When Benjamin Clementine is asked where he lives, a straightforward question for most people, he answers not with a location, but with a laugh. He is calling to discuss his new album I Tell A Fly from Paris, a place that he actually did once inhabit, though not always under a roof, spending his college-age years sleeping on the streets of the city’s right bank. Now, he tells me, he has recently moved back to London, where he was born and raised, but that’s not set in stone either—he’s already got plans to head across the Atlantic to the United States. Indeed, it would be easier to say that he lives nowhere at all, moving wherever his mind takes him. He loves the U.S., in fact, because its boundless ideal of rootlessness and freedom matches his own. “I’ve wandered around quite a bit, but being in America makes me feel like, This is a place all about wandering,” he says. “I finally feel understood.”
It was a trip to the U.S. that inspired I Tell a Fly, a collection of avant-garde piano ballads that sounds more like The Threepenny Opera or the Theater of the Absurd than it does anything currently on the pop charts. After winning the prestigious Mercury Prize for his celebrated and tamer 2015 debut, At Least for Now, which led the New York Times to place him in a category of “geniuses who define culture” alongside no less than Zadie Smith and Michelle Obama, he applied for a visa to come to the States and was granted one with the status of “Alien of Extraordinary Ability.” He found it a funny turn of phrase that, in an accidental way, mapped pretty nicely onto his own sense of self, defined, like so many great artists, by a feeling of estrangement and separation from society. “I am an alien,” he says, entirely deadpan.
Once here, searching for inspiration without a clear goal in mind, he seemed to go everywhere. “New York; Texas; Portland, Oregon; Wikieup, Arizona,” he says. “I had to start fresh. I’m from Europe, and in Europe there are laws that have been going on for centuries. The mark of the American land is that you’re free to do what you want. I wanted people to go on the journey through America with me.”
Free he sounds on the wild I Tell A Fly, perhaps the least likely followup he ever could have made to the tender album that made him a star. “I was aware that because I won a Mercury Prize for my first album, if I come back and do my second, I am supposed to be more commercial,” he says. “But I didn’t think about it this way. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. What’s the point in making an album that you don’t want to make?”
He found success superficial. “It was weird. Weird is a perfect word. It’s not so much about what you do; it’s about where you stand. It’s about how people see you. When I was singing in bars, not a lot of people paid attention to me. But as soon as I recorded an album and I put on clothes and shaved, all of a sudden I’m being put in a certain place.”
He has concocted the album as, oddly, a Kafkaesque—in the actually literal sense of the word—story about a love affair between two flies who are “looking for a safe place to stay.”
“The moral of it was, Where is one safe?” he says. It becomes apparent that when he’s talking about the insects, he is talking about himself. “When you think about flies, you think about little flies that people want to flick away. But I wonder: Who would care about a fly’s story? Who could care about the fly?” he asks. “It was very ambitious. I wanted to provoke the idea that some people were worth less than others. I think we’re all flies.”
Clementine’s vagabond ways began early in life. He was a troubled kid in London, raised by his religious grandmother and strict parents of Ghanaian descent. He was bullied relentlessly at school for his creativity and androgynous appearance (today he is six foot four, with a supermodel’s cheekbones and tall hair that he sometimes wraps into a deconstructed beehive).
“They called me gay. They called me E.T. They’d slap me, they’d push me around,” he says. “I’m twenty-eight years old, but, to this day, when I see children wearing school uniforms laughing, I get a bit nervous, because I think they are laughing at me.”
Home life wasn’t much better, and he turned to music—learning to play keyboard by re-creating the works of Erik Satie and Claude Debussy—against the wishes of his parents, who hoped he’d be a lawyer. He didn’t feel cared for and left at sixteen, preferring to live on the streets of London than be with his family. “I could’ve been brought up properly. I could’ve been loved much more. I could’ve given love much more if I was taught the principles of caring for somebody,” he says. “I do have a relationship with [my parents], it’s just not as healthy as you’d want a relationship to be. You have to live your life.”
He made it to Paris at nineteen, again living on the streets, and, with an acoustic guitar, busking cover songs (Bob Marley was a favorite) for money. The unmoored life was not easy. “There were times that I felt suicidal,” he says. “I did try it a couple of times, but it just didn’t happen. So that gives me an impression that there is a purpose and a place for me in this world. I think I was born stronger. If someone else was experiencing what I was experiencing, they might’ve [successfully] taken their lives.”
What caused enough sadness to lead him to thoughts of taking his own life? “Solitude. Thinking that if you were to jump off a bridge, no one would actually come forward and say, I know this person.”
Playing in the subway and on sidewalks, he has said that he essentially had no friends and didn’t talk to anybody, but he learned how to project his voice without the aid of a microphone, developing a characteristic bellow that defines his work to this day.
He has never learned how to read music. “Not being able to read music has opened portals for new discovery. I wouldn’t even call what I do composing. I just find my way out of my own story, and then play it. If I were to tell you exactly what I do, I would be lying to you. Sometimes it’s by fortune that I push a chord that takes me to somewhere,” he says. “What is the right way to do things? That’s what keeps me going. I always want to do things myself.”
Clementine became something of a cult figure in Paris, and eventually he was spotted by label executives and signed to a deal. Finally, he cut his debut, which one critic described as “Nina Simone singing the Leonard Cohen songbook.” He became known for his dramatic live shows, which featured him barefoot at the piano and belting out his songs, sometimes with a band, sometimes just strikingly alone; legend has it that when he and Paul McCartney were booked at the same time on Jools Holland’s BBC live music TV show in Britain, the Beatle saw Clementine’s performance, approached him backstage, and was so impressed that he made the young singer promise that he’d stick with music.
On I Tell a Fly, Clementine wanted honesty above all else, even when it’s dire. “I find it hard to write happy songs because of my life,” he says. “Maybe on the third or fourth album, all the songs will be happy, jolly, and I’ll be dancing around.”
He also turned his gaze outward, peppering in enigmatic allusions to the modern refugee crisis, Brexit, and even the Syrian civil war on the song “Phantom of Aleppoville.” On these topics, he is most murky, unable to explain exactly what he was attempting to convey. But it is clear that he is exploring the idea of trauma, particularly, he says, as discussed by the influential psychotherapist Donald Winnicott, who argued that shock felt as a child can remain as raw through adulthood, something that has proven true in his own life.
“I felt the best way to describe problems in Aleppo and Turkey and America and England was by linking them to me personally,” he says. “When I was a kid, when I was bullied, I was very scared. And I still remember it like it was yesterday. If you were going to give one of these kids [from Aleppo] a penthouse in America today, they would still be traumatized. They wouldn’t be able to sleep! I can’t be one hundred percent certain that there is a safe place out there.”
Still, somehow, though our conversation so often revolved around difficult subjects, Clementine is quick to offer brighter words at moments. “Maybe my album sounds pessimistic, but I am really hopeful. I am hoping that things will get better,” he says. “Now that I’m conscious that my life has been sad, I’m going to have to take a step to make it more positive.”
This resolve, he says, is born from the reality that though he now has blessings in his life and a career filled with success, he once didn’t have a thing at all, and wouldn’t bat an eye if he lost it all in a flash.
“If something happened tomorrow, it’s fine. You’re going to get through it. These are simple principles. We used to live in trees!” he says. “The day before I die, I hope I am smiling on my bed saying that I love everywhere I went in the world.”
He catches himself sounding too wide-eyed. “Hopefully I still have some time. I hope there’s no World War Three.”