Mercury Prize-winner Benjamin Clementine talks to Peter McGoran about working with Damon Albarn, the influence of Irish writers like Wilde and Beckett, and making art from the chaos of the present.
The Mercury Prize winning singer talks to Peter McGoran about working with Damon Albarn, the influence of Irish writers like Wilde and Beckett, and making art from the chaos of the present.
“In the end, it’s all about how you feel and how it affects you,” says Benjamin Clementine, speaking about his very personal responses to war in Syria, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the rise of the far-right throughout the Western World, themes which dominate his operatic second album, I Tell A Fly. The English artist, with his striking good looks, all-knowing demeanour and effortless sense of style, looks every bit what you’d expect from a man who began as a homeless teenager in Paris before rising to the status of ‘cult-figure’ for his work on the Paris music and art scene. He’s now widely considered to be one of the most influential voices in modern day Britain.
And there’s are good reasons why both national papers of record and underground musicians are looking to him as an important figure. Most schools of thought seem to acknowledge that Benjamin’s music combines deeplysourced poetic expression with an original sound that is absolutely peerless in modern music. His oblique modes of expression certainly aren’t to everyone’s tastes, but they are, purely and simply, the voice of an uncompromising artist.
“If I don’t do what I love doing,
I may as well just quit it,” says Benjamin in a measured, disarmingly polite voice when I ask him about his decision to move as far away as possible from the commercial route with Album No. 2. “The thing that’s important with being an artist is that I do what I want to do. From that…” he shrugs modestly, “maybe I make something that will help and encourage people who want to push their love into the world.”
Conceived almost immediately after the release of his last album in 2015, I Tell A Fly is a vast, operatic, free-associating jumble of ideas. While every song relates to some potent political crisis in the modern world, none of them does so conveniently. This, says Benjamin, is the point.
“I think that, in art, there’s always room for innovation. We’re always asked to look to Western culture for new ideas, but we’ve reached a point where we’ve realised that Western culture only gains from conformity. I don’t think about being avant garde or being experimental when I go to write, I just try to find new ways of telling a story. A story has a unique composition and form.
I’ll leave it for the critics to decide on the term they use to describe it, and to the listener to say what they feel from it.”
The stories in question, whether they address the descent into authoritarianism in Turkey or the brutal crisis in Aleppo, are all told through the prism of Clementine’s personal experiences. Benjamin claims that this is the only meaningful way that he can speak of these tragedies, and he likens it to the forms employed by the likes of Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde.
“I can’t pinpoint where exactly Beckett and Wilde come into it,” he tells me.
“What I would say is that, when you look at the circumstances that those men were writing in, they could have just as easily ignored the world around them. In turn, they could also have easily moralised by addressing issues with one line, or one sentence. But these were writers who chose forms of expression that made people
engaged. So my message is the same as Wilde and Beckett, and it is this: I tried to make something of the times. I tried to take an approach that would engage people and make them think and feel.”
It shouldn’t be forgotten that when Beckett wrote Waiting For Godot in the 1950s, the world stood poised for apocalyptic nuclear war. Two characters meeting with a character named Godot didn’t appear to address present day concerns in any obvious way.
And yet, it would be Beckett’s play – more-so than any other piece of work – which would stand in the canon as having characterised the feeling of 20th century existential dread that came with the nuclear era. Is it the role of the artist to say something new about the world, without being sucked into simple, direct responses to events?
“Well, I think there is more than one way to have a conversation,” Benjamin considers. “There’s so many ways to tell a story. The English language is an incredibly diverse tool, and music is also an incredibly diverse art form.”
From the spritely, imposing harpsichord and dizzying samples on ‘Better Sorry
Than A Safe’, to the sinister drum claps of ‘God Save The Jungle’, to the frustratingly opaque lyrics in just about every song, this is an album characterised by unfamiliarity and displacement. It’s music of ‘alienness’, told from the perspective of a man who was once, in real life, described in a visa upon entering the United States of America as being “an alien of extraordinary abilities”.
With the density of this album being what it is, I don’t waste time by trying to ask him about all the influences that went into it. Instead, I ask him about the most immediate and high profile relationship he made during the process of writing; that being with Damon Albarn and Gorillaz. Benjamin collaborated with the band and released the political track ‘Hallelujah Money’ on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration back in January. It was a friendship that proved to be vital for the artist.
“It’s always important to listen to people who have been doing it so well for years,” says Benjamin. “It would be foolish for any artist not to listen to people that they look up to. So it was such a great honour to have a relationship with Damon. In fact, I should say that it is a great honour, because we still are in a relationship.”
Is that a hint that there may be further collaborations in the future?
“Not necessarily with Gorillaz, but I’ll still maintain a relationship with Damon and his team. I’m already writing new stuff and I know that he is as well. Because of the way that labels work, artists end up sitting on music for a while. So because this album was recorded last year, I’m already a year ahead in terms of writing. But when I’ll get to release new music again… I’m not sure at the moment.”