Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Breakfast, Bullying and Brexit with the Barefooted Busker; He's Just Returned from a Sell-Out Tour of America but Benjamin Clementine Is Still a Maverick at heart.Here, He Talks Maths and Music with Phoebe Luckhurst

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Breakfast, Bullying and Brexit with the Barefooted Busker; He's Just Returned from a Sell-Out Tour of America but Benjamin Clementine Is Still a Maverick at heart.Here, He Talks Maths and Music with Phoebe Luckhurst

Article excerpt

Byline: Phoebe Luckhurst

BENJAMIN Clementine is captivating company. The Mercury Prize-winner speaks in fits and starts, choosing his words with the precision of the genius. Sometimes he gesticulates gracefully like a composer, sometimes he is very still. He deliberates over his arguments, eyes trained on the table, fingers swirling patterns on the tabletop like a fidgety child, And then, suddenly he is staring intensely and talking earnestly.

"I personally don't know what nerves are," he says, hushed, when we meet at an upmarket greasy spoon in St John's Wood. "I don't get scared when I'm going to play music. But I think something maybe my fears are buried into my songs. Because I'm singing them. So they're buried under it Do you know what I mean?" Not entirely, but that's part of his brand. At 27, singer-songwriter Clementine is the modern Renaissance man: the inscrutable, prodigious talent with no formal musical training who was discovered busking on the Paris Metro.

He grew up in Edmonton on the outskirts of north London, the youngest of five children born to strict parents. He failed all but one GCSE (English literature). Aged 16, he fell out with his family and went to live with a friend in Camden. They fell out too and at 19 he bought a one-way ticket to Paris.

He moved there with PS60 and was periodically homeless for four years, gigging and busking. Eventually he was discovered by an enraptured agent and returned to London where he got a deal with EMI and released his album At Least for Now. Less than a year later he had won the Mercury.

It's an extraordinary story, and he is an extraordinary presence: 6ft 3in and lanky, with dramatically sculpted cheekbones. He turns up wearing a suit without a shirt underneath -- he must, surely, be aware of the effect.

He is also enchanting to listen to. His vowels veer from RP to Edmonton, his voice is deep and emotive. He flexes it across the key changes of brooding songs, and his performances seem raw and uncontrived -- he plays without shoes, for example. Though maybe that is contrived, it's hard to tell. He remains an unknown quantity.

Partly that's because he's a reluctant self-publicist. It is hard to draw him on anything -- indeed, it's quite hard to hear him, for he speaks in a whisper. He must repeat his order (a hot chocolate without whipped cream) for the waitress four times.

Before he arrives, his publicist tells me that he has just returned from America, where he played four sell-out shows in New York and performed on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (typical audience: four million). On the other hand, when I suggest Clementine tells me about America, he replies, "well it certainly is different".

He prefers to let his work speak for him, he admits later. But he is proud of the Mercury win. "When I was a kid I remember seeing Michael Jackson," he starts. "I thought he was an alien. You don't grow up to be like Michael Jackson. I'm not saying I'm Michael Jackson" -- he laughs -- "but Mercury Prizes are for aliens, basically. So I was very chuffed that I got nominated, and then I won."

He is currently recording more music, working long hours in a studio near where we meet. He will perform at the Standard's Progress 1000 event at the Science Museum next week -- this prospect raises a broad smile.

And he is writing. We will have to wait for these songs, but someone seeking a more quotidian insight into Clementine's mind should study his Twitter feed, where he sometimes shares short poems. In June, he wrote one about Brexit: "To vote or not to vote/To care or not to care/To fear or not to fear/All to kiss a mocking fool" (hashtagged #WriteAPoem AboutBrexit). Is he political? "I would describe myself as outspoken," he says, carefully. …

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