Benjamin Clementine on his ambitious new album

Former Mercury Prize winner Benjamin Clementine is set to perform new material at the Edinburgh International Festival. He tells The Skinny why it's his most ambitious work yet

Feature by Jonathan Rimmer | 01 Aug 2017

Benjamin Clementine is a promoter’s dream and he knows it. Although it’s two years since the avant-garde singer and pianist picked up the Mercury Music Prize for his debut album At Least for Now, the rags-to-riches tale that led him to that point has been told and retold. It bears repeating once more: as a 19-year-old Londoner he left home “in a crisis state” due to family trouble. He flew to Paris, where he was essentially homeless for four years, but managed to get by busking on the underground. He was discovered by a travelling agent and signed to Virgin/EMI not long after. 

It’s a magnificent story, no doubt, but you get the impression Clementine is exhausted talking about it. Despite his achievements so far, he’s frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of recognition from the British public for his type of music. “There’s an emptiness in me whenever I tour the UK,” he says. “There’s this thing in me that makes me wish and hope whenever I come home, but I wish you could feel what I feel.”

As dramatic as that sounds, it’s in keeping with Clementine’s impassioned style. Compositions are raw and intense, with his oscillating vocals dictating the mood and direction of any given track. His voice is often described as ‘soulful’ by fans and critics, but, with the exception of Nina Simone, the frequent comparisons to American soul and jazz artists tend to leave him cold. “I never really liked that kind of music – in fact I hated it,” says Clementine. “I thought it was too vain and pretentious. They just said the same things over and over again. Although it’s hard to get away with saying this looking like I do, I just didn’t find an interest in it and it’s important to me to not get boxed into that category. I grew up listening to the likes of Puccini, Debussy and Pavarotti before I ever listened to ‘popular music’. If you look at Puccini’s operas, for example, they’re all so varied. For me, that is creativity.”

That might surprise some listeners; Clementine has a penchant for the operatic, but his delivery and choice of language can be strikingly personal. However, his time in France has also inspired him to draw from different musical movements. Chanson performers like Édith Piaf, Henri Salvador and Léo Ferré have had an influence in particular. “In France, and continental Europe as a whole, there’s still this concentration on bards and poetic expression,” he says. “In England, we seem to be more obsessed with celebrity and farce. We once had that storyteller tradition of Noël Coward, Cecil Sharp and Jake Thackray. In France, they’re still in touch with their own traditions.

“In the UK and America, there’s this emphasis on how you look and how well you sing in a popular context. If you look at someone like Serge Gainsbourg, he could hardly sing but it was what he was saying that made people adore him. When I’m making music it’s not about how well I sing the song but what I’m trying to say.”

Clementine’s disillusionment with his home country makes sense. While he has returned to living in England, most of his time is spent on the road. It’s a lifestyle the former busker prefers, especially for the sake of his writing process. In his words, I Tell a Fly, his upcoming second album, is all about “being a wanderer and an alien.” This is reflected in his choice of instrumentation on the project. Whereas his debut was characterised by vintage strings and subtle percussion, the follow-up is decidedly more left-field. Clementine says he was inspired by a trip to the London studio of Damon Albarn, with whom he collaborated in January.

“I always start off with one instrument: the piano. I arrange songs that way and then I build from there, but when I first went back to the studio it just sounded like the first album. Luckily, when I worked with Damon Albarn, his studio had so many different instruments and sounds," he tells us. "I thought to myself, why not try and use these to capture the themes of the album, of being an alien and so on. It helped me reach the place I wanted to go to. If I hadn’t gone to the studio and discovered those instruments, I’d still be somewhere trying to bring that second album into reality.”

But Clementine’s mission to avoid what he regards as cliché and narcissism goes deeper than just the tools he uses. Rather than spilling out all his personal demons onto the canvas, he prefers to use other stories and situations as a conduit for his various messages on political and social issues. He wrote his latest single The Phantom of Aleppoville, for example, after being emotionally affected by the writings of a psychoanalyst.

Clementine, who was himself bullied as a child, identified the connection, although different in scale, between victimisation at home or school and the trauma of displacement by war. “I wanted to touch on issues I’d read or heard about that are ongoing and somehow bring them as close to me as possible,” he says. “It’s a risk I’m taking but it’s one I’m happy to take. If you read in a book about Aleppo, about a bomb being thrown or whatever, that can be very complicated. So it’s a way to better convey issues and understand a situation.”

Elsewhere, Clementine references the infamous Calais refugee camp on the song God Save the Jungle as a way to make wider comment on chaotic western foreign policy. He even labels our political leaders as “nothing more than mere animals.” Continuing, he goes on to say, “Maybe I’m being harsh but it’s hard not to describe them in any other way. You look at what happened at Grenfell recently; look at what happened in elections and how our leaders behave towards normal human beings. The song basically says if there is a God out there, then that God needs to come out and save our jungle.

“I try not to be totally direct in these messages because that can sound preachy. Rather, I try to put my feet in other people’s shoes and write as if I am them. Then I go to an instrument – I play piano quite alright – so I go to the piano and try to bring a thought I’ve conveyed to life. I get into a surreal place and then I somehow bring it to reality.”

Clementine is unnecessarily modest about his technical abilities but determined in his artistic scope. He says he was “deeply chuffed and appreciative” of his Mercury Music Prize in 2015, but didn’t regard it as “the greatest of heights or something for an artist to put their life on a line for.”

Nina Simone, one of Clementine’s heroes, famously said “it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” While he might appear aloof or pretentious at first glance, there’s a clear yearning on his part to live up to those words. Ahead of his performance at the Edinburgh International Festival, where he intends to perform much of his new material for the first time, The Skinny ask what his biggest ambition is? “To share my music wherever I go, of course,” he responds.

“But I increasingly realise I also want to be appreciated for what I do more than where I’ve come from." He continues, "When I get on stage I can feel whether it’s going to be a good night or not, whether the vibrations are right. In most cases in the UK, although people love it, it still feels like there’s still some work to be done on my side to get people to understand what I do. That’s one of my main ambitions because when people understand what you’re doing it’s the most vitalising thing.”

Benjamin Clementine plays Festival Theatre as part of EIF, Edinburgh, 10 Aug