“I thought I could try my hand at creating more of a narrative...” hmv.com talks to Benjamin Clementine
When Benjamin Clementine's debut album At Least for Now beat off competition from the likes of Jamie xx, Florence and the Machine and Slaves to win the Mercury Music Prize in 2015, a lot of commentators were taken by surprise, but for anyone following the career of this unique talent up until that point, the win was a well-deserved recognition for a singer-songwriter who is quite unlike anything else around.
Born in Crystal Palace, Clementine moved to Paris at the age of 19 and spent several years either sleeping rough or living in a hostel, busking on the Paris Metro until he was spotted by an agent, which led first to a record deal with an independent French label and then, eventually, a major label deal with Capitol and Virgin EMI.
His early EPs garnered plenty of praise, as did his minimalist but intense live performances, and after scooping the Mercury Prize for his debut album he headed to America to begin working on a follow-up.
The resulting album, I Tell a Fly, arrives in stores this week and we spoke to Benjamin to talk about world events have shaped his new album, being compared to Nina Simone, and why we can expect something very different from the live shows on his upcoming tour...
When did you begin working on the new album? What was the starting point?
“The starting point was when I got my American visa, I was going on tour in America and luckily I didn't have to apply for it myself, so when I saw it I was surprised to see that it read 'alien of extraordinary ability', and that sort of gave me the lead to start writing a song.”
We understand that you started writing the album in America while the presidential elections were happening, did being in that environment affect what you were writing about?
“Well, I'm always inside when I'm writing, so I was in America, but I was just in a room in America! But again, what really ticked me off is when I saw the name of my visa, that's what really started everything. I went to stay in America for a bit and the first song, Goodbye Sonata, this was all created in America.”
So did you want the new album to build on what you did with At Least for Now, or did you want to move forward and do something different?
“I wanted to do something totally different. I felt that if I was going to make a second album it should somehow have its own sound. I'm not into the idea of two albums sounding like each other. I mean, artists can do whatever they want, but I think I get bored quickly.”
You won the Mercury Music Prize for your debut album, did that create any pressure when you set about writing this one?
“It didn't. Listen, I've come a long way and I don't think an award of any kind would somehow put me under pressure, I write what I want to write. It's a nice decoration, and it's nice gift to see that some people care about what you do, but it shouldn't have an influence on what I want to create.”
Where did the album title come from?
“Well, I always like it when there's a double meaning to the title of a book, I mean if you look at the title of the first album it's pretty much the same thing. I like to give my audience space to take what I've done and take it to another place. So that's the first thing I thought about and I ambitiously wrote about two flies wandering around the sphere of humanity, so that's how I came up with the title. I wanted it to be easier to remember as well, the album itself I wrote a lot, all the songs I really put a lot of effort into it, it takes a lot of listening to really understand I think, so I thought it was better to make the title a bit easier to grasp.”
What kind of album is this lyrically? It feels like there's more of a narrative to this album than your last one...
“Yes, you're right, there's more of a narrative, I felt that I would use a different approach. The first album was all about my personal life in, for example, Paris, but with this one I thought I could try my hand at creating more of a narrative and not be too direct. It's a gamble, it's a risk I'm taking, but it's good to take risks sometimes.”
Would you describe this as a concept album?
“Well, I'll just say that I wrote it as a play. I think 'concept album' is too much of a concept for me! I would rather say that it's a social commentary, it's my way of telling my audience and people who listen to me that I am aware of what's going on in the world, and I'm trying to somehow put it in the form of music. Instead of watching the 10 'o' clock news and going 'oh, I'm so shocked at what's happening', I'm just putting that in the form of music. It's ambitious and, like I've said before, it might do absolutely nothing, but I'm happy that I've done it and I hope that the people will get something out of it who need it most. I know that if all these things hadn't happened, all these terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis, I don't think I would have written this album, so I think it's of vital importance to give back to what I've taken from. That's basically the reason that I wrote this record.”
Musically speaking, what kind of thing did you look to for inspiration for this album?
“In the past I've told myself that I won't read what critics say and all that, but I've started to realise that, especially in the United Kingdom, when you're a black person with afro hair sitting in front of a piano, you're seen as a Ray Charles or a Nine Simone or whatever, you know? It's an easy option to choose from, which I sort of understand, but it's more like people see my music rather than actually listen to my music. I've told those people a thousand times that I grew up listening to Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, I listen to a lot of classical music, that's my natural influence, from Puccini to Luciano Pavarotti. Then eventually I discovered French music, like Léo Ferré, Edith Piaf and all those people. Then I did a bit of research and found out about Nina Simone and Miles Davis a few years ago. So it's easy to say I'm like Little Richard or someone, but I'm from the classical school.”
Are you producing all of this yourself?
“Yeah I did produce it all myself, but then I did work with about 15 people, I wasn't just sitting in the studio by myself and pressing record, you know? It was a lot of people who I owe a great amount of gratitude to.”
We heard that you wanted Damon Albarn to produce it, is that correct?
“Yeah, yeah. Damon Albarn is such a lovely man. As musicians and artists we all have ideas and things that we want to do, but we have to always remember that it's a business and that sometimes you might not have as much time as you would want. So after recording 'Hallelujah Money' with Gorillaz, we recorded that in New York actually while I was living there, then I came back to England and after recording at RAK I went to his studio 13 near Westbourne Grove. And yeah, we talked about it but it just didn't quite work out. I had recorded and produced half of it already, and it was almost like if I was going to do it with him I'd have to go back and start all over again. So the timing wasn't quite right, but I enjoyed his company and hopefully we'll do something great together.”
He is known as one of the busiest men in the music industry, to be fair...
“He is, yeah, he's always playing, he's ever so lovely and he's always playing music and creating, he's non-stop!”
What kind of live show can we expect on your next tour? Usually your live performances are quite stripped back, do you prefer that kind of intimacy with an audience?
“I do like the intimacy with an audience, but I need to change things up because, again, the whole stereotype thing is doing my head in. So I'm going to have to really almost explain the songs I'm singing, I want to act and play it on stage, so I'l be playing more without the piano. If I'm going to play the piano I'll probably do it as an encore, maybe play some songs from the last album, but for this I don't think I would want to sit in front of a piano and play the whole set like that. I'll maybe do that again in the future, like, I don't know, after my fifth album or something, but I just want to do something new so that maybe they'll get me, you know?"
The music on this album feels like the sort of thing that could support a big stage production, is that the kind of thing you're thinking of?
“Yeah there will be a stage production, I'm not sure how big it will be but it will all be for the sake of what I'm trying to express, really. I'm not going to go over the top, but I'll try to make it worth the money!”
I Tell a Fly is available in stores now, you can also find the album here in our online store...