First Look Friday: Peer Into Benjamin Clementine's Poetic Continental Soul
Photo by Richard Dumas
Like cool rain over an old rooftop, the music of Benjamin Clementine has a transportive familiarity, a touch that seems held over from a more mindful age. The British singer, songwriter and poet sings in tones bold and lyrics bookish, injecting his verses with rhyme patters and vocabularies that you won't find in your average radio listening. But then, Clementine is anything but average.
A self-proclaimed expressionist, the 26-year-old Londoner once dabbled in painting and has always held the words of William Blake and TS Elliot close to heart. Through hard work and his own astonishing talent, Clementine music succeeds in rendering his personal search for himself in a form that any listener can find catharsis and solidarity in. It should come as no surprise that his debut LP, which was released late last month, came bearing the title At Least For Now. Over theatrical, jazz-inflected piano chords and a number of rollicking beats, Clementine trucks in the shaky self-awareness a young man not entirely comfortable with being young. One could describe songs like "London" and "Condolence" as music for films that have yet to be made, but in reality they're already attached to a certain work--pages from early chapters in a young man's continuing story. Okayplayer recently had the chance to speak with Clementine about his music, his past and what he hopes to someday become.
OKP: So tell us--who is Benjamin Clementine?
Clementine: The famous boy the world has never seen.
OKP: Your vocal style reveals that you approach your compositions as much as a writer or a poet, as a musician--do you still write in a purely literary sense? Please tell us a bit about your non-musical projects...Who are some of your poetic influences? What are you reading at the moment?
Clementine: Well I consider myself an expressionist in everything because one has to be able to freely express themselves in order to create something solely original. I don't consider myself a musician or singer. In the year before the last, I painted a few, but time isn't in my right hand anymore. I am still writing my dictionary and collections of poetry. When I was a kid I went to the library and picked books randomly of the shelf. In so doing I discovered William Blake, TS Elliot, Carol Ann Duffy. I also read a lot of philosophy even though I never fully understood any of the philosophers as a youngster. Currently I am reading "An Essay Concerning Education" by John Locke and it's breathtaking for me.
OKP: "London London London is calling you/ What are you waiting for, what you searching for?" -- Can we talk a bit about that chorus? What is about London that makes it so captivating to you? Is it a feeling, a set of places, a set of problems? Tell us about London through your own personal view of it; what made you want to write a song about a city that's already had so much ink spilled on it?
Clementine: Well I am from Edmonton, London. I left when I was nineteen all the way to foreign land. A land with people who looked different, spoke different, ate different, drove different etc. and so at some point when saved up enough money I could easily have gone back home but I decided to stay in Paris as I felt there was a reason for it. The song has nothing to do with London's Metropolis but rather my intimate relation with home and newfound home.
OKP: We understand you cut your teeth busking in those Paris streets--buskers are in a sense the ultimate self-published artists, we wonder how you look at the practice--was it a product of necessity, something you're happy to escape from? Did you get something from street performance that can't be attained from singing in a concert hall or studio?
Clementine: There is no difference between performing on the streets and in concert halls. The only differences I can think of is that concert halls are more appreciated and talked about.
OKP: How do you distinguish the line between artist and entertainer? Is there one for you?
Clementine: Being an artist to me, has everything to do with creating and being original and true. Artists create art, which can be possible in many ways and forms. To share my art with the people, on stage or wherever, I must sometimes be an entertainer as well. Nowadays there are many entertainers who are not artists and I'm sure there are many artists who are not entertainers. The latter tends to get less attention than they should. But it's no mystery.
OKP: You moved fairly swiftly from playing in the unmediated arena of street performance to being the most shared artist on Spotify--how do you feel about streaming music/the worldwide web as a method of getting your music to listeners? Is it Empowering? Alienating? Boring?
>>>Watch "London" Official Video On Pg. 2
Clementine: You can't kill two birds with one stone but you can kill a thousand with a box of stone. Internet helps but it also kills.
I realize that my music has spread as fast as it has for a large part because of the internet and I'm grateful for that. On the other hand, I am worried about the 'shuffle culture' and the way that people consume music as snacks.
That's also part of the reason why my shows are so important to me and I really want to bring that across. So don't be offended if I ask somebody to keep their mouth shut when I'm on stage, ha!
OKP: You have a very distinctive voice and presence which nevertheless recalls some great timeless performers (Nina Simone for one)...who do you consider your own influences? Of all the comparisons you've inevitably received, is there one that struck a chord more than others?
Clementine: Thank you. Erik Satie.
OKP: What are your aspirations for the music you haven't made yet--stylistically? Is there music you love to listen to that you haven't yet tried to make yourself, but might some day?
Clementine: I don't get inspired by genres but by feelings. I know that my next album will certainly be different from my first album and I hope to always keep experimenting.
OKP: With the release of At Least For Now, what's on the near horizon for Benjamin Clementine--touring, more recording, poems, books, plays? What's on the far horizon?
Clementine: All is on the horizon and all will be done, but it will take a lot of years not 15 minutes. I get inspired anywhere any-day, and I hope I conjure up something you will feel. Thanks