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Benjamin clementine
Nine Songs
Benjamin Clementine

The 2015 Mercury Prize winner on the songs that inspire his art.

15 September 2017, 09:00 | Words by Jessica Goodman

A storyteller by nature, Benjamin Clementine found the ideal vehicle for his artistic expression in writing songs that draw inspiration from poets and composers as much as they do pop music.

From the hustle and bustle of busking on the Paris Métro, to the life-affirming elation of winning the Mercury Music Prize and beyond, music has been a constant companion for him. “One of my siblings told me the other day that I used to play saucepans as drums, going round the neighbourhood playing with the kids,” he laughs, before adding: “I can't remember that.”

For Clementine it was the discovery of classical music that set his imagination ablaze, drawing him to the piano and setting him on a path of discovery as much as one of creation. “I try to tell a story and let my listener take it to another place,” he illustrates, “take it to their homes, so they have their space to take what they want from it.” That’s what music has done for him, after all, as he reflects on nine of the songs that mean the most to him.

“Gymnopédies” by Erik Satie

“Erik Satie's ‘Gymnopédies’ are accident pieces and all of them are beautiful. The one I adore most is ‘Gymnopédies 2’, I first heard this song on Classical FM when I was a kid. Eventually, when I matured and grew up, I realised that the reason I was drawn to it was that it sounded easy to play - but it wasn't. It teased me to start playing the piano, but it was very sophisticated.

“That shines a light to Da Vinci's statement of 'simplicity is the ultimate sophistication'. Basically what he was saying is that Erik Satie is the ultimate sophistication, because his work's so simple but it's very hard to play. You need to get him. You need to understand him. That's what I've learned from that composition and that song as an artist, it isn't just about how you look or what you're saying - because this is an instrumental. He described it as 'furniture music', eventually you do sit on the furniture or eventually you do move the furniture. Eventually you have to somehow get involved with doing something with your furniture.

“Leaving fingerprints on your work, there are different ways to do it. His way, I think you just can't imitate. You can try to be a parrot and copy what an artist is doing, but with an artist such as Erik Satie, obviously no one's heard him playing it, because he made it in the 19th Century, so there was no recording. It's written, so you have to interpret it your own way, he's left that mystery among all of us. The interpretations I've heard, I don't think they sound very far from what he was trying to give, but I don't think we can ever get to the place where he was. That's what inspires me about the song.”

“Brother Gorilla” by Jake Thackray

“I discovered Jake Thackray in Paris through another guy called Georges Brassens - a French dude, a folk musician, he's amazing. This is a Georges Brassens song. Jake Thackray is a man who I'd say is an English Georges Brassens, he admired this man. If you look at Jake Thackray playing music, you'd think for a second it was Georges Brassens. it's just that one is younger and beautiful and Georges Brassens is an old, fat fool. That was their difference.

"‘Brother Gorilla’ was written by Georges Brassens. I still don't quite get the meaning of the song, it's a very dark meaning. What I like about it is that there's a meaning, but there's also no meaning to it. Again, I go back to the simplicity of the song, the chorus of the song is just those words, ‘Brother Gorilla’.

“It gives me the impression and it helps me to understand that a song isn't just about a hook, a song isn't just about singing a chorus over and over and over again. I suppose it depends what kind of music you're doing, but even so, even in pop music... Back in those times, this was somehow pop music. It was listening closely, listening to the story and a little chorus that brings everyone together, then going back into it again. That's what this song brings: simplicity and having a meaning that has no meaning – whatever that means.”

“Mad Dogs and Englishmen” by Noel Coward

“I heard Noel Coward through Jake Thackray. When I discovered Jake Thackray I was looking for poet singers, artists who expressed themselves in a very free format. That's how I found Jake Thackray. Through him, on YouTube, I found Noel Coward. I wasn't blessed with parents who would teach me about these things, I had to do that myself. Now, two of my favourite songs are from Noel Coward: ‘If Love Were All’ sung by Judy Garland, and ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’.

“For me, watching him sing that song, there's humour, there's wit, there's dark humour and there's a sense of free expression. He's a wordsmith, he's a genius at that, but he makes it look so easy, so simple. It makes you forget the work that has been put into it, you know? That's what I admire about him as an artist.

“This song gives out almost everything that this man has, the genius of this man in a nutshell. That's why I like Noel Coward.”

“Avec le temps” by Léo Ferré

“Léo Ferré has written loads of music. He's not as popular as Charles Aznavour or Édith Piaf because he didn't really give a shit about pop music that much. He was a poet who loved singing poems from poets, like Baudelaire.

“I heard this in France. What I love about the song is the fact that it was sang at the right time of his life. At the time he wrote this song he was old, very old and the words that came out of his mouth sounded like no one else could write that song. It’s everything, the composition, the words... He says “after a certain time, we love no more.” To make a song and say that “after a certain time, we love no more”, I can't say it's pretentious because the man is too old to give a damn about pretending to be somebody that he's not.

“The simplicity of this song, again, blows my mind. I like simplicity and I think that's what makes it for me. The flair he had on stage singing this song, I've watched him sing it a lot and the cameras always zoomed on his face when he's singing. It's like he's not singing, he's saying, he's speaking. This is what I love.

“I listen to it a lot. At a certain time in my life, living in Paris I was singing in bars. I had to learn a French song to somehow make my money. You want people to know the song you're singing, they help you out and give you a bit more money. Finding this song and learning this song, that I love, gave me the carte blanche, happiness and freedom to go out there and sing it. Not a lot of people knew this song, so it was a good thing. It impressed them I suppose.”

“After All” by David Bowie

“I was never a great fan of David Bowie and I didn't know much about him. I was really boxed into my own place when I was a kid and only a few things came through to my sphere. Sorry to say, but after he passed away and I heard the news, I was thinking to myself 'what is so special about this guy?' As they say, great artists get discovered when they're dead.

“I listened to a couple of his songs but then I came back to ‘After All’. I was in America at that time, I was very lonely and walking around a lot and this song always came to me. I'd always listen to this song, this and Tomita's ‘Arabesque’ were the songs I listened to a lot.

“What I love about this song is the modulation and key change. It's also slow, there's backing vocals and men singing with a cockney accent. David Bowie, sometimes he really goes for it in his songs, but with this song he's very laid back. He sings in falsetto - not all the time, but it's almost a whisper.

“I suppose I always like things that are different from everything else. Back in those times they called this song, or this music, pop music, or pop rock music. It changes key, there's weird backing vocals, there's cockney accents... You can't get away with this on modern 21st century pop radio. I just love it, I love the composition, it reminds me of my time walking around the streets of New York. It's very spooky and dark and he knows how to do that.”

“Arabesque No. 1” (Debussy) by Isao Tomita

“The problem with this, a classical piece, is that you can never hear Debussy playing that piece, because there was no recording of that. If you look at Mozart and all these guys, if you hear contemporary people playing it, you're like 'That's Mozart'. No it isn't! Mozart composed it, but it's someone else's playing.

“I discovered Tomita not long ago. Tomita's expression of ‘Arabesque’ made by Debussy, personally for me is what Debussy was trying to do, or what Debussy did. But It just sounds like Tomita's work, it sounds like he's not trying, it sounds like he made ‘Arabesque’.

“What do I love about it? Of course he's a great producer, that's the first thing, the sound of the composition is extraordinary. The amount of sounds he used to make this composition come to life and to somehow make me think that this is what Debussy was trying to do, but he was only limited to the piano, this is what blows me away. That's what really blows me away with this song.

“He made this in the '70s or '80s but it sounds like it's in the future. I believe when he first made it people didn't really care. It did do quite well, but it seems like he was ahead of his time. Today, I'm listening to it and going ‘this surely wasn't made in the past, was it?’ I used to hate electronic music, hate it. It was because I was obviously ignorant, I was listening to the shit ones. One has to do their homework before you judge anything.

“I remember it particularly well because when I discovered him I was with a bunch of friends in America. I travel a lot. Whenever I'm listening to it, I remember them, I just remember us, sitting down, having a good time together.”

“Day After Tomorrow” by Tom Waits

“We were just talking about Isao Tomita and how his music and the sound was of the future - well, this song is timeless. What he's talking about - which is obviously a soldier writing a letter to his family about his experiences and what he's going through in a war zone - is what a lot will experience for years to come.

“It’s the way that Tom Waits draws you into the story and the atmosphere and the place, you can imagine the soldier might have a toe cut off, or blood gushing out of him and he is writing his last letter to his family in America, or his family in wherever. It's a moment that keeps coming back to my mind every now and then. I'm not saying my life is comparable to a soldier in a battlefield, but whenever I'm in doubt, or whenever I'm feeling weak, I remember this particular moment. The soldier is going ‘hopefully I'll see you the day after tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the day after tomorrow...’

“We know Tom Waits. He's got a great voice and it's one that is very unique. If someone was to go on The X Factor and sing like Tom Waits, they would laugh at them. I personally think so. Music becomes an understanding, the sound of music for me is understanding. That is what this song is, you don't listen to it with your ears, you understand it with yourself. That's how it is for me as an artist. The meaning, and what it means to him. He might not even care about this song, but the way that he is singing it sounds like every part of his being depends on this song. This song does it for me. It does it for me 100%.”

“Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix

“I listened to this a lot when I was lost in Paris. Coming off of this song I started making my own music. The first song I wrote professionally was ‘Cornerstone’. Looking back to it, when I listen to this song, when I look at this song and how I'm singing it, I can see the influences from what I heard in ‘Little Wing’. At a certain time in the song, it sounds like he's speaking almost. There's a part in ‘Cornerstone’ where I'm speaking. This was in my Jimi Hendrix era, when I was listening to a lot of Hendrix music.

“People say ‘Jimi Hendrix is a great guitarist’ but I don't care about his guitar playing. There are greater guitarists than Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was more than just a guitar player. For me, it was the way he expressed his music. Even in his singing, he was a speaker of a time. No one says 'fly on little wing', or 'she's walking through the clouds'. It's that imaginary hoping for someone who will just save all of us, which is essentially love. This is what he was hoping for. Love came and comforted him, then afterwards he declared "fly on little wing." Keep on going. Keep on going. Keep on going. Which is to himself - that's how I interpret the song.

“Hendrix wasn't scared to take risks in his playing or some scales and some modes. In a very awkward second and third of a root note, he just didn't care. He gave what he was expressing. He wasn't so aware, or didn't care about which mistakes he was going to make playing a scale. Sometimes in ‘Little Wing’ it sounds off in the end. In those times they might have said 'what are you doing? You're playing out of key'. But actually, no, he's not. Our ears are so attuned to his playing that we think that it's all in tune.

“I like the fact that the song is very short, not a lot of Hendrix songs are short. It kept the essentials and when he starts the solo, the song just fades out, because there's no need: he's said it, it's done. That's what I love about it.”

“The Fletcher Memorial Home” by Pink Floyd

“What I like about this is that they took a risk. They mention some political figures in this song, for example: Thatcher, Reagan... It had a lot of relevance in that time. It still does, but in that time, one wouldn't dare take that risk. This is what they were good at.

“These guys were actually chanteurs. They were poets and griots who lived around making a means for themselves and writing songs like poets. I hate the words 'singer/songwriter', they don’t make any sense to me. These guys took poems they'd written and they brought them into the studio. Of course they were gifted at playing instruments but for me, 'The Fletcher Memorial Home for colonial wasters…', the words they used, how they described things, it's just amazing.

“I like the risk they took and how they somehow pointed fingers, but not pointed fingers at the same time. That's very hard to learn as an artist to do. My second album is about looking out on the open and addressing social issues. Listen to Pink Floyd and their sorts of songs, even their famous ones, 'Another Brick In The Wall', which is one of their most famous songs. They're talking about social things and how you're talking about it.

“I like the drum in the intro in the middle part of the song because I don't know how on earth they managed to produce a sound like that. There's a snare run of about six times - bam bam bam bam bam bam - and then the guitar goes huge. Musically, it's a great pleasure to listen to and see what I hope to be when I finally make it. It's such a huge inspiration.

“At the very end, when they mention political names, which I always find a huge risk to take as an artist, they showed us again that an artist must talk about their times - or that's the impression I get from the artists I love. It isn't just about you, it's about your time in this world that defines what you're going to be when you're gone.”

I Tell A Fly is released September 29 on Behind / Virgin EMI

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