Benjamin Clementine on “I Tell a Fly”

Looking in to Look Out

Nov 16, 2017 Issue #62 - Julien Baker Photography by Micky Clement Bookmark and Share


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Benjamin Clementine's life story is absorbing to the point of distraction. Born and raised in London to a family of Ghanaian descent, the self-taught musician emerged from school with almost no qualifications, fell out with his family, and ended up living homeless in London and Paris. It was in the French capital he started down the road that took him to winning the Mercury Prize for his debut At Least for Now in 2015.

Now he's back keeping the attention on his music with sophomore effort I Tell a Fly, using the device of two flies looking in on the world as an excuse to engage with issues from bullying to war-torn Aleppo. Previous success hasn't stopped the striving. Speaking over the phone, he's quick to point this out. "I haven't got there, I'm fighting every day for it. It's not easy to make this kind of music and be signed to Universal."

There's truth in that, because Clementine sounds like little else. Singing in an expressive tenor range that segues into his London accent, he mixes intricate piano playing, unusual song structures, tempo changes, and poetic lyrics.

The refusal to stray from his musical vision arises partly from the difficult journey he's undergone. "After all the things I've been through with my family and living through the hardship of life, I can't risk all that for somebody telling me to change something, or make something I don't like."

For someone so willing to do his own thing, the jumping off point for I Tell a Fly is fittingly idiosyncratic. After visiting the United States last year, his visa provided the initial spark. "When I received my visa, it read 'an alien of extraordinary ability.' Something just clicked in my head. That was my inspiration."

This led Clementine to a record more outward looking than the last as he takes the alien outsider to heart. To an extent Clementine agrees it's less inwardly focused, although his approach hasn't changed completely. "Sentimentally it's the same, but it's more narrative. There are more stories told. It's more comprehensible maybe. I'm not saying 'I' all the time. I suppose in that sense it's different."

The best example of his new outward and inward blend is "Phantom of Aleppoville." Clementine draws on the work of British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott to make the misery of wartime Aleppo relatable through bullying. "I'm 28-years old and I'm still sometimes traumatized from when I was a boy getting bullied. Comparing that to what the kids in Aleppo are experiencing gets at the greater problem. Listening to the news wouldn't let somebody in the United Kingdom understand the problems other people face throughout the world. But if you were to compare it to bullying, maybe it might hit home."

He's clear on that determination to hit home. "I put everything into my music. That's how I want my record to be received. I want people to be inspired to do what they want to do with their lives without worrying what people might think."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Fall 2017 Issue (October/November 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.www.benjaminclementine.com

 

 

 

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