The phrase “An alien with extraordinary abilities” on Benjamin Clementine’s U.S. visa painted an accurate description of the British singer/pianist. But one word in particular caught Clementine’s eye and imagination as he mulled a concept for his new album, I Tell a Fly. “The alien is being a foreigner or a wanderer,” he says. “I’ll take that opportunity to identify and somehow describe the spirit of alienation.”
Clementine, 29, spent much of his life as a wanderer familiar with disconnection, from a childhood where he felt more comfortable in the library than around peers to a homeless stint where he literally found his voice busking on the Paris subway.
He wasn’t the odds-on favorite to win the 2015 Mercury Prize for the U.K.’s best album, but he did just that with his dramatic, eccentric debut At Least for Now, edging out Florence + the Machine and Jamie xx. Success only galvanized his outsider’s resolve. When it came to producing his follow-up, Clementine says, “They’ve given me the award to be myself. So the only thing I can do is to be myself.”
Released last September, I Tell a Fly expands that prospect as a more fleshed-out project whose sweeping shifts suggest a play or opera. “It’s an ambitious attempt to write a play, but because I don’t have the capacity and the means to make it happen, I decided to just write an album,” he says. “My goal is to really write stories rather than sing a bunch of songs.”
The album finds Clementine both echoing his own experiences (playfully claiming “Jupiter” as his home) and alluding to the plight of refugees. “Aliens on foreign land again, better beat it and go back home, ’cause if they find you, they will kill ya!” he sings in “God Save the Jungle,” then declares “A less safe place is no safe place at all” in “Better Sorry than Safe,” cloaking choral vocals in synthesizer as well as piano. “Phantom of Aleppoville” draws a correlation between bullied children and war-displaced peoples as outlined by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.
“If I’m somewhat scared to approach schoolchildren because I think they’re laughing at me,” says Clementine, who was bullied in his youth, “I think a kid in Aleppo is experiencing something much worse.”
Benjamin Clementine plays the Berklee Performance Center on Jan. 30.
Clementine found refuge in a public library on the northern outskirts of London, devouring the works of William Blake, John Locke (notably his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”) and George Orwell. “I found it easier to laugh reading a book than to laugh with people,” he says. “I wouldn’t even turn up to school.”
Music wasn’t as strong an influence under the strict Catholic upbringing of his Ghanaian parents. Clementine discovered classical music by age 11, learning to play piano by ear, and was later inspired by Antony and the Johnsons, Nina Simone and composer Erik Satie.
Clementine left his family for Paris with little in his pocket and bounced between a crowded hostel and the street, picking up a guitar to play the Metro (videos can be found on YouTube) and bars. Despite a passionate, booming and lacerating tenor voice that’s become his trademark, he never sang before busking to earn money, Clementine says. “I only sang because I had to survive.”
A star-making solo turn on the BBC’s Later… with Jools Holland, where he performed in a long coat and bare feet, led to a major record deal and wider touring (as well as a cameo on Gorillaz’s 2017 track “Hallelujah Money”). Now on an international tour, Clementine brings a band to the Berklee Performance Center on Jan. 30.
“I could not care less if my music doesn’t get played on the radio or whatever,” he says. “If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, you’re the one that’s going to be the least happy.” He disputes the idea, however, that his music is an acquired taste. “We live in a time now where apparently we have no time,” Clementine says. “When we do slow down, people are going to spend more time looking at resources, listening to music and paying more attention to different art forms. They’ll eventually realize that things were not as different as they thought.”◆
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