Benjamin Clementine is a balladeer with a backstory, from Catholic schoolboy in London to homeless in Paris. On the eve of the release of his new album, he tells Kate Mossman how music dedicated him a voice
Benjamin Clementine looms above me, a strange but gentle presence. When he talks, he does so with dry amusement; where reference is listens, he furrows his brow. In a photo studio in Acton, west London, his bright khaki suit stimulates him look like a soldier. In fact, it’s womenswear, the wide cuffs swaying high above his ankles.” Yes, they are short ,” he says, eyeing his trousers with a comic portentousness as we stroll down the stairs, before triggering up a Marlboro Light and smoking it in the rain.
He’s back in his home town, London, after a few months in America, where he appreciated the “can-do” stance of his American fans. French fans he likes, too- because they love a good story. The English, he says, are harder to please.
After Clementine won the Mercury Prize in 2015 for his debut album At Least for Now , he came back to live in Edmonton , north London, where he was born, but rapidly chose there was something pretentious about trying to be the prodigal son, when everything had changed and he’d grown so big. Literally: all through school, he was one of the smallest. When he left home at 17, he shot up; now he’s six foot four, and in the local shop where he used to buy his bus pass, he loomed above the freezer cabinets.
The back story was incredible. He slept rough on the streets of London and Paris; he busked on the metro. He lived in a hostel, 10 people to one room, concealing his keyboard under the bottom bunk. He got spotted, then signed, and arrived fully formed upon the world with a sound unlike anyone else. They compared his tumbling musical poetry to that of Antony Hegarty and Nina Simone.
These days he treats his colorful biography with a certain embarrassment. It’s perhaps not the Paris years which contain the key to who and how he is, but the murkier water of a suburban religious childhood. He may have worked with Damon Albarn this year, but he wouldn’t have