The Englishman from Paris. A rising star.
Benjamin Clementine is a Mercury Prize-winning pianist, poet, singer and songwriter. He was recently featured on the cover of T, The New York Times Style Magazine.
Benjamin, when did you discover that you were a poet and a musician?
When I went to Paris eight years ago I was 19. I had already read a lot of poetry by Blake. I was going to the town library and taking any book of English literature from the shelves. I was running away from school just to read books.
How has your family influenced you?
We are five siblings, and we all played instruments for a hobby. I started playing drums, and when my brother bought a piano I started to play the piano. When my parents divorced I went to Camden and I was in a homeless place. I tried to live with my father, who remarried after the divorce, and it didn’t work. I went to live with my mother and it didn’t work either. I met a guy who made me live in his flat. Then I found a job in a retail shop, but I was not happy so I went to Paris.
What did you do there?
It was an adventure. I just thought about the day. I never spoke to anyone. I was sleeping in the street. I tried to work for a few days in a kitchen, but then I left. I was writing about life, but I have lost my writing of the time.
What about music?
After six months doing nothing in Paris I started singing in front of the Sacré-Cœur or in the train. I met people who invited me to sing in a bar. I went to stay in a hostel for 20 Euro a night. I made enough money to buy a guitar and I started playing. For about two or three years I was writing my own music, but I was singing famous songs. Then I bought a keyboard and really started composing.
Who discovered you?
I met a lot of people. In Paris people have a big ego, but you cannot rely on them. Many people let me down, until I met one person on the street and he said he had a studio. I went there to record music, and one of his friends had a record label and wanted me to sign a contract. I said no. I could not trust anyone at the time. I told him he could be my manager. I went to play in hotels, birthday parties, stations, and then we went to the Cannes Festival and I was playing with a band, my own band, in a hotel. In the middle of the show I realised that people did not care. So I left. I stopped playing and went to another bar with my manager. There was a piano at the back and I played on the piano. It was 1am and I played until 5am. It was magical. People were taken, and what happened is that the owner of the bar followed and found us, and he wanted to make a record label to record my songs.
And so, what happened?
I was still playing in a bar and in trains, and I recorded three songs that were sent to the radio stations in France, and then France Inter wanted to interview me and decided to play my songs. We made a video with one of my songs, “Cornerstone”, and after six months Jools Holland saw the video and his production team invited me to audition for them, and I got in to play with Paul McCartney and it was quite something. The next day I went back to Paris and played in the train again.
Is Paris your city?
Yes, there is where I became a man.
But New York is quite similar to Paris?
Have you moved to America?
I moved to New York. I don’t think New York is America, it is the world. It is like Paris without Parisians. It is multi-cultural.
Do you still consider yourself British?
Yes, of course. I am very proud of my nationality. English is my first language; but now I am known as the Englishman from Paris.
Is Paris in your songs?
Of course. If you look at one of my videos called “London” the video is shot in Paris because I am longing for London in Paris. I am from London, and whatever happens to you, you never deny where you are from. But of course footprints of Paris are carved on my heart.
How would you describe, if you can, your music and your songs?
I think for me the greatest musical artists that ever lived never sang, but spoke. This is my opinion about people like Bob Dylan, or Léo Ferré, or Johnny Cash. They are not singers like Pavarotti. I am striving to be one of them, and the way I am doing this is to try looking up to them. I am looking at these great artists like one would look at his father. Their music spoke, that is the difference.
What are you trying to do?
I am creative and I am still searching to find my ground. I don’t think I will find a particular thing to do. My passion is for art and for people, a passion to trigger the part of the human being that has been ignored. We all sometimes ignore ourselves, and try to pretend nothing has happened. But things need to be dug deep, and we have to appreciate everything we have. This is where my passion lies.
Has your life changed?
My life has not changed, my surroundings have. I don’t play in the train, but I am doing the same thing, playing for people.
What are you doing next in America?
I have three more shows. I come back in June for a tour around America. My music is not just for Europe, but for all human beings.
Is success in America very important?
Yes, of course, but success is an illusion, because I can say that I was successful playing in the streets in Paris. Fame is not success. Gold and money is not success. Success is finding the principles of what you are inspired to do. Once you find the principles the consequences vary.
Is freedom your first and strongest value?
No, it is joy. Joy is hard to get for some people. If I was not joyful I would not be in America today, I would have been dead by now. I have been depressed for so long. In Paris I had nothing, no family, nothing; but I was joyful. And I found music, and it made me live for another day. So I said let’s keep on doing it.
Do you believe in talent?
I believe in ingenuity, I don’t believe in talent. The reason why I make music is because I shared the gamble, because of my experience. No one taught me how to play the piano. The reason why I play is because I am passionate, excited and curious. Some people go to school to learn music and how music is done. I have nothing against that, but for me it is a little bit like going to school to learn how we can let the sun shine. Ingenuity is something we are all born with, and it is up to us to discover what we can do with it; and it grows by experiences. We need time. We live in a world where time is not on our side, apparently. In order to get stuck into what we can do we must take our time. We need dedication, and practice.
Do you work very hard?
I work as much as I can work. My ability is determined by how and what I feel. I play the piano whenever I feel like it. I try to let it come as naturally as possible. I always follow my feelings and I don’t believe in mistakes, because I believe that error leads to portals of new discovery. This is what I have been doing all my life. When I make a mistake it helps me to move to a different place.
What is the contact you make with the people who come to listen to you?
They are beautiful people, from young to very old. I don’t know what people want in music. It is up to each person to discover. Some people are OK with listening to one person. Other people listen to a lot of different music.
And what about you?
I play more music than I listen to. I only listen to a few. I listen to classical music. I love Debussy, Chopin, Ravel, Satie.
What are you looking for?
I can say it in one sentence and that is, “I want anyone to feel that they too are somebody.” I have seen all sorts of people and we all do the same things and worry about the same things. The luxury of my life is being able to see and mingle with all kinds of people. You just have to do what you love, and there will be consequences and you have to be ready to pay the full price. I want to keep forever the mentality that I have nothing to lose. I know right now that there are people who are nice to me, but I am totally me by my music that speaks for itself and it is me. I have learned too many tricks to think that I own something. It is very important to feel, as I said, that one has nothing to lose. When I create music it is not just for me. I am glad that, even in my lowest moments in life, I still did not depend on drugs and alcohol, because I know it is an easy route for some people to forget their sorrows.
Do you perceive your life to be a journey?
It is a completed journey, done a long time ago; and I won. I know that I still have a lot to learn, and I am humbled by my past experiences.
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