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Benjamin Clementine: The troubadour of deep thoughts

With songs that exude poetry and a style that eludes classification, Benjamin Clementine stands out among all his contemporaries

Benjamin Clementine.
Benjamin Clementine.

In April last year, at a Tiny Desk Concert in the National Public Radio’s (NPR) offices at Washington DC, Benjamin Clementine played a set of three songs that left his audience—comprising mainly staff at the non-profit, NPR—spellbound. It was a year after Clementine had won the Mercury Prize, the musical equivalent of the Booker in Britain, for his debut album At Least For Now. Tiny Desk Concerts are always minimalistic and informal: they’re inside an office; musicians use few instruments; and those that are used are typically acoustic. For Clementine those strictures didn’t cramp his style—his central equipment has always consisted of his powerful vocals and a piano.

If you watch his NPR set (it’s on YouTube), you’ll see why the audience—any audience—is quickly impressed by the young man’s music. Clementine, 28, is a long-limbed skinny man with high cheekbones, hair styled to stand up straight over his head, and dressed usually in austere black. More often than not he’s also barefoot and on occasion he’s known to perform bare torso too. But it’s his style of singing and the lyrics that strike you most. Clementine’s latest album, I Tell A Fly, will be released later this year but two singles off that are already out—God Save The Jungle and Phantom Of Aleppoville, the latter accompanied by a startling (and , perhaps, disturbing) video too.

Back to the NPR gig. Sitting at the piano, his long fingers running across the keyboard, Clementine looks sideways at the camera throughout, and with his gaze intense, he sings, his voice somewhere between a tenor and a baritone. It’s the words that hit you. He kicks off with Condolence, an arresting song that will likely leave you spellbound. I’m sending my condolence/I’m sending my condolence to fear/ I’m sending my condolence/ I’m sending my condolence to insecurities goes the chorus of the song, which, once you learn about his backstory, you realize could be autobiographical. Clementine is frequently alluded to by critics as being a contemporary male Nina Simone. That could be a lazy and convenient catch-all descriptor but there are similarities—he has had his share of struggles; there is, like it was for Simone, a French connection; and, of course, he’s black.

Born in England to parents of Ghanaian descent, Clementine, who’s one of five siblings, had a non-typical childhood. Growing up in Edmonton, in an east London borough, he frequently bunked school to spend time at the local library randomly devouring books by the likes of George Orwell, William Blake and T.S. Eliot. At school he was bullied and picked on but developed an early interest in playing the piano—practising on toy ones first and then an electric keyboard, all of it self-taught. Rebelling against his family’s wishes—they wanted him to study law—he left home at 16 and lived as a homeless person, first in London, and then Paris where he tried to make a living busking—his first attempts were at Paris’ Place de Clichy station where he stood on a whim one day and started singing without any accompaniment. He kept going back and doing that—sometimes covering well-known popular songs but also composing his own.

There are two things about Clementine’s songs: their lyrics, which, are always poetic; and their form, which is difficult to classify. Difficult because Clementine’s songs rarely follow predictable two, three, or four-chord patterns. They can soar or slow down without warning; get interspersed with classical music-influenced interludes, operatic vocals, or jazz-style scatting. Just as you think a song has settled into a familiar pattern—a verse followed by a chorus followed by another verse, it abruptly takes flight and becomes something totally different, say, like the vocals in a choral symphony.

Unsurprisingly, Clementine has often confounded music critics. His first album opens with a song titled Winston Churchill’s Boy in which he compares Churchill’s son’s life with his own. It begins with these lines: Never in the field of human affection/ Had so much been given for so few attention/ Winston boy, Oh! There he is/ Packing quietly alone/ You could mistake a clock ticking/ For a cricket cricketing/ When you’re around him. Unlikely that you’ll find such fare dished out by Clementine’s contemporaries in popular music anywhere! Then there is the unique nature of his compositions—soul, R&B and pop melding into classical and opera. In interviews, Clementine has pointed to Erik Satie, late 19th and early 20th century Parisian avant-garde composer, pianist and surrealist, as a major influence but has also cited people as varied as composers Frédéric Chopin and Charles Debussy, Jimi Hendrix, operatic tenor, the late Luciano Pavarotti, Aretha Franklin and British comedy singer Jake Thackray.

Phantom Of Aleppoville, one of the two songs released from his forthcoming album, is about bullies and bullying but it isn’t as simple as that—it tries to explore the psychological impact of bullying on children and the psyche of children who bully. The title refers to the Syrian city of Aleppo and alludes to research by British child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who compared long-term effects of bullying with the trauma suffered by children in Syria. Clementine draws on his own experience of being bullied, but his lyrics are influenced by Winnicott’s research as well. That’s deep stuff that shouldn’t be left unheard.


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Phantom Of Aleppoville’ by Benjamin Clementine from ‘I Tell A Fly’

2. ‘Bitch, I Love You’ by Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears from ‘Black Joe Lewis’

3. ‘Another Train/Working Man’s Blues’ by Hard Working Americans from ‘The First Waltz’

4. ‘Total Entertainment Forever’ by Father John Misty from ‘Pure Comedy’

5. ‘Blackleg Miner’ by Offa Rex from ‘The Queen Of Hearts’

First Beat is a weekly column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

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