One morning in June I was listening to French radio when I heard some folk-soul music. The voice singing “I am lonely, alone in a box of stone” sounded intense, fragile and incredibly sincere. I was moved to tears.
“Benjamin Clementine is from Edmonton, London” said the presenter. Edmonton is the final stop of my 149 bus route and I’d never heard of him?
Then last month in St Luke’s church, Old Street, a hushed crowd listened as Clementine played ‘Cornerstone’, a song emblematic of the loneliness he carries within him.
Clementine, 24, actually left London two years ago. He explains it was “because of family problems, friends, work, studies. There was nothing there. The only thing I was good at was English.”
His career started after being spotted busking in Paris. Astonishingly, Clementine claims he never aspired to be a singer. “It was more a matter of finding a place to stay and finding some sort of accommodation, food … No matter how bad, I just sang. I had no choice,” he says.
An extreme honesty runs through his music, which he writes himself. He cites his older brother’s advice: “Don’t waste your breath if what you say isn’t important. There is no point.”
Clementine’s style developed while he sang covers on the Paris underground.
Nina Simone was a “revelation”, he says. But his main influences are the classical and operatic music he listened to as a boy. He started playing piano by ear aged only 11, after hearing Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie. Later came Noel Coward and Pavarotti.
“When I say ‘I am alone in a box of stone’ it is not a lie – it is true,” he says. “I don’t perpetuate emotions. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. I think I just want people to understand me more.”