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Q&A: Benjamin Clementine

Up close and personal with the breakout musician on the eve of his U.S. tour

Since releasing his Mercury Prize-winning debut, At Least for Now, in 2015, the English-born musician and artist Benjamin Clementine has become something of an international sensation—“I was floored,” no less than David Byrne wrote of hearing Clementine’s offbeat, haunting music for the first time—and is now coming back to the United States for a June tour that will take him from Boston to Seattle. And for anyone who has worn out his copy of At Least for Now, an deluxe version of the album, featuring live and demo versions of Clemetine’s songs, has just been released.

Here, the multitalented musician speaks to DuJour about stage fright, fashion and why American audiences won’t be getting a sneak preview of any new material just yet.

 

You’re headed out on your biggest American tour to date. Why come back now?

I’m tired a little bit of playing in Europe, so I thought, why not play in America? Maybe some of Americans will like what I do, so why not?

What’s different about American audiences compared to European audiences?

It depends on where I am in America. When I last played in New York, it took people a bit of time before they got into my music. In Europe, in some places, straight away when I start playing they get into it. I like a challenge and I like to slowly bring people in. I think at this particular moment in America, it’s my first time playing in front of people so the test is now. I like that.

Do you get any kind of stage fright?

Before, but when I do go on stage I don’t get scared. As soon as I start playing, I’m in another place. Maybe after a song has ended I sometimes come back to reality and I get really shy.

Do you have any good luck charms or calming rituals for before a show?

Last year when I went to America, I bought myself some Indian dolls that I will look at to from time to time. I believe that my grandmother, who is dead, is with me all the time. I think I always see her somehow before I go on stage and I just start to feel some sort of comfortableness. 

You recently released a “deluxe reissue” of your debut album. Why do that instead of a second album?

Because if I had it my own way, my album would have been 25 songs, but due to contractual issues, I had to bring the songs down to 10. Apparently the attention of people out here is very short! I thought it would be nice to refresh the album again and see what happens in America. 

Your music was used to soundtrack an advertising campaign for Burberry. Are you a fashion guy?

When I was a kid I always wore suits. My brother and I, we used to go to a charity shop and we’d buy secondhand suits and we’d wear them all the time. I only started wearing jeans two or three years ago. So, I’ve never been conscious of how I dress or how I look going somewhere, but meeting up with Christopher Bailey at Burberry… It all sort of blended in and came naturally. I like certain kind of clothes, and Christopher has been so dear to me and given me some special attire to wear for my performances. Now, I think that clothes do in some way influence your personality and your character. 

What do you prefer to wear on stage?

I wear a coat, because I get cold and also because it works against my stage fright. Well, maybe. I don’t know, because I’ve never tried it without a coat. When I wear a coat I feel like I’m being wrapped up and being covered, like no one can hurt me.

Since you seem to be such a prolific songwriter, is there another album in the works?

Certainly. I am in the middle of it. I’ve got a deadline I put myself on, in a few months time. It’s a bit hard, but this is what I signed up for so I can’t complain. I want it to be different, it’s going to be different, from my first album. I always want to try new things.

Are you going to be performing any new tracks while you’re over here, to test them out on the road?

Sometimes you have to play in front of people to test a song before you record it. But no, the instruments I’m using for my second album—and there are quite a lot of them—sound different and I can’t do that in America right now. I’ll just go out there and play the songs people haven’t seen me play but they’ve might have heard. Eventually I’ll give them something new. I can’t really tell you what’s going to happen.

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