Sleeping rough to breakthrough act

Benjamin Clementine's music is a sudden reawakening, echoing a gamut of inspirations from the past, of voices and sounds that fought for the integrity of human expression 

If you happened to chance upon English singer-songwriter Benjamin Clementine, certainly it is one of the finds of a lifetime: a celestial performer who’s descended upon a godforsaken place to help the oppressed out of misery through soulful music.

To watch him sing is to be inside the man’s head itself. There is no way one could take eyes off him, as the performance is out of this world. Is it self-styled opera? Hard to pinpoint. That is exactly what the artiste seeks. Not to be pigeon-holed.

The singer evokes Jacques Brel or an Edith Piaf in the unforgettable pathos he unleashes to enrapture the listener.

Clementine was discovered by producers while he was busking in the Paris metro. A well-deserved break would follow -- his debut on the BBC show, Later... With Jools Holland, where he would perform the mesmerising single Cornerstone in 2013 - just him and the piano, barefoot and shirtless with an oversized coat on. Cornerstone is a must-listen.

Initially, when Clementine took Spotify by storm in 2014, as the most shared artiste, critics and fans drew all sorts of comparisons. A likeness to Nina Simone was the most common.

The massive creative void left by the great artists, who simply could not be replaced long after they are gone, was finally being reclaimed. Nevertheless, a sudden shot of reawakening, echoing a gamut of inspirations from the past, of voices and sounds that fought for the integrity of human expression.

Clementine is an expressionist rather than a genre-centered musician. A story-teller who weaves his tales inspired by his experiences in compelling music. He has written poetry about Brexit too: “To vote or not to vote/To care or not to care/To fear or not to fear/All to kiss a mocking fool” #WriteAPoem AboutBrexit.” Clementine wants to compile his own dictionary of words just like Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. According to him, a word is what it shall mean to the individual.

With varied influences such as William Blake, Claude Debussy, Leonard Cohen, Erik Satie and Antony Hegarty, Clementine does not like to be compartmentalised into a type by the listener.

Neither does he want the producers to mould his music for the audiences’ likes and dislikes. He would perform and that would be it. Nothing would be changed. What makes Clementine’s music avant-garde is his persona to begin with. He is anything but the usual performer. The first thing that strikes is the unusually pronounced cheekbones. An otherworldly aura grips the audience in the presence of his captivating lanky frame.

He performs crouched in front of the piano as if a slave to the instrument, at times bare-torso. Clementine fell in love with the piano at the age of six and once stole a toy piano from a girl in his class, one of his most cherished memories, he says.

Youngest of the five children, Clementine suffered a fractured childhood in his North London’s Edmonton home living with his overtly religious Ghanaian parents. Bullying at school and all that misery led him to leave home aged 16. At 19, he would travel to Paris and for the next four years would be homeless, busking and playing covers at bars and private parties, before he could afford a hostel.

Clementine’s family did not want the children to grow up like most Londoners. At the least, his father’s penchant for coats became the core of his future styling.

“I realised that we are all equal and that it’s all about helping each other. I learned a lot of things from Paris. I learned to grow up as a man.” Clementine told The Guardian once.

Clementine rose to fame in 2015, after he won the coveted Mercury Prize for his debut album At Least for Now. Perhaps the piano-laced laments are more or less what a musician shall be in earnest in the troubled times we live in. The eternal sadness and wanting of the human soul flows through like a calming river.

The musician dedicated the Mercury Prize to the victims of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks. He believes his stint in that city as a street artiste, sleeping rough through the most troubling times of his life, made him.

Clementine is bringing forth a musical renaissance or at least the start of it, when the art is increasingly veering off the contemporary. That Clementine does not compromise his songwriting or his unique musicality is surely praiseworthy.

The second album, I Tell a Fly, is in solidarity with the homeless, migrants and the displaced. Of them ‘flies’, in Syria and the rest of the conflict zones, who are at the mercy of adamant regimes.

Self-taught, Clementine’s genre-bending renditions come across as philosophical takes in contrast to the usual chart-topping pop musings.

“I don’t get scared when I’m going to play music. Maybe my fears are buried in my songs. Because I’m singing them. So they’re buried under it… Do you know what I mean?” Clementine tells Evening Standard.

The Mercury Prize jury termed Clementine’s sound as original, fresh and contemporary. According to Corinne Bailey-Rae, one of the judges, “it’s really free and you feel like you are with him, in his mind, on that rollercoaster ride... sometimes you feel like you are inside the piano,” quotes The Guardian.

Undoubtedly, Benjamin Clementine’s is a definitive sound that has captured the zeitgeist.

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