The door opens and I see a tall handsome man entering the room. His skin is dark and smooth, his cheeks seem almost unnatural to a human being, his style is so effortless you actually believe this immaculate suit was his only ever choice of wardrobe.
The man I’m meeting today is Benjamin Clementine. The 20 minutes I was allowed to interview him are about to start soon. By now I’m sitting on the windowsill of a fancy hotel in downtown Moscow, peering at his photoshoot for Esquire Russia. Benjamin is in the next room standing against the simple linen backdrop looking at the camera with the eyes of someone who is in total control of the situation. The more I watch this person the more I realize how exciting these 20 minutes will be.
When I finally drop myself on the daybed right in front of him, I feel weirdly relaxed. His moves are slow and his voice is quiet. It’s so contagious, I instantly feel like I’m in some sort of slow-motion. I introduce myself, the manager sets the timer and closes the door to the room we are in. Here is the transcript of our chat.
Nastya: All of your songs seem to be very personal. Do you think that the songwriters who don’t draw from their own life experience can still be candid with their audience?
Benjamin: Yeah, I mean, every case is different. I think, writers — sometimes maybe it’s not quite obvious — but most of the times they are talking about their family or their friends. Or they use characters from their own life experiences, but no one knows… I think, it’s quite inevitable to not talk about something about you. But you know, singer-songwriters are normally talking about experiences, that’s why they’re called singer-songwriters. And then there is the point where after you’ve talked about yourself enough, you can also talk about other people and create your own stories… It [the LP „At Least For Now“, 2015] is my first album so I can’t really just put everything in it. I have to make the second and the third…try to explore different lives and try to create music from other people’s lives.
N: Is there a difference between playing on the streets and playing in the concert halls?
B: Of course, I mean, I’m standing outside and playing… if I’m at the square, I’m standing outside and it’s cold. And if I’m inside a concert hall, the people are rich. But in terms of performance, it’s the same thing. My surrounding of course, is different…
N: You don’t really design your songs for the particular places?
N: You write them and then you just happen to perform them wherever you perform them?
B: Yeah, I don’t think whom I’m singing a song to. I create the songs, and first of all I play them for myself.
N: What is the main source of your confidence?
B: People. People for whom I perform. From the streets to concert halls I perform in, people, you know, they always give me compliments… I have people, I have my own people, who give me criticism. Constructive criticism. People keep on coming up to me on the trains or on the streets, and they say a lot of stuff to me that helps me believe in myself. So yes, it’s people.
N: I actually have a rather similar question about your surroundings. Do you get influenced by the people around you? Do you think it’s important for you as an artist to live around creative people?
B: I don’t really live around creative people… It’s both. I like being by myself in my room but I go outside, I do see people and they inspire me. Sometimes things that people say — a phrase or a sentence — I can use them in my music. I don’t know, I mean, it all depends. But yeah, people definitely influence my music.
N: How do you see the place of poetry in the 21st century?
B: It’s a bit like classical music. The people aren’t open enough to find poets..they think poets are dead, you know. But I’m a poet and not a singer. Because to me the singer is Michael Jackson and I’m not Michael Jackson. I think we need to go back and buy books… Reading books or poetry… Going to poetic events. You know, just go down there and hear what the bards and the poets have got to say about what’s going on right now. And get influenced by these people. Even if you don’t want to get influenced, just go there and listen to them. Unfortunately, entertainment destroyed a lot of authentic things that were meant to last for so long. So maybe in the future, around a years time there will be more focus on the poetry again.
N: You wrote a book of poetry yourself, didn’t you? I also read that you couldn’t find the publisher.. did you eventually managed to do that?
B: Oh yeah, I have some publishers now.
N: So, is it coming out?
B: Well, it’s meant to. But the thing is that I can either use a pan name or I have to wait. I think I might use a pan name…
N: Do you find institutional education important? Do you think kids should really go to college in order to become who they want to be?
B: It depends on what you want to do.
N: When you dropped out of school, was it because it better suited your path?
B: Well, that’s why I said it depends on what you want to do. Because, I’m an artist…
N: Did you always feel like an artist or at that age hadn’t you really decided yet?
B: No, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wish I had good parents, ‚cause then maybe they would have found out, they would have known that I just wanted to create and paint and play music. But unfortunately they wanted me to become a lawyer. So I think it depends on what the kid wants. If the kid wants to be a pilot, you don’t say, ‚drop out of school‘ because you need to study engineering. But for me… I had to experience life. You need to have some sort of experience to write about… If it’s painting, just spend time with paint, color. Go to exhibitions or even forget about exhibitions. Just be in your room and just paint, if you’ve got talent – just do it, paint whatever you want to paint. But if you want to study, if you want to be a politician as a kid, you’ve got to go to university and study all about it. Even for me, right now, maybe because I’m composing classical music, I was thinking whether I should go to University and study composition but I’m not sure if I would because it might affect my ears…
*The manager sneaks in to inform me that there are 10 minutes left*
But it all depends on how you feel. It’s always important to live, you know. You can’t be a philosopher if you just go to school and study philosophy and become whatever it is. You’ve got to live your life and that’s how you maybe become a philosopher, not the other way round.
N: How do you feel about the concept of fatalism?
N: Fatalism… like, that we don’t really own our destiny, that it all was decided for us somehow…
B: Oh, so it’s about free will or not?
B: What do I think about it?
N: Yeah. Because from your songs I understood that you see life as the-more-you-work-the-more-you-get. Do you think there is this element of some other natural or religious forces that actually get into our lives?
B: I think… If I told you, tomorrow let’s meet here at 10 o’clock, alright…and tomorrow I go downstairs and you’re there, I say, ‚thank you very much for coming, let’s go and do whatever we meant to do‘, right? You could have come here by car or bicycle or you could even come here by plane or train. You could have walked here. That’s not of any importance. The fact is you arrived here at 10 o’clock. We have to go ahead and do business or something. This is what I believe: the choice is taking the train, getting in the car or walking – whatever. But destiny, place where you’re meant to land, will always be downstairs…and that’s it.
I believe that we always go after thing we can do but most of the time we fear. Because we were born in fear and we spend all our lives trying to fear less. And the more we get out of our comfort zone the scarier it gets. But the more we get out of our comfort zone the closer we are to who we really are. And unfortunately not a lot of people can do this… So I do believe that we were born to go somewhere and there is a definite place. But because we’re human beings and we’re not perfect, we can’t always go straight to that thing, we have to go the different routes. There are different ways to get there.
N: That’s just amazing what you’ve just said. Thank you.
Does critical acclaim matter for you?
B: It’s a joke! This thing is a joke… I think, it is a pleasure to know that I’m being appreciated for what I’m doing. And tomorrow if I stop doing what I’m doing it means that I won’t get appreciated… So it is what T. S. Elliot says, what we shouldn’t think about, but we should only think about it when we’re dead…
N: That’s deep.
B: No, I don’t mean to be deep. He says that we don’t have to think about this stuff. If it happens — great. And of course, most of the times you don’t get that. I’m very fortunate to even get a little bit of stuff that I was given.
N: Have you ever imagined playing different style of music? And do you plan to create more elaborative melodies in the future?
B: Do I plan to create more elaborative melodies in the future?
N: Yeah, is musical style you play now even important for you or you only focus on the poetry?
B: I only focus on the poetry, but I do love music, of course. And words are music itself. I will definitely not be doing the same thing that I did for my first album. I’m doing something completely different.
N: Is it already in works? You already have some material for the second album?
B: Yeah, I’m working on it. I’m trying different way to sing as well. I can’t paint the same pictures again and again and again, right? You’ve got to always paint something different. Of course, there are some elements to my first album…but I’m up for creating something else… but we will see.
N: Do you have a favorite pop-artist? Pop-singer?
B: Pop-singers? I think I like Kendrick Lamar, a few of his songs. Who else do I like… Radiohead. „A Moon Shaped Pool“, their latest album, I like it very much.
N: I didn’t really understand it.
B: Didn’t understand the album? I mean, the thing is, I’m talking musically…Yeah, there’s meaning behind it. But I don’t get the meaning behind it. It’s not very clear. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s what you want to do..But musically and in terms of production – it was quite impressive. I like it.
The following day I’m at the Afisha Picnic festival where his performance is rather awkwardly put between sets by Neon Indian and Leningrad. At 7:07 he comes up on stage dressed in a long trench coat. Barefoot. He sits at the large piano that faces 4 other musicians who will be staying with him for half of his set. Occasionally he says thank you and „spasibo“ between the songs, and one time assures the audience that he’s glad to be there even though he doesn’t seem like it. He’s not happy with the drone that flies around filming him. One time he lifts his feet to his face checking it for something.
I write this article on Sunday morning remembering where I was, what I did and how I felt. It’s only now that I can share it with you. I wouldn’t quite able to do it on Friday or on Saturday because back then I was busy being nervous, uncomfortable, even terrified (this guy has a Mercury Prize, for goodness sake).
I think, I figured why Clementine gives an impression of such an amazingly exceptional person. He seems to live through his every minute, taking his time, not minding his surroundings and absolutely not caring what people might think of him. Because you can’t be great if you pay attention to what ordinary people have to say. You ought to listen to yourself and then people will listen to you.
Written by Nastya Kazakova
Edited by Richard Cook