The 'I Tell A Fly' singer on becoming disillusioned with the Mercury Prize, the tragedy of war being all around us + the Trump circus
Steven Kline
15:06 21st September 2017

Having gone from rags at least part way to riches, Benjamin Clementine knows the tightness of rags. Once a homeless teenager busking on the streets of London and Paris and sleeping in ten-to-a-room hostels where he hid his instruments under his bunk, he’s now the toast of the art pop leftfield, collaborating with Gorillaz on ‘Hallelujah Money’, interviewed by David Byrne in the New York Times Magazine and awarded the Mercury Music Prize for his 2015 debut album ‘At Least For Now’. From the gutter to the stars, lifted by a unique quasi-operatic voice resembling Eartha Kitt in Gravity and a flair for songwriting that saw his US artists visa stamped ‘alien of extraordinary ability’.

So when he cast his artistic eye around the world from inspiration for his second album ‘I Tell A Fly’, it settled naturally on the plight of Syrian refugees in the Jungle camp at Calais, and the bombed-out souls they left back home. Surely his experiences of leaving his own north London home with nothing as a teenager gave him a creative empathy with the refugees?

“You don’t have to be homeless to feel empathetic for the people, or to feel the need to help people,” Benjamin argues. “I am not a refugee, I am not an immigrant, but it’s very easy for the media to say that I only say things because I’ve experienced them. That’s not the reason why I’m saying what I’m saying. I’ve taught my own self to be empathetic and kind to people because of what I’ve gone through. As one man said when he went to Auschwitz, when he walked around the concentration camps, he felt so irrelevant. This was a man who was very prominent in America, he’s a basketball player, but he went to concentration camps and felt irrelevant. I feel irrelevant because I know I’m actually very fortunate. I’ve been through a lot but it’s nothing compared to what other people have been through.”

Where Clementine does relate to the refugee crisis is as a habitual traveller. Like his debut, he first envisioned ‘I Tell A Fly’ as a stage-play: “I adore Samuel Beckett and George Orwell, so with my first album, it was about me but I wrote it as a play and then took the songs and put it on the record. I work like that.” The play he wrote for the second album concerned two fly lovers caught up in the current political tumult, forced to decide whether to leave a war-torn homeland. It’s here Clementine finds a personal connection.

“I had a really shit upbringing,” he says, recalling a youth in which his strict Catholic parents banned him from listening to popular music or practicing Debussy on piano, and sent him away to be raised by his grandmother. “I had to figure everything out myself at a very young age. I had to grow up quickly. I wandered all around looking for that self, and so I think a lot of people go through that. And it’s quite obvious that a lot of people are going through that now.”

How was it to have to play piano in secret, as your father disapproved? “When you’re doing things and people don’t like it, even if they are your own blood, it doesn’t mean that you are doing something wrong,” Benjamin muses. “Once again we go back to travelling. As I travelled around being rebellious, doing what I wanted to do in secret, I wasn’t the guy who would go and ask a girl out, or I wouldn’t go to clubs, bars or parties. I merely just wanted to play my music and it was still being forced out of me. One man once said, it’s expanding the negative. If I hadn’t gone through all of that and been rebellious in playing music, I don’t think I’d be talking to you right now. Some things happen for the right reasons, and I can only thank those who tried to stop me from doing it - because if they hadn’t stopped me, I probably would have given up.”

Just as becoming a rootless journeyman around Europe in his late teens made him a cult ace face of the Paris art scene and helped inspire ‘At Least For Now’, the concept for ‘I Tell A Fly’ sprang from his wider wanderings. Touring in the US, Benjamin noticing he was classed as an ‘alien of extraordinary ability’ on his visa, sparking the idea that “we are all aliens, and I think the quicker we realise that, the better it will be for all of us. Our pride as human beings comes from the fact that we travel. We’ve moved from different civilisations to here. We came from somewhere to here. We are merely travellers, aliens that have alienated ourselves from beasts in trees, in water.”

The concept is best outlined in the sci-fi soul of ‘Jupiter’, about his time in America. Did you witness the sort of isolationism that inspired the Trumpian age out there?

“Yes,” Benjamin says. “New York is full of hopeless people. People have got dreams, but they think that they’ll never accomplish those dreams. Some of the friends I made out there had just given up. I travelled around America and it’s such a great country, why would you leave such a great country? There are more arts in America than in the United Kingdom. Americans should be happy with themselves because they’re actually doing quite well.”

Winning the Mercury gave Clementine the creative freedom for album two - “after winning that, they’ve just kept their mouths shut and it’s let me do what I’ve wanted to do for my second album,” he says, “it was a beautiful moment but, you know, if Ed Sheeran is getting nominated for it then you might as well just forget about it” – and ‘I Tell A Fly’ certainly takes its own strange journey, off-roading into unexplored sonic territory. As the hypnotic piano recital in limbo of opener ‘Farewell Sonata’ twists into bizarre music hall freakery, ‘God Save The Jungle’ (about the Calais refugee camp) comes on like David Bowie writing a tune for Phantom Of The Opera and ‘Better Sorry Than A Safe’ turns up resembling a Cossack afrobeat knees-up invaded by wobbly-voiced human flies, it’s clear that Clementine had free studio rein to indulge whatever inspired madness came his way.

It all sounds like Terry Gilliam has been hired to schedule a season at the Barbican, but its thematic focus is clear. Into this erratic maelstrom of classical piano, soul, operetta, world music, oddball electronica and pop Benjamin weaves personal issues such as his loss of faith, as well as a dislocated commentary on a world on fire. ‘By The Ports Of Europe’ tackles immigration and Brexit (“I want all of us to help each other” is Clementine’s stance), avant garde harpsichord oompah ‘Paris Cor Blimey’ references the rise of the French far-right and the hysterical harpy battle-march of ‘Phantom Of Aleppoville’ relates Aleppo citizens making the choice of fight or flight to his own childhood bullying. Is it impossible to separate the political and personal in 2017?

“Gone are the days where a bunch of people would go to war, or a bunch of people would join the air force or whatever it was and would go to war somewhere far away from us,” Benjamin says. “Now it’s literally everywhere around us. When you get friends of friends being killed in the Bataclan, you start to think about these things.”

‘I Tell A Fly’ is a tumultuous document of turbulent times, a coherence of confusion that reflects - and even finds beauty in - a world spinning out of control. And Benjamin can see how easily we’re laughing ourselves into the abyss.

“I’m not a politician,” he says, “but there’s a reason why when you go to the circus, people pay more attention and watch it. When the Trump comes out, all they want to do is have fun and laugh. This is what we’re experiencing. It is all up to the children and the parents whether they want to take Trump seriously or not. People say a lot of kids in America were inspired by Barack Obama, being a black President. But I can safely say that if Donald Trump can be a President, anyone can be a President.”

“The barbarians are coming/Will the dreamers stay strong?” Clementine sings on the album’s finale ‘Ave Dreamer’. It may be gorgeously convoluted, but Benjamin Clementine is sending out a call to arms

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