Benjamin Clementine, the Greatest Voice of the 21st Century?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because an astounding voice and moving songs are why some of us love music.
By Marie Doezema
Benjamin Clementine is one of those success stories that people love to hear and love to tell, to the point that the story becomes almost mythic. A singer from north London, Clementine left home in his late teens and came, somewhat at random, to Paris. He made money when he could find work, ate when he could find food and slept when he could find someplace warm. For years, home was hostels, bars, kitchens or the streets.
Several months into his new life in Paris, Clementine, now 27, saved enough money to buy a guitar and began devoting his days to busking. He spent most of his time on the Métro line 2, the “blue line” that snakes its way from east to west on the city’s Right Bank. He played songs he was working on, as well as covers of Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse. Over several years, he gathered a small but loyal following of commuters.
His style has been compared to that of Jacques Brel or Nina Simone, but neither quite seems to fit.
Though traces of the singer’s subway days can be found on YouTube, times have changed. Clementine has made it big. In August, he was invited to play at Rock en Seine, a huge outdoor music festival in Paris; in November, he performed at the Olympia, one of the city’s biggest venues. His fall 2015 tour included shows across Europe as well as the United States and Canada. His debut U.S. album, At Least for Now, was released by Capitol Records in July. As a child, Clementine taught himself to play on a small electronic keyboard and cites influences as varied as Luciano Pavarotti, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, and Erik Satie. His style has been compared to that of Jacques Brel or Nina Simone, but neither quite seems to fit.
Clementine’s energy when he performs is raw. Tall and elegant, he often wears trench coats and goes barefoot onstage. He gets into his music in a way that doesn’t seem to diminish with fame or a busy touring schedule, and he has been known to play the piano so hard, and with so much emotion, that his fingers bleed. His lyrics are often open and reflective, as in his song “Condolence”: “Before I was born there was a storm / before that storm there was fire / burning everywhere, everywhere / and everything became nothing again / then out of nothing / out of absolutely nothing / I, Benjamin, I was born / so that when I become someone one day / I’ll always remember I came from nothing.”
- Marie Doezema, OZY Author Contact Marie Doezema