Benjamin Clementine:’ I make people believes in me’

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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 devoted him a voice

Benjamin Clementine looms above me, a strange but gentle presence. When he talks, he does so with dry amusement; when he listens, he furrows his forehead. In a photo studio in Acton, west London, his bright khaki suit induces him look like a soldier. In fact, it’s womenswear, the broad cuffs swinging high above his ankles.” Yes, they are short ,” he says, eyeing his trousers with a comic portentousness as we stroll down the stairs, before sparking 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” position 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 speedily decided 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 tale was unbelievable. 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, hiding his keyboard under the bottom bunk. He got spotted, then signed, and arrived fully formed upon the world with a voice 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 shame. 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

Fever pitch: Clementine performing at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/ Redferns

heard Parklife growing up in a strict Catholic household, where his Ghanaian parents banned their children from listening to popular music, wary of its “corrupting” influence. The church they attended was 20 seconds away from the family home; the priest lived next door.” No one put a gun to your head ,” he says of his churchgoing,” but it was pretty much an everyday instance .”

It is hard to imagine any parents could hope to protect five children from popular culture in 21 st century London.

” Believe you me ,” he says, in his strangely old-fashioned way,” It’s still possible. Seem at the Mormons. I appreciate it in some way, because I’ve been protected from certain things I might otherwise have done. I clearly recollect my father cutting our jumpers and our athletics clothes with scissors- because he didn’t want us to wear jogging bottoms and hoodies. He thought that would somehow defined the police on us .”

Instead, his father would buy cheap suits at a local charity shop for the boys. (” That’s helped my style a little bit, as well .”) On non-uniform days at school, he would wear his uniform. He was picked on for it- of course he was- but says,” I felt like it was my clothes; that I was the one who appeared different, with everyone wearing jeans .”

When Clementine guested on Gorillaz’s Hallelujah Money in January this year, the full extent of his musical oddness stretched out. There’s an increasing amount of Jacques Brel in his dramatic delivery; his sardonic expressions look like Grace Jones crossed with Skeletor.

Albarn, a man who wrote a monkey opera, was a suitable foil for Clementine, whose forthcoming album, I Tell a Fly , is the story of two flies in love, targeted against a backdrop of contemporary geopolitics. Clementine says of Albarn,” He could play the working day, and he always wants to play; and he’s eternally doing something with music, and he cannot stop .” He recorded his new album in Albarn’s studio and wanted him to make it, but was content with the gifts he gave him- the Polaris and Rhodes Chroma synths you hear on several tracks. He’d hated synths before, being more of a Debussy man.

” I was the one who appeared different, with everyone else wearing jeans “: Benjamin Clementine wears coat and rollneck by Joseph( ); trousers by Dries Van Noten( ); and sandals by Prada( ). Photograph: Alex Bramall for the Observer

When Clementine won the Mercury Prize, he did two memorable things. He dedicated the award to Paris( the ceremony came one week after the Bataclan assault ). And he called all the other nominees up on stage, to share the moment with him. It was an extremely confident gesture, something that belonged to the Oscars , not the very British, downbeat award, whose winners often act like they do not want the award at all.

” I wasn’t confident , no way ,” he says.” But music was meant to be shared. The people in the Bataclan were there to share an experience. So I supposed, I want to bring everyone on stage with me. I instinctively felt it was right .”

He has a rock star’s sense of sentence, but he doesn’t think people will buy his new album.” I don’t think it will sell ,” he grins.” It will not sell a lot of copies like the last one – sorry! I could have done something closer to the first album. But I said to myself,’ What are you doing this for ?'”

With I Tell a Fly , Clementine has taken a big risk. A self-produced, and mostly self-played record, there are rapid changes in texture, from rich African choruses to solo piano sonatas; from rousing Broadway tunes to spindly harpsichord sequences. Lyrics transformation from witticism to bleakness, a dozen places meshing together on one spinning musical globe. How did he get away with this stylistic free-for-all? Did he fight?

London calling: on the front row at Burberry during London Fashion Week, with Lily Donaldson( far left) and Flo Morrissey Photograph: David M Benett/ Getty Images for Burberry

” I surely did !” he says.” I suppose, due to my experiences of living such a bohemian life for a long time, I have my own style of talking to people, to make people believes in me, you know ?”

Certain … powers of negotiation?

” You could say that ,” he says.” I said to them:’ Listen, if you want me to do what you want, then I’ll just go back to simply playing and sleeping rough .”

It is hard to imagine the boardroom dialogue in which this took place.” Well it wasn’t just one conversation ,” he says.” It went on for a little bit. When I won the Mercury Prize, they started believing in me more- sadly! It was very hard to have someone tell me “what were doing”, because of my past experience .”

Clementine’s songs have always been marked by a vocabulary of loneliness. He grew up in a family that didn’t talk; at school his” softer’ savors( he liked opera) get him pushed around; on top of that, he was unable to express his feelings. A friend once told him there was a girl in his class who wanted him to kiss her. Confused as to why that might be, he sent the message back:” Tell her she can kiss her mum .”

For a few years, he was the only child among the five siblings who did not live at home; instead, he was sent to his grandmother’s, for reasons which remain unclear to him.” She was my divinity ,” he says.” She was about the same height as me. She was very religious .”

Has he ever asked his mothers why he was the child who lived elsewhere?

” I try to use dark humor “: Benjamin Clementine wears women’s suit by Joseph( ); and shoes by Gucci( ). Photograph: Alex Bramall for the Observer

” No, I haven’t yet. But hopefully I will ,” he says.” Maybe they got tired looking after five. I’m a man now, and I can see how hard it might be to look after somebody. But in England, we’re taught to love each other as a family, even if we can’t love one another as their home communities. It’s part of English culture and I altogether believe in it. My parents only couldn’t manage to do that. But I’m learning .”

After his grandmother’s death he moved back in with his mothers for a period, but they divided when he was in his teens.” I believed,’ You’re not meant to divorce, you’re meant to be Christians !'” he says.” But then, because my father didn’t live there any more, the power had gone .” He gives a sly smile.” And I didn’t read the Bible any more …”

On I Tell a Fly , Clementine takes the unusual decision to work his own narration of displacement into various puts of international conflict: his nomadic route, versus the plight of refugees in Calais( God Save the Jungle ); the experience of children in war, versus those bullied in school( Phantom of Aleppoville ). On arriving in Trump’s America for his first stateside visit, he was intrigued by the wording on his artists’ visa:” Alien of extraordinary ability “. There is a chewy song called Paris Cor Blimey, based on the tongue-twister, Peter Piper, about nationalism in France:” Paris’s friend get her little Pen from her daddy before “hed left” .” And the flies? They’re wind-battered lovers looking for a safe haven. There’s a lot to be getting on with. And it’s all over in 45 minutes.

” I tried to use dark witticism to give the listeners a space to second-guess ,” he says.” My experiences are tiny, but they’ve affected me for many years. For children in England, bullying is the number one problem: they may watch the Ten O’Clock News and assure the bombing but it feels so far away. You must bring it home. I talk about Calais, but I’m actually talking about London .”

Underpinning the album are the ideas of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who wrote about the necessity of achieving “play” in both childhood and adult life. When we play, Winnicott said, we are our “real” selves- and find your real self allows you to get close to others. If parents don’t raise children to express their emotions, the “false” ego takes over- a mask of respectability, a defence.

” If you have parents who can’t present you love, a kid can grow up to look arrogant ,” Clementine says.” Because they need to create a fake ego. Or they think they’re more powerful than they genuinely are .”

” You’ve got to give yourself out “: Benjamin Clementine wears a coat by Dries Van Noten( ). Photograph: Alex Bramall for the Observer

He describes his aloof younger self as secretly timid; he never looked at girls.” I blocked myself up, blocked myself out. I thought about all sorts of ways to stop people fooling me. And although I am straight, I always thought that I could be loved by a human, too- so I blocked myself to humen as well. I hated the word love a few years ago .”

Clementine still plays piano on the same stool he borrowed from a bar in Paris, bent high over the keys at a back-aching slant. He likes to perform in bare feet: he once said it was as thrilling as driving a car without shoes. What first appeared as wilful eccentricity might, in a different sun, be seen as the behaviour of a son gradually learning to play.

” Music is also the reason why I started talking to people ,” he says.” When I started singing in bars and develops, I began to learn the behaviour of people. Music was the bait that helped me get something from them and dedicate myself to them. The meaning of love is plainly huge- but for me it entails be nice to people and people will be nice to you back. Love is a selfless place to be. “Were not receiving” safer place to be than under the canopy of love. All these terrorist attacks, they’re only happening because someone is lacking in love .”

He has attempted reunions with his family since he returned from Paris.” I’ve tried so many times to get them together ,” he says.” I’ve really tried. But I do think that in due course, even if we’re not going to love one another as households should do, there’ll be some sort of reasonable end to the differences .”

Has he been in love, too?” Right now I’m not in love ,” he says,” Though I’ve recognised that there are people who are very special to me. All my travelings and so forth, they’ve attained me think it was almost a waste of time .”

He may say that, but for his next album he wants to travel to Russia, where he’d be out of his convenience zone again; gazed at, unable to speak.

He drains the last of his Coke.” Some “theyre saying” I take music too seriously. The fact is I merely don’t take it for granted .”

Today the false ego – that is, the polite one who does the interviews- is warmer than it used to be, perhaps because the real Benjamin Clementine is starting to come through.” You’ve got to give yourself out, stimulate people think that you’re confident, and comfortable ,” he says,” Which is also true …”

Which sounds a bit like fake it till you make it?


Benjamin Clementine’s new album I Tell a Fly is released on 15 September ( )

Fashion editor Helen Seamons; photographer’s assistants Michael Furlonger and John Munro; stylist’s assistant Bemi Shaw; grooming Jennie Roberts at Frank Agency employing Anthony Skincare and MAC Cosmetics; defined design Alun Davies; and define Assistant Kaushal Odedra

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