... and the former Mercury Prize winner doesn't mind if you don't get his new live show
When Benjamin Clementine won the Mercury Prize in 2015 it was the prompt for his extraordinary story to be told more widely. Of Ghanaian descent, he was the boy who was born and grew up in Edmonton, north London, among a strict Christian family. He left home at sixteen and spent three years in Paris without a fixed address. When he could he’d stay in hostels, busking on the boulevards and the Metro to get by. It was there that his potential was spotted, and he was given the support to make his debut album, ‘At Least For Now’. He expected “50 people” to hear it. It went on to beat Aphex Twin, Jamie XX and Florence and the Machine to the award two years ago (he’s hasn’t spent the £20k prize money yet). At the ceremony the 6’4 figure with a soft speaking voice dedicated the trophy to those affected by the Paris terrorist attacks – that had taken place less than a week before – and invited his fellow nominees to share his crowning moment on stage with him. It was a poignant gesture, and an introduction, for many, to an intriguing emerging artist.
What followed was a heavy period of touring – he used New York as his base, living in Manhattan for almost two years. During that time, his working visa credited him as “an alien of extraordinary abilities”, a label that he found both apt and inspirational. It was there where he recorded ‘Hallelujah Money’ with Damon Albarn, the first taste of new music from Gorillaz in six years, shared the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration back in January. That was how 2017 began for him.
With his own songwriting, those expecting more of the same from Clementine on his second album were wrongfooted. ‘I Tell A Fly’, released in September, was an avant-garde concept LP based on the story of two flies. Stylistically jumpy and conceptually layered, many reviews highlighted its technical craft but troublesome connectivity. In other words: an uncompromising album that tackled themes like the ongoing refugee crisis via classical music and about eight other genres was tough going.
It’s taken his recent live tour to bring into sharper focus the stories he was trying to convey. In the past, the 28-year-old would perform bare-foot sat gently at his grand piano. The Wandering Tour has not been that. A hint came early on when he turned up on Later… with Jools Holland to perform ‘Jupiter’ and draped a life-sized plastic pregnant woman in an American flag. Liam Gallagher stood in the background looking delightfully bewildered.
The full show is an explosion of that. Part dance show, part art installation, part rock show, part musical theatre. Let go of any questions (you’ll have many) and it’s just thoroughly entertaining. For it, Clementine is joined on stage by a drummer and bass player all wearing mechanic’s overalls. They walk in unison and slide across the stage on a truss with wheels. Clementine serenades the mannequins.
Funnily enough, it’s not been for everyone. During a recent stint in Europe some fans walked out, a small number even asked for their money back. But the show is undeniably original.
Tonight, as the UK leg kicks off, under the ornate ceiling of Brighton’s Dome, there are 13 figures on stage during soundcheck – men, women and children. In a small dressing room, in the subterranean corridors beneath the venue, Clementine sips on a plastic cup of tea and reflects on his year among many other things.