The new kings of pop: Benjamin Clementine
British by birth but French by adoption, the feverish, intense Benjamin Clementine prefers the literary lyricism of Brel and Piaf to the pop anthems of Blur or Lily Allen. But the blistering emotion of his piano and verse moves listeners wherever he goes.
In contrast to rock stars of their parents’ generation, Hozier, Tom Odell, James Bay, George Ezra, Benjamin Clementine and Jake Bugg represent a different face of British pop, one that’s less wild and rather more saccharine. For Numéro Homme, this new wave of singer-songwriters posed in the studio of fabled photographer David Bailey, the man who immortalized Mick Jagger and all the other London legends of the Swinging 60s.
In London, which he left four years ago, Benjamin Clementine is now a perfect stranger, and if people turn around to look at him it’s simply to admire his long silhouette and the noble set of his sculptural head. But in France, his adopted homeland, he’s one of the most exciting musical discoveries of recent months. Since the release of his first album, At Least for Now, earlier this year, his intense, almost melodramatic songs and his intoxicating voice have touched the hearts of a wide audience. But before that, Parisian commuters might have had the good fortune to see this barefoot giant in the metro, where he busked to earn a crust and where – according to the oft-repeated legend – he was spotted by a music director who signed him up to a major label. This pretty tale is the happy ending to a rather more chaotic life story in which this youngest child of four won through thanks to an unshakable belief in himself. “I wrote the songs on this album in state of total emergency,” he says in a calm voice that is nonetheless filled with the same intense fever as when he sings. “I didn’t think about the listeners, that wasn’t what was in my mind, I just had to get the songs out.” An intuitive pianist who discovered the instrument at the age of 11 through Erik Satie, Clementine has never felt at home in the ephemeral fashions of the British music scene.
His true sources of inspiration are rather more French, among them the dear departed greats that are Léo Ferré, Édith Piaf and Henri Salvador. He discovered Jacques Brel through the cover of Ne me quitte pas by Nina Simone, the most cherished of his idols, whose earthy strength and ethereal spirituality he channels on stage. His songs, which are often free and shifting like a staccato torrent, are composed from poems which he then dresses with improvised piano. “I like to keep this freedom to model my songs around the lyrics, without obeying orthodox rules of music. For a long time I didn’t say a word. I didn’t speak. I was totally clammed up and nothing came out apart from the basic words you need to survive. It was music that freed my speech, and that’s why there are so many words in my songs. They’re the words I didn’t utter in the first part of my life. They were there, in reserve, waiting for the right channel to let them out.” From his Ghanaian origins he has inherited a wisdom that is merely the calm outer shell hiding an intense internal ferment; from England, his birthplace, he has inherited the sartorial distinction of a dandy, but without ever cultivating it; and from France, he feels he has gained all the rest: “I like to tell people I’m French. I felt like I was born a second time when I came here. Moreover I think I deserve a French passport.” Since the dawn of time there has been a fight over which is the more important in a song – the words or the music – and it’s going to be fascinating to watch him work it out.
Check out the full story in the September issue of Numéro, now in stands and available in our iPad app.
By Christophe Conte