This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes, Issue 10, Winter 2017.
Benjamin Clementine loves language. He’s emphatic on it. “It’s part of us. I think language is our spirit, and, as an artist, it’s our weapon, it’s our instrument.”The award-winning musician is chatting with me on the eve of the release of his second album I Tell a Fly. As with his 2015 debut At Least for Now, the songs are rich with dense, allusive lyrics and wordplay: circling back and around politics, aliens, safety, vulnerability, the tension between movement and staying still.We’re talking on the phone and his own voice is soft at first – rising to punctuate particularly enthusiastic points.When we get onto words, it soars. “We should introduce [more] languages to kids, because maybe what you’re trying to say might be hidden on the tongue of someone you’ve never met before,” he says.“It’s vital that you search and get exposed to that.When I was in Paris and I finally learned French, there were some words that I couldn’t express in English. Sometimes, now, I’ll think about something in French, and try to explain it back into English.”
Searching – whether for the right words, the right language, the best reference point, the most appropriate art form, or a place to finally settle down and call home – is a state Clementine is intensely familiar with.As he mutters early on in our chat,“I’ve travelled a lot so far. I’m twenty-eight now, and I’m basically just talking about how I’m always sort of restless.”
This restlessness has formed a large part of his public journey to date: a journey that is seemingly mandatory to reference in every profile or interview (alongside a passing reference to his architectural cheekbones).What better than the story of a driven, very singular young man from Edmonton who taught himself piano and took refuge in the library, then left for Paris in his teens where he supported himself by singing, sometimes barefoot, in hotels and on the Métro? A young man, moreover, whose chance discovery by an agent would catapult him from anonymous busking to being praised by the likes of Paul McCartney and David Byrne, and consequently winning The Mercury Prize in 2015? A young man who makes exhilarating music that swoops from ballads and sonatas through to reworked nursery rhymes or songs that switch from snarl to whisper and back again – all borne along by his ever-mercurial voice?
I wonder if he ever gets frustrated with this neat rags-to-riches fairytale though. Now he’s doing the publicity rounds again, does he find himself wanting to resist the neat shape of this narrative? “You can blather on about how I was on the street at one point and blah de blah de blah, or you can talk about how I played in bars and I was struggling – which I was – and you can make it sound like a movie, or whatever, but the fact is I always want people to remember that the reason why I’m still standing is because I came from nothing.” It’s a point he repeats several times: the significance of his status as someone who worked himself up from the bottom, and, more importantly, the precedent this sets for others. “My way of doing things and my expressions and the way I carry myself show that I am proud I came from nothing.”
His way of doing things, as well as how he carries himself – given that he is strikingly tall and often clad in a blue boiler suit for performances, or busy donning baroque velvet blazers, ruffled shirts, sharp suits, and sweeping capes – is entirely remarkable. On I Tell A Fly, Clementine’s curiosity and intellect is present in abundance, as well as his ability to craft songs that require several rounds of listening to fully appreciate the depth and texture of their sound.The lyrics are brimful of references to psychoanalysts and poets, as well as the twin central motifs of the fly and the alien.The latter is partly a reference to the description he was assigned on his American visa:‘An Alien of Extraordinary Abilities’.When I ask whether the alien more generally stands for the figure of someone standing on the outside looking in, he’s quick to correct me.“It’s not anyone looking in at the human race – ’cause I’m a human being, and I fully embrace it. But I do think that we are all aliens. I feel that we will be forever travelling to the unknown.” Later he adds,“We’re such a curious creation, we always want to know what’s there in the dark, in the black hole.”
I Tell A Fly doesn’t shy away from darkness either. Partly rooted in global politics and the tumult of the last few years, the songs nod to Aleppo, Paris, Europe, and the refugee crisis. Is there some responsibility for artists to respond to the world around them? “The artists I adore, they all talked about their time. They made social commentary on their time.” Like who? “Dylan did. Bob Marley did. Nina Simone did.There are so many, and yet, so few. I don’t know. Maybe Gil Scott-Heron.” He’s also keen to flag the importance of music as escapism – “being able to let human beings forget about their existence is fantastic” – but Clementine is obviously not one to ignore the chaos.
His conversation is stitched through with references to other artists.When we discuss the difference between poetry and music, he laughs and says,“If it were me, I’d prefer to just quit and start writing books. But then there’s a bit of a fear, right? Because I admire Oscar Wilde, and I think I’ll never be Oscar Wilde, but these days it’s easier for people to listen to music than for them to read something. So I’m lucky.” Later as we discuss coveting other art forms, he adds,“I think William Blake once said he wasn’t quite familiar with the sounds and signs of music, and if he was he would’ve been a musician or an artist or a singer – but apparently he wasn’t good at it, so he stuck to writing and painting. But he did quite well, didn’t he?”
Benjamin Clementine is doing quite well too. More than quite. Very. And much as restlessness might inform his work, it seems he’s finally enjoying being still too. “I never really understood what people meant by ‘going back home’ – to go back home at holidays or Christmas, with family gathering around – I didn’t experience that in my life,” he says. “It’s only now that I’ve found Flo, whom I dearly love, that I’m starting to want to stay in one place a bit more. But before that I’d always wandered.”This nod to his partner Flo Morrissey suggests a new sense of gravity. Later he circles back to this stability. “For me, the second album is almost like a thank you for giving me some sort of intention and helping me out.” Not that things are going to be wholly static from hereon in.“If you look back,we’ve all been travelling for millions and millions of years.”And in the here and now, there’s obviously plenty left ahead.
Photography: Steph Wilson
Words: Rosalind Jana
Stylist: Frances Davison
Grooming: Oliver Wood