benjamin clementine will never lose his integrity
Discovered playing guitar on the Paris Metro, he secured a UK record deal after one appearance on Jools Holland and the rest, as they say, is history…
Benjamin Clementine's story tells itself. Raised in the outskirts of North London, he first played music on a small electric keyboard his brother had brought. He received no formal training and taught himself from snippets caught here and there. An Erik Satie recital overheard on classical radio; an Antony and the Johnsons performance on TV. And, throughout his childhood and teenage years, he read and he read and he read. At the age of 19, after falling out with his housemate, he moved to Paris where he survived by busking for five years.
There are a lot of layers in your songs. How long did you spend writing this album?
Overall, five years. There are songs missing on the album. In this world, you can't put more than 20 songs out at once, unless you're a legend, you know? It's my first record so I had to compromise a bit. When you listen to the music, I haven't compromised at all. It's my own work.
Did you have any battles with your record label over how it should sound?
No, no, no, no, no. Lucky for me they came when things were looking good in a certain way. I had already done something with an independent label. There was no ego whatsoever. They were nobody, I was nobody. We decided to record our first EP - next minute, I was on Jools Holland. And then they came. And I said, you're not telling me what to do. You're here because I went on Jools Holland and the reason I went on Jools Holland is because I play my own songs. They had to understand that I've got to do my own thing. You know, we struggled a little bit at the beginning. They're the ones with money but they had to understand, well I told them, that I have a lot to say and you've got to leave me alone to create my own music and my own art.
And the record is quite intimate. Especially as it's your first, have you found it hard to share the songs publicly?
I think I have no problems. People who know me, I think they know already what I've gone through. I've really opened up to people. So me doing Burberry or whatever, it won't change the fact of my story. I still, for example, am singing on stage with no shoes on. I'm still just answering questions openly, I'm still creating and playing songs the way I've always wanted to play them. I can't see myself losing my integrity, it would be stupid.
How was it playing the Burberry show?
Before I did that show, I didn't know him Christopher Bailey, and I just thought Burberry was another fashion brand. I met Christopher Bailey and I felt like shooting myself because I realized that he's a human being. I read a lot about it before meeting him. And when I met him, he talked to me and he was down to earth and, at that particular moment, I was fully in, you know.
You always wear a long coat and no shoes on stage. Why's that?
Everything happened naturally. I didn't plan it: 'when I get a little bit famous, my image will be this'. There was a time in Paris, a friend of mine gave me shoes, his special shoes, because I didn't really have any shoes, so he gave me his shoes to wear for an event where I had to play. So I was playing the piano and the shoes were quite slippery. I couldn't really hit the pedal. I took them off and threw them away. And I started playing with bare feet, and that was it. I never wore shoes again because I realized how it felt. I was freer. And then with the coat, it's eventually, of course, an image. This first album, wearing a coat, it's like, psychologically, I actually want protection. When I was young, growing up, going to school, going to secondary school, I was bullied, and I just feel a little bit more safe in that coat.
A lot of lessons permeate. You get a sense of learning as you went. An honest, open process. Is that a correct reading?
I'm just free to express myself. I think everyone should have the rights to express themselves however they want. I think, we're all young. I'm not 50, I'm not 40. But just because I'm young, doesn't mean I'm dumb and stupid. I think we young people are very intelligent. No one goes to university and studies law and gets the highest mark and says they're stupid and goes to the bar and parties everyday and says they're stupid. No, you're not stupid. Because older people can't study like that now. So you're the smarter one in fact. So behave. Stop giving excuses that you're young so you live once. No, because excuse me, we breathe more than once. And that's the most important thing.
Benjamin Clementine's debut album, At Least For Now, is released on March 30 2015 via Virgin EMI. Photos taken at Brown's Hotel, London.
Text Oscar Quine
Photography Daniel Roper