Benjamin Clementine | From Barefoot Busker to Spotify Star

Benjamin Clementine | From Barefoot Busker to Spotify Star
The self-taught singer and barefoot pianist, Benjamin Clementine, is from Edmonton in North London. This 25-year-old singer-songwriter has overcome personal struggles and obstacles in order to achieve his goal of performing and communicating his story through his lyrics.

Clementine fell in love with the piano at age six, and later in life was extremely drawn to poetry, especially the works of William Blake, TS Elliot and Carol Ann Duffy. He has also expressed his fondness for dictionaries and is passionate about seeking out rare and archaic words. He insists that words are merely ‘someone’s interpretation,’ and his songs represent what they mean to him.

The youngest of five, Benjamin Clementine was born to parents of Ghanian descent. He grew up in London and left school at 16 after a troubled childhood. His parents were strict, highly religious, and pressured him to become a lawyer. Clementine ended up homeless in Camden and moved to Paris following an argument with a friend. He lived in Paris for five years, living on the streets of Montmartre, and he busked for change in the Place de Clichy metro station.

He went on to move into a hostel, where he was able to play a keyboard and compose music. A friend of Matthieu Gazier, an independent record label owner, approached him in the metro. This was Clementine’s big break, and Gazier went on to become his manager. He carried on singing for two years in bars and clubs until he returned to live in London, and his career has started to take off.

Clementine first appeared on Later with Jools Holland last October, singing his track ‘Cornerstone.’ A week after this performance, he was the most shared artist on Spotify for a week. Clementine was soon picked up by a major record label, Virgin EMI, and went on to sell out two shows at London’s Purcell Room in December.

Clementine’s powerful voice lends a bold quality to his genre-defying narrative music. Although a reserved and private person, Clementine’s lyrics are highly autobiographical and personal, particularly in his track ‘Glorious You.’ He feels that his music would be pointless if it didn’t say something about his particular experiences. He describes himself as not just a singer, but an expressionist, somebody with something to say and a story to tell, openly expressing his frustration with the lack of ambition in most mainstream song lyrics.

Clementine is impressively self-made, having taught himself piano, guitar, and drums. He is also vocally untutored. He recalls having to perform cheesy covers of chart tracks in Paris that never sounding anything like the originals due to his lack of tuition. He is known for boldly playing the piano barefoot, comparing the experience to feeling like superman, calling it an animalistic sensation. In an interview with The Independent, Clementine said ‘We are all animals that call ourselves human beings.’ He says how ‘feeling his instrument’ makes him ‘feel like an animal that wants to say something and give something to so many animals.’ He openly admits that he would prefer to perform on stage in the nude but settles instead for a long coat with nothing underneath.

His eclectic sound makes his music difficult to define. When performing live, his jaunty, arresting performance style veers between spoken word and raw explosion of song accompanied by eloquent piano lines. Critics have compared his soulful style to that of Nina Simone and his passionate delivery to Edith Piaf. However, Clementine is not classically trained and cannot read music. His exposure to music has merely been fragmentary, taking his influence from Pavarotti and Puccini, overheard on the radio. He describes his music as a mix of opera, classical, soul, and funk. These undertones accompanying his personal lyrics makes for an uncommon combination.

Benjamin Clementine in Edmonton 2014 © Joe Livingstone/WikiCommons

In his teens, Clementine saw Anthony and The Johnsons performing ‘Hope There’s Someone’ live and happened upon the avant-garde French composer Erik Satie on the radio. Clementine subconsciously married the spirit of these two influences with poetic lyrics to produce his own material, both epic and original. He learned from hours of listening to Classic fm after ‘becoming bored’ with rock music.

Living in Paris shaped Clementine’s music tastes and influenced his singing. He started writing music in a French way – more focused on lyrics rather than melody. Other influences include Jacques Brel and Leo Ferre.

Critics and the media tend to focus on Clementine’s heart-wrenching background; however, he strongly dislikes the focus on his biographical details, fearing that it may overshadow his music. Clementine’s track ‘Adios’ bids farewell to the child in him, who kept on blaming everyone else, and his track ‘Cornerstone’ refers to his constant feelings of being an outsider, singing about how loneliness is his ‘home, home, home.’

Clementine’s Glorious You EP was released last August. His album, At Least For Now, was released last month. It includes 11 tracks of breathtaking strength and unconventional beauty. The majority of the album is about life and growing up, but also broaches the importance of self-improvement. In the future, he’d like to record classical music and release a collection of poetry.