Benjamin Clementine is hunched over in his overcoat at our Parisian bistro table, chatting to me like a world-weary old chap - at 26, the not long discovered North London poet and pianist has certainly lived. His elastic tenor voice and self-analytical lyrics have already been co-signed by a gobsmacked Paul McCartney (after seeing him on Jools Holland) and handpicked by Bjork to play her curated stage at Wilderness. In the days before we meet, Benjamin has even earned himself two sold out shows at the local Le Trianon venue; after all, this is a city that regards him as somewhat a cult figure. But it’s life that inspires the art that gives Benjamin’s work such an absorbing context.
At 19, Clementine was homeless on the streets of Paris, sporadically, for a number of years. He made enough from busking around Montmartre to secure himself a bed in a hostel on Place de Clichy, and a couple of nights a week he would perform at an Irish Bar. During this period he virtually spoke to nobody, and the fact he orders his lunch in English today suggests he didn’t come to France for any bourgeois summer holiday language modules.
During those years, he might have once been down and out in Paris, but things are on the up now. We meet for lunch in the 5th arrondissement on the kind of beautiful spring afternoon Paris is famous for. The postcard perfect Latin Quarter, or as the Americans like to call it - Hemingway’s Paris - is steeped in French, English and American literary history. Equidistant between Benjamin Saint-Clementine’s record label up the hill and the bistro we’re sitting at, stands the church Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, which appeared in the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris. George Orwell, who Benjamin name checks in “Winston Churchill’s Boy”, used to wash dishes around the corner, while the name of La Méthode where we dine on the Rue Descartes, is in tribute to the 17th century cogitator who originated the phrase, “I think therefore I am”. No matter how dark Paris gets, sometimes it’s hard not to feel automatically inspired.
At times Benjamin is charming and likeable; he has a mischievous laugh. And then he’ll be forthright and intense, and say something scary like: “You can call yourself a god, but it won’t make any difference,” as he stares you down across the table, his six foot plus frame casting a long silhouette. Mostly though, he’ll whisper, and change his mind mid-sentence, and you can almost see the shadows of contradiction boxing in his eyes. It’s not just in person he does this - in song too, on “Adios”, he breaks in the middle for an abstract mutter before suddenly changing musical tack. When we’re joking he suddenly fires, “are you taking the mickey?”, and while he opens up sometimes, he’s also guarded to the point of paranoia at others, a remnant I’m sure of needing to keep his wits about him in hostile environments.
This uncertainty extends to his current fledgling music career, and it’s obvious he’s aware it could all fall away just as easily as it came, such is the fickle world of showbusiness. He’s adamant “there’s still work to be done” despite breakthroughs and those Bjork/McCartney compliments. It should also be noted that the homelessness, the difficult upbringing, the being discovered on the streets of Paris, Benjamin sees these all as sideshows detracting from the music. When such subjects are broached he chuckles to himself as if to say: “Oh, not this again.”
At times it’s as though his mind has already drifted to another plain. When we’re interrupted by the waitress bringing Benjamin a hot chocolate, he suddenly announces that he wants “the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to open their ears a little bit and just give me a chance, to just put me on their table, you know?”
“I’m no Tom Odell,” he states. “They seem to like Tom Odell. I’m no Adele. It’s all Dels isn’t it?” He’s no Sam Smith and he’s no Ellie Goulding either he says, and I have to agree with him. He’s an antidote to a mediocrity that seems so pervasive with solo singers right now. He’s genuinely an idiosyncratic talent in a world where the talent has to be malleable to be marketable. “But come on!” he pleads. “I know I’m weird, but come on.”
When I try to wrap up the interview, he splutters “but what about my music?” incredulously - as if we haven’t been paying it close enough attention, and so we spend another fifteen more minutes talking about his debut album At Least For Now. Though you have to say, for someone who’s been compared to Nina Simone, and who to my ear has the magnificent phrasing of Nat King Cole, the earthy humour of Jacques Brel and a gift for random left field oddness that few artists since Scott Walker have possessed, then it’s easy to see why he wants to talk about his music so much.
Noisey: Benjamin, when you were busking in Paris, did you ever look at le Trianon and think I’m going to be playing two sold out gigs there one day soon?
Benjamin: No, I didn’t know what it was. It was more like playing and surviving back then, nothing special. You sleep in hostels, you don’t really talk to anyone. I was so used to it back in the day that it became the norm. It wasn’t the toughest because it just became the norm, but I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I went through.
Did you have a piano back when you were busking?
[Benjamin laughs long and hard at this, like it’s the most idiotic thing anyone has ever said] No no, I had a keyboard at the hostel. I kept it under my bed. In the hostel we had 10 bunkbeds and I would always sleep in the lower bed so I could put things under it. I had my keyboard there so I could compose.
You kept it under the bed so nobody would nick it?
Nobody would want to nick it. No one would want to nick my things, yeah. But this is a hostel, so there are always new people coming in, and I always pretended that I was new too just to make them feel alright being there. But busking I played the guitar mostly. I remember being in a restaurant with a grand piano and I asked the guy if I could play a few tunes, and he was so disrespectful, telling me to “fuck off” and “come back here when you’re famous”.
You should go back there now and show him.
It’s closed down now.
These are the sorts of things that make me work harder. The comments these bad people make eat away at me and drive me on.
You’re playing the Olympia in November, which means you’ve pretty much arrived according to French musical folklore.
That’s what they say. But unless I’m playing the Royal Albert Hall I won't believe that I’m anywhere. I’m more concerned about the music to be honest. Of course it might be beautiful in there; I’ve never been and I’m looking forward to it, but until then there’s work to be done. It’s booked, and hopefully it’ll be sold out.
Have you read Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell?
I’m a bit scared to read it. But I know [Orwell's] other works, yeah. Obviously I know Animal Farm. I read it every day in school. I hated it, because in school you get it shoved down your throat, along with Shakespeare and Carol Ann Duffy, and even whatsisname Armitage. Maybe not in your time. I got into them later, but I didn’t know that book by the way, Down and Out In Paris and London, until about three years down the line [of being in Paris].
George Orwell actually worked as a plongeur in a kitchen.
I got myself into that kitchen stuff also. I slept in the kitchen. It’s so funny, when I heard Orwell worked in a kitchen it freaked me out a little bit. I don’t talk about the kitchen all the time, but I slept in there. It was only for a few days but it still happened at the very beginning. [Sleeping rough] is not as bad as people think actually. Your body gets used to it.
On one of your songs you talk about jumping Parisian metro barriers. Did you used to do that?
Yeah of course, but even old ladies jump the barrier in Paris.
Did you ever get caught?
No no no, I never got caught, but I always had a relationship with policemen you know, because they like my music. Only policemen I hadn’t seen before would say “what are you doing here? Have you got your ID to sing in the train?” or whatever. One time someone tried to take me out of the train, and because there were people listening to me, they started shouting at the policemen to stop.
The French are good for getting behind the underdog. You’re actually based back in Edmonton (North London) these days aren’t you? Isn’t that where you were born?
Edmonton is… hmm. [starts drawing a square on the table with his finger] Edmonton is not part of the borough of Enfield. Every other town in the borough of Enfield gets taken care of. But, people are very kind and lovely. People think Edmonton is rough and hard, and of course it is hard, and the reason it’s hard is because of the poverty. But if you go to Edmonton in an afternoon and want to talk to somebody, or say hello to somebody walking in the street, they will say hello back. It’s not like in Paris where you’ve got to look like somebody for someone to open up and talk to you. I guess it’s the principles of society. If you have nothing you’ll easily talk to people, whereas when you think you’ve got something, you need to protect yourself.
Did you come from a religious background?
Well you know, I don’t really want to talk about my parents or my family…
You do in the songs though, right?
Well, I talk about family - I don’t talk about the size of their feet, you know? If someone can really follow the Bible and do what it says then those people are saints, yeah? You know I think we’re all sinners. I read the Bible of course, from Genesis to Revelation and backwards, because I like literature. If you look at William Blake’s work for example, it’s all from the Bible. I really like the King James version, not the new stuff, that’s ‘orrible English.
You paraphrase Jesus’ line: “A prophet is never accepted in his hometown.”
Which I think is true unless you’re Paul McCartney. Mind you, the Beatles had to make it in Germany first before coming back to England.
What was it like when Paul McCartney said he was a fan?
I couldn't swallow it. I thought it was a joke, you know, I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t think it happened, though obviously it did happen.
I guess eventually you’re going to make some proper money soon. What are you going to write about then?
Do you think money is the reason I wrote my first album?
I think there’s too much soul in the record to be about making money.
With the second album I’m excited. My brother always made a joke, “listen mate, you should start writing about the universe, from Pluto to the Sun and try and create some romance out of the planets”, but I think there’s more to talk about about being a human being and what we create. I mean it’s very vain to try and create your own stuff, but you’re always feeding off someone else’s work. If someone didn’t make the piano then I wouldn’t play the piano.
I love the arrangement on “Then I Heard A Bachelor's Cry”. It’s a wild, classical non sequitur almost. Where did the inspiration for that come?
Madness [laughs]. Madness and finding what to say. I just met Charles Aznavour, and he told me “before harmony there’s melody, and before melody is lyrics, and if you have lyrics you can find a melody. Find a melody and you need to find a harmony.” At that particular moment I really wanted to express myself in a different way, and that’s how I managed to find the melody and then [taps on the table] it all happened! But honestly, what motivated the lyrics was madness.
Live it’s very really dramatic and avant garde, which the French dig. There was one bit where you were stood on this bare stage stamping your foot. The whole audience was silent. You had them eating out of your hand, as they say.
I had blood on my hand. Literally.
Because of my banging the piano, I cut myself.
That’s suffering for your art.
It’s not meant to be that animalistic, it was an accident.
Is achieving success what you thought it would be like?
I have no expectations whatsoever. I’m meant to be jumping around supposedly. I was more thrilled when I finished my le Trianon show and people were clapping - I was much more happy then. For me that’s success, having a lot people come to see you sing your own songs.
You can find Jeremy Allen on Twitter: @Jeres