Benjamin Clementine: “It hasn’t been a fairy tale. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone”

Ahead of his Dublin gig next week, Benjamin Clementine recounts his journey from busking on the streets of Paris to winning the Mercury Prize

Benjamin Clementine keeps his Mercury Prize in a bag somewhere in London. Not by design, but through circumstance.

“I travel a lot, so I tend to put things in bags and just leave them there for the time being,” he says somewhat sheepishly down the phone from Amsterdam. “I haven’t got a permanent place for it yet, but it’s in a secret place that no one can find. It’s safe, though; don’t worry.”

Transience has been a prominent feature in Clementine's life. True story: the day before the producers of Later with Jools Holland got in touch with him in November 2013, he had been busking in the underground train stations of Paris. And the day after he shared a studio with Paul McCartney – who told him his performance was "amazing" – he was back in the same Métro station at Place de Clichy, plying his wares.

Clementine, now 27, has already led a remarkable life, but the "fairy-tale" tagline doesn't sit too well with him. True, he came from relative obscurity to win last year's Mercury Prize with his debut album At Least for Now. People such as David Byrne have also been singing his praises, and his raw, distinctive musical style is being hailed as a breath of fresh air. But the neat soundbite of "musical vagabond comes good" is not as simple as that.

“It certainly hasn’t been a fairy tale, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone to experience a day of what I went through when I first moved to Paris,” he says, sighing gently. “But I do think that a lot of people have gone through worse scenarios than me. People can, say, describe me however they want to describe me, I’m fine with it, but if they want to ask me a question, I’ll tell them that it wasn’t very easy.”

Musical ability

Born the youngest of five kids in London to Ghanaian parents, Clementine’s childhood was not a particularly happy one. Bullied at school, he would regularly skip class and go to the library to read. His parents divorced at 13 and he credits older brother Joseph with being a mentor “who liked music and would try to impress me with his musical ability . . . even if he didn’t have any”. It was Joseph who bought the piano on which he taught himself to play, via listening to Classic FM and the music of one of his heroes, Erik Satie.

“My parents always said that I would be a lawyer or pilot or doctor – and I always just thought that’s what I would do,” he says of his early aspirations. “Even when I discovered the piano and started playing it, I had never thought that being a musician was a career that a child could take. So I didn’t think about it. It was only when I had nothing else but music that I did it.”

An argument with his mother led to him leaving home at 16. Then, having spent time sleeping on friends’ couches in Camden and working as a model for Abercrombie & Fitch, a relationship break-up and a falling-out with a flatmate led to him to eventually flee London for Paris.

It was there, penniless and homeless, that music came to the fore as he began busking – a cappella before he scraped together enough to buy a basic guitar. It was also there that he started to develop his unique, genre- spanning sound, inspired by everyone from Luciano Pavarotti to Antony & the Johnsons.

“The French gave me an awareness of my words, and the English gave me melody. So it’s half and half, really. When I first started singing in Paris, I sounded horrible: I was just singing to get some money to eat,” he says, chuckling. “And I wasn’t singing my own songs: it was Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix. Eventually when I wrote my own music, my style just came out of my own place.”

His unique style led to him signing to independent French label Behind, eventually recording At Least for Now and winning the Mercury last November – almost two years to the day since he appeared on Jools Holland. Winning the prize has made a difference to his life, he says.

“I’m getting more respect from musicians and people, and it’s made me more . . . I don’t know,” he trails off. “People talk about it a lot, so there’s definitely been a change.”

Much of the album documents the difficult period of his life (on Cornerstone he sings, "I am lonely/Alone in a box of stone/They claimed to love me, but they're all wrong", to give one example) his style has been described as dramatically melancholic. However, he says he is not generally a melancholic person.

“The thing is, because I didn’t think anyone would actually listen to my music, I thought I could say whatever I wanted,” he says, laughing. “If I’d thought about it that way, I might have been a bit careful. I went out and listened to French music – the way they wrote and the way they made music – and I thought, ‘why not give it a shot? Why not talk about what I’m going through right now, something that’s important to you?’ I was pretty much talking to myself, really,” he says.

New material

"Tell you what: David Bowie has obviously left us, but if I look at what he did, I can only say that it's the beginning, it's my first album and I would love to create more. So if people say that my music is this or my music is that, it's too early to judge.

“I personally wouldn’t want my second album to sound like my first; it might sound very rocky or hard rock – and that wouldn’t be melancholy. So if people think my music is melancholic, then so be it. It’s meant to be uplifting, and I’m just basically saying what needs to be said.”

Speaking of new material, he has been writing all the time, but “I want to take my time and really write. I’m more drawn to the issues that we face now in England, France, the world, but I’m not going to be pretentious and talk about things that are not close to my heart. I would rather write about things that touch me and that’s the most important thing, I think – not to drag in the so-called political things to do with ‘Black Lives Matter’ and all of that, because I’m not American. I’d prefer to be honest and talk about things that I’m into.”

He is looking forward to returning to Ireland next week, which he hopes will be a more successful visit than the last one. Here to shoot the video for Condolence, he tripped when coming out of a restaurant in Dublin and gashed his elbow. Then, thanks to his penchant for walking and playing barefoot, he also had an episode on the shoot in the Burren.

“It was really bad,” he says with a soft chuckle. “I was walking on the stones in this place in the Burren and I cut my left little toe. So it was a bloody adventure. So less blood this time, please.”

Benjamin Clementine plays the Olympia Theatre in Dublin on May 30th

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