When Benjamin Clementine sings, people stop what they’re doing and listen. A talent this
unique is the purest of discoveries. There’s the voice: tender, powerful, fathoms deep. The
self penned songs with their gut-wrenchingly personal lyrics. The way his piano lines ebb and
flow, partnering the words, reinforcing the emotion.
One listen to his new EP Cornerstone, and you’ll see what we mean. Each of its three ballads
– ‘Cornerstone’, ‘I Won’t Complain’ and ‘London’ – is a great song in its own right. A lived-in
song that tells its own story, has its own intimacy; a song that connects with the listener,
person to person. Love and loss, despair and hope, pride and self-belief… This is me, he’s
saying. Maybe it’s you, too.
“I write and compose very spontaneously,” says Clementine of a sound he sometimes calls
‘poetic pop’. “The music started when I was young but my writing came later. It’s easier to
write, when you have something to say.”
He’s a young man with an old soul, this Benjamin Clementine. Broad shouldered, straightbacked,
with a singular sense of style, the Edmonton-raised, Paris-and-London-based
singer/songwriter/multi instrumentalist has already drawn parallels with the likes of Nina
Simone, Screaming J Hawkins and perhaps inevitably, when he’s wielding his guitar, Jimi
Better, perhaps, to recall another outsider, another artist with the same sort of cultural charge
and frisson of danger: the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, the iconic painter and Warhol
collaborator who lived by his own rules and for a short while, really lived. Indeed, if you have
to stick another label on Clementine’s sound, then try Basquiat Pop. Bas Pop. It’s fine by him.
“Basquiat did what he wanted to do,” says Clementine with a shrug. “So do I.”
He’s packed a lot into his 24 years: heartbreak, homelessness, a Phoenix-from-the-Ashes
reinvention. Before reaching cult status in Paris, where his informal, close-up gigs sell out, he
had crowds double-taking with his performances at film festivals in Cannes and Normandy.
And along the way, right up until earlier this year, he busked. There are thousands, maybe
hundreds of thousands, of Parisian commuters for whom Clementine’s stardom was only ever
a matter of time.
Most are regulars on Metro Line 2, the open-plan train that runs in a semi-circle from Porte
Dauphine to Nation and back, on which the charismatic north Londoner played for nearly two
years, building his voice, refining his craft.
“I would stand in one position in the train and not move until the end of the line,” he says of a
gig that got him recognised in the street, and regularly had people missing their stops on
purpose. “Then I’d cross over and go back again, in the same spot.”
Clementine sang loud, long and hard enough to be able to afford somewhere to stay, to
upsize from sleeping rough to a shared room in a hostel and eventually, to an apartment.
What was born out of despair, out of a need to survive, became a calling. A delight. A career.
So forget about stage schools and privileges. Clementine is the real deal: a Spurs-supporting
kid from a working class family in N18 – long rated one of the most deprived, crime ridden
areas of London – who while fiercely proud of his roots (“Edmonton always felt safe to me”),
only found himself after running away.
His musical streak revealed itself early; there was percussion played on saucepans, and an
incident involving a six-year-old classmate’s toy piano: “I stole it and got into all sorts of
trouble. But in between I managed to play ‘Für Elise’ by guessing the notes, at the age of six
or seven. I have no idea where I’d heard it.”
The real learning started aged 11, when one of his older brothers brought a keyboard home;
within a year Benjamin was the more proficient. Later, while his siblings got into hip-hop, he
found himself tuning into classical radio; the first piece he heard was a spare, beautiful piano
solo by Erik Satie, which transformed the way he played. He began imitating Satie and other
solo pianists, and along the way discovered Italian tenors such as Andrea Boccelli, Luciano
Pavarotti and Guiseppe di Stefano and imitated them, too.
Aged 16, in a rare moment of permitted TV watching, he caught New York
avant-gardists Anthony and the Johnsons performing the disarmingly naked ‘Hope There’s
Someone’ on the BBC – and was duly blown away.
“I didn’t know what Anthony was, or what he was doing, but I get it now,” he says of the way
all these influences have blended and resurfaced to make something other. “I get a lot of
Like writing. While English was the only subject to which Clementine ever applied himself –
he would pore over a large dictionary his brother had bought him (“He said I should choose
my words carefully, talk with my chest up”) – he struggled to understand the likes of
Shakespeare, and the work of poets and writers such as Paul Auster and Carol Ann Duffy.
Not anymore. Once he’d pitched up in France five years ago, everything fell into place.
Moving to Paris had a sort of abstract logic: there’d been trouble with a flatmate in Camden, a
brief infatuation with a woman who was half-Brazilian, half-French, and an overwhelming urge
to get away. It was a snowy November; when his money ran out he started sleeping in the
Metro, surrounded by his bags, which he left in front of Sacré-Couer a few days later: “They were weighing me down.”
All he had were the clothes he was wearing and a grey Kangol hat; back inside the Metro at Place de Clichy station, he put the hat on the floor and started singing a capella. That first day he made 50 Euros. After two weeks, moved on by police, he sang in other Metro stations: “Standard covers, and covers of French songs by Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré, Charles Aznavour; people liked hearing them sung by an English guy. Eventually I realised I was actually doing something I loved, that it was time to make something out of all this.”
He’d already got himself a guitar and found a place in a hostel when he bought a Yamaha keyboard: “I was practicing in a four-bunk room with new people coming in every day, and they always hated me,” he says. “Eventually I moved in with my lady, whose apartment was tiny, just a box.
“One day we’d had this argument and she’d left for work and I was meant to be playing on the train, and I wrote the lyrics for ‘Cornerstone’ in ten minutes. The words just came out, though the composition came later.”
Other songs followed: ‘I Won’t Complain’ tells of lifting blame, staying strong, looking forward.
‘London’ reinforces the value in sticking to one’s convictions, to fulfilling our golden potential.
“The piano is the instrument that takes me where I want to go, ” says Clementine, whose hotly anticipated debut album will be released in 2014. “If I told you how I compose I’d be lying, because it just comes; sometimes I’m playing keys that I don’t even know. It’s all to do with sound, with what I’m trying to project.”
“Yeah.” A smile. “It’s all to do with feelings.”