AMONG THE MANY immediately striking things about Benjamin Clementine is his voice, the powerful tenor that he commands like a classical singer. So it comes as a surprise to discover how soft-spoken he is in conversation—so much so that his voice barely completed the nearly 5,000-mile journey from London, which for Clementine is the closest thing currently resembling home. "At the moment," he says on the phone from London, "home is a concept."
For Clementine, home has taken on many different meanings through the years. Born to Ghanaian parents and raised in Edmonton—a lower-class suburb north of London—Clementine left a turbulent family life for Paris in 2009, at age 19, where he slept on the streets or in hostels, supporting himself by busking in the Metro station. After being discovered by a label rep during one of his performances, Clementine signed with Virgin/EMI, who released his first two EPs.
In 2015 he released his debut full-length, At Least for Now, which reached number one in France, was certified Gold, and went on to win the Mercury Prize, the UK's most prestigious music award. Sir Paul McCartney sang his praises. David Byrne gushed over him in a feature for the New York Times Style magazine. This almost sudden change—from busking for passersby in the Place de Clichy Metro station to performing onstage in front of thousands—could be overwhelming, but Clementine has tried not to let the transition affect his performance.
"I've always wanted to engage with the audience," he says. "It's harder to play in front of two people than 1,000 people. I'll always be shy. I want to think I am playing in front of my friends. I try to tell myself I'm doing the same thing I've always done."
Hunched over his piano, barefoot, and wearing a black overcoat, Clementine pummels the keyboard, croons, and wails like the illegitimate child of Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen. He taught himself piano at a young age, fashioning his style after the Gymnopédies of Erik Satie. Clementine was later inspired to sing after watching a revelatory performance by Antony and the Johnsons. His compositions and performances are guided by the same sense of musical theatre and drama as Anohni (formerly Antony Hegarty). Clementine shares much of her brooding pensiveness, but his voice is more rough-around-the-edges, owing in part to his spent time singing in crowded Metro stations.
Although it rises to a fever pitch so often in his music, the only time Clementine's voice gets above a whisper during our conversation is when he's asked to rehash his much-touted, much-mythologized origin story.
"A lot of people busk, it's nothing special," he says. "If people enjoy the music, the rest shouldn't matter. After the second or third album, people know the story, so it's waste of time to talk about it."
The 11 songs on At Least for Now unfold like a multi-act drama of operatic ballads, symphonic poems, and nouvelles chansons—all carried forward by Clementine's relentless piano. "The piano is such an important and spiritual thing to me," he says. "I respect every bit of it. I still hear what I used to hear when I was a kid."
Clementine's vulnerability in society and estrangement from family are often referenced in his lyrics, as are his concerns with the cycle of birth and death. On the powerful and slow-building "Condolence," the now-27-year-old Clementine reflects on how fate, which gave him both life and success, could just as easily take either away: "Before I was born there was a storm/Before that storm there was fire/Burning everywhere, everywhere," he sings. "And everything became nothing again/Then out of nothing/Out of absolutely nothing/I, Benjamin, I was born/So that when I become someone one day/I'll always remember I came from nothing."