali and van Gogh and others spent time there. Parisians breathe and love art as well as anyone who tries to express themselves and shows some vulnerability. That sense of being naked in the middle of a junction, or a motorway, that’s how it feels being an artist in Paris.
Before travelling to the USA, you didn’t know what sort of Visa you had. It turns out you are an ‘Alien of Extraordinary Abilities’. Tell us about being classified as an alien.
Opening my passport and seeing it, I was baffled. I thought to myself ‘what does that mean? Why am I being called an alien?’
Then it dawned on me, of course I’m an alien. We are all aliens. I’ve moved around, I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived in Paris, now I’m going to America. Only aliens do that. I’m a human being but if, as a representative of the American customs system, you want to call me an alien, then that’s fine.
While I was there I stored this idea of me being an alien, being in a foreign land. But aren’t we all, as human beings, on foreign land? We’re not from here. Ok, but how did you come to that conclusion? It takes an alien to tell an alien doesn’t it? We have all had to travel. Neanderthals had to move around, birds go on epic migrations…we’re always on the move, we are always going somewhere.
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We tend to forget what humans are capable of doing.
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Look at the great movies, they are always about a journey. Take Titanic – it was a journey. We are made to travel, made to move. You can’t tell me that the street belongs to you, or a house belongs to you. On the contrary, you pass through the house. Eventually you find a home, but before that, you are always passing by, just saying hello. We tend to forget that we are transient beings, then we get cocky and arrogant. Then we start to look down on people and start saying ‘you’re an alien, you belong (elsewhere) in a jungle’.
I wrote ‘God Save The Jungle’ because we can’t allow this distance to propagate any further. The Jungle is not as distant as you think. Take Grenfell, I feel as responsible as the Prime Minister. I’m sitting in my house as I speak to you, which is nearby to where people were burning only a few weeks ago. Even the terrorist events that happened in Manchester and London, these are all events that make up my very own jungle.
You spent your childhood bunking off school in Edmonton library while you also taught yourself the piano purely from listening. Is being an autodidact something we have lost faith in?
We tend to forget what humans are capable of doing. We insist on teaching by a curriculum, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. When you grow up in a household shy and scared of what people might do to you, you just want to do things your own way. When a child doesn’t comply by a set of rules, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to learn, it means the onus is on you have to find another way of seeing and exploring their talent. Music can the perfect medium to do that.
However, the thing I hate about traditional methods of ‘learning’ music as well as classical musicians is that they are too scared to play without sheet music. They are scared to improvise because when they were kids they weren’t allowed to. In England, we are so far from helping young kids bring out their talent. X Factor is not talent. I repeat, it is not talent. We need to bring out the Mozarts, the Dylans and the Basquiats of the United Kingdom and stop this rubbish.
Throughout our chat Benjamin has seemed determined to insist on his fortune in life and the lack of fortune in others. It is a perverse sentiment, but as we knew before we started talking to him, Clementine is an enigma.
We may now know more about Benjamin, but do we know him better? The Jury’s out.
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'I Tell A Fly' is out now.
Words: Milo Wasserman