British artist, composer, musician and poet, Benjamin Clementine was born and raised in London. While Clementine has developed a reputation of being reserved and private, his lyrics are often autobiographical and flagrantly personal. As a teenager, he relocated to Paris to pursue a career in music, becoming homeless for a period whilst busking in the Métro. His distinctive performances at Parisian bars and clubs grew is profile, helping him become somewhat of a cult figure in the city’s underground music and art scene. Moving back to London to work on his first album, he made his TV debut on the BBC programme Later With Jools Holland in 2013.
The same year, critics dubbed Clementine as one of the great singer-songwriters of his generation and the future sound of London, struggling to place his musical offering within a single existing genre. Considered by The New York Times as one of the 28 geniuses who defined culture in 2016, Clementine’s compositions are musically incisive and attuned to the issues of life but also poetic, mixing revolt with love and melancholy, sophisticated lyricism with slang and shouts, and rhyming verse with prose. Breaking free from traditional song structure, Clementine has developed his own theatrical and innovative musical terrain.
He won the Mercury Prize in 2015 for his debut album At Least for Now, and came back to live in Edmonton, north London, where he was born. Phil Mongredien of The Guardian said of Clementine’s debut, “The album is bold, brave, beautiful, and at times quite brilliant. Clementine cites Anohni as a formative influence, and certainly there are vocal similarities. But for the most part these piano-led songs sound unique. The lonely despair of Cornerstone and the arresting lyricism of Condolence signalling an exciting new talent.”
From and early age, the artist sought out rarely used and archaic words, endeavouring to integrate them into his vocabulary. The youngest of five children, Clementine was raised by his Roman Catholic grandmother, and after she passed away, his parents. Having endured bullying at school, he was mischievous as a child, but his rebellion was seldom predictable, often involving furtive time spent in the library. He found himself particularly drawn to the literature of the Bible as well as poetry, including the works of William Blake, T. S. Eliot, and Carol Ann Duffy.
Released earlier this year, I Tell a Fly, Clementine’s sophomore album, sees the artist exploring new musical territory on the heels of his acclaimed debut. Accompanied by a video shot by photographer Craig McDean and filmmaker Masha Vasyukova, Clementine composed the seminal song, Phantom Of Aleppoville, after being affected by the writing of pioneering British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He wrote extensively about children who have experienced bullying in the home and at school, discovering that while the trauma was naturally not comparable in scale to that suffered by children displaced by war, its effects followed similar patterns.
Seeing in Winicott’s writing a mirror of his own childhood experiences, Clementine chose the title, the “little city of Aleppo,” to symbolise a place where children encounter such mistreatment. Where At Least for Now stretched itself across a series of piano ballads with unorthodox structures, I Tell a Fly brings a sense of theatricality and power by employing audacious, interwoven instruments throughout the uncompromising release.
Clementine is currently touring, with upcoming performances scheduled in Paris and Brighton. See here for more information.
On the inspiration behind his second album, I Tell a Fly:
“It was mostly to do with the traveling. The feeling of not belonging to somewhere, just being a mere traveler, being an alien. When I got my visa from Europe to America, it simply read, “An alien of extraordinary ability.” I was writing about what’s going on. It turned into what I was really trying to say, which was that I’m an alien. Not in the most superficial, arrogant fashion, but rather an alien who wanders around. It fits the current dilemma that we all face.” – Fader, 2017
On the similarities of writing poetry and songs:
“There’s no separation. It’s always a poem. Poetry itself is music. I’m just lucky that I can convert it into music. William Blake is my favourite poet of all time, and he said that he wasn’t quite familiar with the sounds of music. If so, he would have been a musician. All of his poems are all like songs, and that’s how I always try to start my thoughts. I write them down first, eventually it turns into a poem, and if I feel like composing something to it, then I do that.” – Interview Magazine, 2016
On the uncategorisable nature of his music:
“Well, saying that I am beyond categorisation is categorisation itself ! It’s up to whoever to put me in any box that they want to. But for me, it’s because I love music and, you know, I’m unafraid to express things in a way I feel they should be. I don’t have an artistic director, I’m my own music act, so it’s the reason why I blend so many genres together. It’s never intentional; it’s just my taste in music. I think it’s also because I grew up not listening to a lot of music. At this particular moment, I still don’t know a lot about music. So ignorance is bliss, after all.” – Matches Fashion, 2017
Feature image via Montreux Jazz Festival