Benjamin Clementine: 'I sang on the Paris metro like I was playing in a stadium'

He spent two years busking for food on the streets of Paris before being signed to a major record label. The singer-songwriter talks about his journey from playing pavements to being nominated for the Mercury Prize

People can’t take their eyes off Benjamin Clementine. On stage it’s because he’s thundering out melodies on a piano, singing intensely with his eyes closed. Offstage it’s because he’s strikingly tall, with a shock of hair combed skywards and cheekbones that have been described as “planar”, “chiselled” and simply “impossible”. Today, the looks silently cast his way may have more to do with the fact that we’re huddled around the corner of a table in Edmonton Green library, and in conversation at a borderline unacceptable volume.

“You see that man?” he asks, gesturing towards an elderly man wearing a flat cap and shuffling towards one of the fiction bookshelves across the room. “I’ve known him since I was very little. He used to come every day. He doesn’t really talk to anyone, but I remember him very well.”

We’re in north London, where his oft-retold, slightly mythologised story begins. On paper, it reads like a novel: a young man leaves home, deserting a strained relationship with his parents. He stops off at a friend’s flat and decides to drop everything, catching the next flight to Paris. There he sleeps rough and in hostels for a couple of years, earning money busking on underground trains and at parties. Suddenly, he appears – barefoot and unknown, singing breathlessly about loneliness – on Jools Holland in October 2013, and is signed to Virgin/EMI.

It wasn’t quite as filmic as that. Aged 19, Clementine says he left London with £60 to his name, “and that was only enough for the ticket to Paris. Not the bus to Gatwick airport. I had to beg the bus driver to let me on, by telling him that my parents lived in France and that they were ill.” His parents, in fact, have stayed in London but Clementine grows quiet when I ask about them and simply says that he keeps in touch with his eldest brother. Of his first night in Paris, he only remembers lights – “a lot of lights. I felt like I’d taken acid or something” – as he wandered the city on his own. It took about three years for him to progress from busking to playing bars and parties, then releasing EPs on a Parisian indie label. In 2014 Clementine joined EMI.

What does he make of constantly retelling a story that’s turned into autobiographical Chinese whispers? “It is boring and frustrating because I want to talk about my songs.” His voice drops slightly: “Sometimes it feels like my story overshadows my music.”

We’ve been talking for the better part of an hour, and for the first time Clementine sounds despondent. He says he’s extremely grateful for the media attention he’s picked up over the past two years, but finds the obsession with his background mystifying. Luckily, as shown on his Mercury prize-nominated debut album At Least for Now, he has the musical chops to support the weight of his life story.

“With this sort of career, you need determination. You’ve got to sacrifice a lot of things: family, friends – not that I had any” – and he now he chuckles – “but you sacrifice everything. I dedicate all my time to music. And I’m glad that it’s paying off in some ways.” It’s not the easiest journey to make, from self-taught musician and self-described loner to a critical darling selling out gigs across Europe and the UK.

Clementine, who’s 26, doesn’t make music that fits the twentysomething trends of the year. There aren’t signs of hook-laden trap, 90s-inspired indie or synth-led and multi-genre pop aimed at the charts. Rather, his emotive piano lines overlaid with tremulous strings and pitter-pattering drums sound resolutely vintage. His lyrics are the focus. You can hear him cram every last word into songs Quiver a Little and Nemesis (sample lyric: “if chewing was to show you how much I cared / I’d probably be wearing dentures by now”), scurrying over their verses while the instrumentation almost plays catchup. There are echoes of French-language chansons – Eric Satie, Léo Ferré, recent collaborator Charles Aznavour – as well as nods to “my heroes: Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Nina Simone.”

His music, he says, “is me, speaking directly to you. I’ve learned in the little bit of my life so far that you can’t fool people. And so I only tell people what I think about: my ambitions, my dreams, what inspires me.” Though soft-spoken, he’s playful and self-aware, observing that how he’s often found “wailing about my loneliness” in song. For all the brooding photoshoots and music videos, you can see the charisma and guts that would have made Clementine risk humiliation every day and busk for the money to buy dinner.

He doesn’t view his professional performances now as any different from the Bob Marley covers he belted out on the Paris metro, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. “I went round that train playing as if I was playing in a stadium. I’ve always performed this way. I went on the streets and played, and I could still go and play on the streets today if I felt like it.” Vulnerability underpins it all, and his openness draws listeners into his stories.

He insists that he’s “not a good pianist and not a good singer” but a storyteller – the latter I see firsthand when he whispers through a cryptic tale about why he can’t bear to watch Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? because something about its intimacy “scared me too much”. He can tell the stories of others, too, variously quoting (and sometimes misquoting) Benjamin Franklin, Georges Brassens, Jimi Hendrix and Abraham Lincoln in order to make a point. “I know, deep down, that what makes my music what it is are my words,” he says. “It always starts from me wanting to say something. Once I’ve run out of things to say, I’ll be done.”

Contributor

Tshepo Mokoena

The GuardianTramp

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