In this story
The television studio is bathed in blue light. A barefoot young black man sits at an imposing grand piano, his long fingers trilling a series of restless triads. The camera slowly dances around the piano in an ever-tightening spiral, ending on a close-up. Meanwhile, he sings:
I’m alone in a box of stone
When all is said and done.
As the wind blows to the east from the west
Unto this bed, my tears have their solemn rest.
The next few minutes proved to be life-changing for Benjamin Clementine. It was October 2013, and he was performing his song “Cornerstone” on the BBC’s Later… with Jools Holland. The host had just introduced the singer to the audience as a performer discovered busking on the Paris underground. Whatever carefree image that may have conjured, it was quickly brushed aside by the intensity of Clementine’s performance.
They claim to love me and be near me
But they’re all lying.
I have been lonely, alone in a box of stone
And this is the place I now belong.
It’s my home, home, my home, home, home, home,
For Jools Holland’s audience, it was one of those moments that is almost impossible to describe and just as impossible to forget, spoken about with the same reverence as Bowie’s polarising TV breakout on Top of the Pops in 1972, or the New York Dolls’ display of outrageous rock’n’roll hauteur on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973. Everyone who witnessed Clementine perform that night was immediately struck by the prodigious talent of the 24-year-old North Londoner who sounded like Nina Simone’s bastard son and whose unusual songs had unusual tempo shifts and abrupt changes of tone.
For the next week, Benjamin Clementine was the most shared artist on Spotify. About a month later, he had sold out two shows at London’s prestigious Southbank Centre, his first performances in his home town, and The London Evening Standard had anointed him “the future sound of London”. His sudden fame led to a recording deal with Virgin EMI and this Cinderella story climaxed only a few weeks ago when his debut album, At Least for Now, was awarded the Mercury Music Prize as the best British album of 2015, having already gone top 10 across Europe and No. 1 in France.
It’s been a tumultuous two years for the artist but, like most overnight successes, his was a lifetime in the making. Clementine has been both candid and reserved about his past during interviews, but to get a portrait of this artist as a young man we should look no further than the songs on the brilliant At Least for Now. His lyrics are so honest and his music so direct that both reveal all we need to know.
At Least for Now opens with “Winston Churchill’s Boy”, a subtle tour de force that describes the singer’s journey from London to Paris. Its opening stanza paraphrases Churchill’s famous Battle of Britain speech, with Clementine hinting at an unhappy childhood, as he does many times on the record:
Never in the field of human affection
Had so much been given for so few attention
Oh there he is packing quietly, alone.
The song’s protagonist carries in his pocket a novel by George Orwell, whose Winston Smith character was itself a backhanded tribute to Churchill.
Where is your family?
Where are your loved ones?
As he went on, crossing the Channel.
Well they say no man can be a prophet in his own country
So I left, here I am.
Musically, too, the threads of Clementine’s backstory can be discerned. The song’s stark piano introduction betrays Clementine’s affection for Erik Satie, a profound influence on the artist when he was teaching himself piano. “I would imitate his stuff, man! Just the sound of it!” Clementine told the Evening Standard’s Richard Godwin. “I had no idea what I was doing, but if it sounded right, I’d just do it. I did this just about every day when I came back from school.” “Winston Churchill’s Boy” evolves through a series of textures, like different scenes from a life, finally ending on an unsteady subsonic bass, scattered with fragments of piano.
Brought up in Edmonton, a hardscrabble neighbourhood in North London, Clementine’s conservative, deeply religious Ghanaian parents wanted him to become a lawyer. Estranged from his family now, he remembers his childhood and schooldays as miserable and lonely. “It was bad parenting,” he told The Independent in March. “But what can I say other than thank you for giving me food and looking after me and I would’ve preferred it to be better?”
A quiet child, his undemonstrative demeanour made him a target for ridicule at school and he often preferred to bunk off and educate himself at the Edmonton town library instead. There he pored over the poetry of William Blake, T. S. Eliot and Carol Ann Duffy. In his bedroom, he mainly listened to classical music on the radio, becoming besotted with Pavarotti as well as the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Other kinds of music seeped into his consciousness, too, with Nina Simone, Tom Waits and Nick Cave all crucial to his evolving tastes. Seeing Antony Hegarty perform on the BBC was also a watershed moment for the budding young musician. “I found myself in the living room, with my parents,” he told the Evening Standard. “It was so rare that I would even be allowed in the living room when they were back from work. I remember clearly, this man – man or a woman, I didn’t know … I didn’t even think it was a human being! I didn’t know what he was doing but he was doing something amazing. After four minutes, done.”
On track four, “Adios”, Clementine takes responsibility for himself and bids farewell to his childhood trauma. The song is built around a galloping piano figure, joined by a string quartet with parts arranged by Clementine.
Adios to the little child in me
who kept on blaming everyone else
instead of facing his own defeat in Edmonton.
The song proceeds apace when all at once it is interrupted by a spoken-word interlude, a strange reverie on angels. The next part sounds like an excerpt from baroque opera, Clementine singing nonsense lyrics in a countertenor. The overall effect is akin to channel surfing on a car radio. Eventually the song returns to some semblance of normality, restating its original theme before ending defiantly – “The decision is mine!” As songwriter, performer, arranger and producer, it’s clear that most of the decisions are indeed Clementine’s, and it can be a disorienting ride at times.
He was only 19 when he left for Paris, a decision precipitated by his falling out with a flatmate in Camden. With no money and no prospects, he managed to survive on the streets, approaching strangers for lodgings and doing whatever odd jobs he could find. A visit to Sacré-Coeur cathedral in Montmartre marked a turning point in the young man’s life. He described to Richard Godwin what happened next: “I put my baggage in front of the door. I did a little cross. Then I walked into the Métro and sang … and here I am today.” Impetuously, he had put his Kangol hat on the platform to accept tips as he sang for the passers-by. Prior to that, he had only ever hummed privately to himself, playing piano or guitar. In the Métro, he discovered his remarkable singing voice, learning how to project it for maximum impact on his transitory audience.
Track five on the album, “St-Clementine-on-Tea-and-Croissants”, is a re-creation of that pivotal phase. It is sung a capella, just as he once did in Paris, accompanied only by the stamping of his feet.
Paris had been the perfect finishing school for Clementine’s musical education. His sensibility was further shaped by classic songwriters such as Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré and Charles Aznavour, and the indomitable Edith Piaf’s ghostly presence is felt in his performances. The French also taught him the value of storytelling. “In France, they put a lot of detail into the lyrics,” he told The Guardian last year. “It’s very important because everyone is listening to what they are saying. It’s like a play. But I’m quite fortunate because, with me, it’s not a play. It’s real.”
Whether it’s the flawed lover of “Then I Heard a Bachelor’s Cry” asking, “Who’s next in line to get hurt?” or the survivor of an abusive household in “Quiver a Little”, haunted by childhood memories of seeing his mother lying battered on the floor, everywhere in Clementine’s songs there are visceral images and a searing honesty, towards himself as well as others. He prefers to describe himself as an “expressionist” rather than a songwriter. His songs are dispatches from his soul.
The album finishes on an elegy. “Gone” weighs up the cost of moving forward as it laments the impossibility of remaining static. Life slips through your fingers the tighter you try to hold onto it.
I can’t go back, it’s too late
And so I will get it all going
Whilst it all gets lost and gone.
Whether by design or accident, Benjamin Clementine has spent most of his life avoiding the musical centre. In truth, that place never really existed anyway, meandering like a stream on a vast flood plain. The Londoner’s esoteric music and hard-won wisdom has been embraced by a huge number of people in a way that no one could have foreseen. As he told The Independent: “I’m actually doing what I like doing, which is mixing opera music and classical music with soul and folk. And I was writing and talking about what I’ve actually experienced and I don’t think that’s very common.”
Common or not, it’s the antidote we need for musical complacency right now. The seemingly mundane combination of a man and a piano, armed only with melody and poetry, becomes in Clementine’s hands something elemental and eternal.
VISUAL ART Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei
NGV International, Melbourne, until April 24, 2016
BALLET The Nutcracker
QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane, until December 23
MUSICAL The Sound of Music
Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 13-February 7, 2016
Regent Theatre, Melbourne, December 18-January 24, 2016
CIRCUS Cirque du Soliel: Quidam
AIS Arena, Canberra, until December 20
WIN Entertainment Centre, Woolongong, December 23-January 2, 2016
Derwent Entertainment Centre, Hobart, January 6-10, 2016
Newcastle Entertainment Centre, January 15-24, 2016
Red Stitch Theatre, St Kilda, until December 19
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 12, 2015 as "Daring Clementine".
This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.
To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.
Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.
Select your digital subscription