Benjamin Clementine on his mannequin army, Shakespeare, love, racism, Jesus Christ and James Bond

... 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.

“If I think as a musician, I just want to go on stage and play an instrument…”

So I started thinking like an artist, instead. That was to somehow show the story in a different way, instead of just going on stage and telling a story like you could do from a book. I wanted it to be seen.

“I’ve got the mannequins because I can’t afford 21 actors”

That’s the first thing. And secondly, I had played a couple of festivals with backing singers, and that’s too traditional. I thought I’m not going to do that anymore. I want to do something different; I don’t want to copy what other people have done. The mannequins came from somewhere in Europe – possibly Poland. It’s a very special place where they make customised mannequins. Some pregnant, some fat… all different shapes. Children as well. The way they make it, it’s really beautiful. I found them on the Internet. Ordered myself. They turned up at the place we were rehearsing, so it was right on time.

“Obviously, I’ve had a lot of complaints from fans”

But that shouldn’t be my concern. You’ve got to take me as I am. [Some people] on Instagram, on Twitter, they want their money back. But that shouldn’t be amplified because out of the people I’ve played in front of only 50-odd out of 20,000 or 25,000 are complaining, so it’s not really a major problem. It just sucks a little bit that I’m realising and seeing that because I really believe in people and believe that… I really think people get it, and if you put your hand in your pocket and take out a chunk of change and you come and see my show, you’re not doing that for no reason. I suppose those people came to see the part of me that made them come. I don’t think they dug deep enough to realise that I am what I am on stage. I’m doing this for myself. Every time something has hit a chord it’s always made me stronger so, yes, I’m absolutely doing the right thing.

“My fans often speak to me during the show”

It’s because they know my music and they feel like they’re part of me, and I’m grateful for that. I’m very fortunate to have that. I invest a lot of time in them as well. Without them I’d just be singing in my room. They are very important – after me, but I’m not going to put them first. So when they talk, they’re trying to converse with me, they’re trying to show their feelings. I totally understand them. It’s just that I will always win, and they will have to accept it or reject it. That’s the only choice they have.

“The mystery about art is that sometimes it’s not meant to be understood”

Especially when it’s life. If it has relevance or meaning it will always come back – that’s when eventually it will be understood. So in terms of what people have made of ‘I Tell A Fly’, you’d have to ask them.

“Would I do musical theatre?”

I like the idea of it, but I think I’ll stick to what I’m doing because it’s a blend of both. That’s because I haven’t got actors on stage acting – it’s just coming from me. It’s certainly got a theatrical side to it, but I don’t think that’s the only thing. I think acting, if not on screen, it’s a bit too over-exaggerated. It’s a bit too… it’s theatre and you have to SPEAK LOUD, but come on, give me a break. It’s over the top and you don’t get the essence of the writer or the play.

“I’m a great fan of Oscar Wilde”

I can recite some parts of almost all of his work. I discovered Oscar Wilde in Paris. I bought a lot of books of his. I just started eating all of it.

“Shakespeare? That fucking guy”

School was all about Shakespeare. That fucking guy. So fucking boring. Carol Ann Duffy was alright, she was very sentimental and emotional.

“Damon Albarn and I got together and thought ‘imagine if Trump becomes president’”

Damon had the chorus of ‘Hallelujah Money’. So I just had to fill in the gaps. The idea is ‘imagine Trump becoming president’. I mean I don’t know what they’re telling the press but this is what… we knew that Trump would be president. We knew, way before. Imagine if Trump didn’t become president? I don’t think that music would ever have come out. It wasn’t for Trump but it was for people to realise the situation.

“Trump becoming president was the final straw”

I think there’s actually hope. Trump becoming president was the final straw, for us to realise that we need to shake ourselves and do something about this thing called the world and this thing called love and care and support. We’re learning our lessons, we human beings, we do learn. Eventually. We’re going to come back. I’m actually optimistic.

“It’s not a United Kingdom.”

It isn’t. It’s absolutely divided. If you look at schools of young people, the schools that some young people go, and where other young people go – it’s unbelievable. Out of that they grow up and become something we all don’t want. I’m not going to be very specific, but you know what I mean. Most of the time we’re making a mockery out of the leader of the apparent free world, the leader of America, but, you know, we’re still not looking at the man in the mirror. The lady called the United Kingdom is not looking at herself in the mirror. And it’s a joke.

“I’ve decided to not really say that the UK is my home”

The people who are around you are your home, because in these times I guess it’s all about who you care for, and the person closest to you. But that’s the life of London. People who live in London, they think London is great, they think London is amazing – I might sound like I’m complaining but London will be great again when people start caring for each other. London has really never cared for anyone, making it the richest city in the world. It’s this obsession with America. I personally wrote the song [‘Jupiter’] saying, ‘I’m wishing Americana happy/I’m wishing Americana free.’ That’s merely because I lived there. I wasn’t just sitting here and imagining things.

“I don’t give a shit about Jesus Christ.”

But as soon as I go to my plane, sit down, and the plane is about to go up there, I do a cross [crossed his head and chest]. I can’t explain to you why I do that. Even though I try to stop myself from doing that I still do it. Maybe it’s a matter of upbringing. But I believe that I’ve let go of everything else. I’ve forgotten, and I don’t want to remember anything about my upbringing. But making that cross sign – Hail Mary, all that rubbish – I do that.

I’ll restate that God and religion is bullshit. It’s absolute bullshit. That’s what I believe. I respect people who actually believe in that because it takes a lot of courage to believe in such bullshit. It takes a lot of life to be a human being, and to believe in such a thing is quite impressive because if we look at how some people are born and how some people are born into impoverishment, for me, that just makes me believe a million percent that God does not exist. If there’s a God then that’s you sitting in front of me, because you’re making me speak. You’re asking me questions and I’m answering them.

“Love is such a funny thing”

I think saying I believe in it would be wrong. I think I’d rather say that love is love and the quicker you know it the better you live. In terms of hate, it’s a bit like light and darkness. Without hate, love would be useless. It’d have no meaning.”

“I used to be afraid to talk about race but I’ve grown out of it”

I personally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how I look. I do believe that I am very beautiful. But I don’t spend a lot of time thinking… I never used to, in fact, spend any time thinking about my colour, because I had a lot of things to do. I had a lot of songs to write and a lot of ideas to come up with that I had forgotten that I looked like a colour. But, as time goes on, I’m beginning to start to think about other people and how they feel and their opinions. I’m beginning to listen to other people and what they have to say.

“Recently, an autograph hunter told me to ‘go back to Africa’”

It was about a week or two ago on the tour in Germany. It’s a funny story, I must say. When you go to a venue, there’s always some fans standing outside waiting to get a signature or whatever. There’s something special about the people who come very early morning when you arrive on the bus. They’re either there because that’s their job – so they just stand there waiting for the new artist to come, sign the thing, then next day they do the same thing. But these guys actually looked like they were my fans. They asked for an autograph. I gave it to them. They wanted a picture. The camera was not working. I was very tired, it was early morning, so I just walked to the venue and I was going back into the bus and they started following me. I’m not scared of anyone so it’s like, ‘what do you want?’ As we’re going towards the bus, they wanted a picture, and they’re fixing the camera as they’re walking behind me. So I stopped at the bus, pressed the pass key and the bus opens and the guy says, ‘the camera’s working, the camera’s working,’ and I said, ‘hey, I’m too tired, man, I have to sleep,’ and as soon as I was about to press the switch for the door to close the guy retorted, ‘Go back to Africa’. All of a sudden it was almost like I was transported to another place, because, first of all, I didn’t know what that meant. And also, it confused me. It was the first time that I’d heard that phrase ever – first time. But I found it so funny that I reopened the door and I went back there to take a picture. As I walked out, I was laughing. ‘I said, hey, what the hell? What are you talking about?’ They started running away. So they thought that I was coming out there to somehow fight with them. And I was like, ‘what?’, so I was chasing after them. Going, ‘hey, no, come on, let me sign it for you,’ but they were running away. It was crazy.

I’ve met so many people, especially in my darker times, so there are a lot of stories that I’ve kept under my sleeve, but this one was one of those moments that I found it so confusing. I wouldn’t call that racism – I wouldn’t call it that because I don’t know what racism is. Obviously, some people might say it’s racism, but if they’re saying it’s racism then I would say that this was a guy who was upset because I didn’t take the picture and so he thought about a way to hurt me by saying that. But if that’s meant to hurt me, then it’s impossible.

“I still haven’t spent the Mercury Prize money”

I’m going to put pianos in public places in Edmonton. By hook or by crook that will happen. I won’t forget about it because it’s something that I really want to do – it’s very important to me. I want to make it more than just that. I don’t want to just put this piano in a place and it be there – I want to get people more interested in the arts and music. I want it to be bigger than just that.”

“$450million for a painting? I think Leonardo da Vinci would be pissed off”

It’s horrible. 450 million dollars… I’m a thousand percent sure that da Vinci would be pissed off. They’re raving on about da Vinci and Van Gogh and all that but they suffered in their time. I’m thinking about writing a song or an album about this – an artist who comes back and realises that his painting is in a fucking Russian Billionaire’s house and goes there and kills him and takes back his fucking painting. And guess what he does with it? He burns it. Ha!

“A Bond Theme? I’d love to”

As in the song? Tell them. Bond is such a great franchise. My mum loved James Bond – Pierce Brosnan. It’s interesting. I would love to of course. I always love writing stories and if there’s a story for me to sing about it’d be amazing. I don’t know how to sing those whatsitcalled? Poppy, lovey songs… it just makes me cringe. But never say never.