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