Benjamin Clementine is the kind of Mercury Awardwinning singer-songwriter that has critics reaching for the label “troubadour.” Born in Edmonton, Clementine spent years as a down and out, busking in Paris before returning to London two years ago to record his fiercely romantic, genre-blurring debut, At Least for Now. Despite little commercial impact, it thrust Clementine into the indie limelight as something of a music press darling.
James Massiah, meanwhile, is one of the UK’s most prominent spoken word artists. His diverse body of work explores everything from gentrification and his experiences of the street to the complexities of sex and morality. Here, the two artists – both poets of a kind – sit down for Wonderland to discuss why they write, who they write for, and what it is that art can achieve in our ever-turbulent, politically divisive age.
James Massiah: I have here now, this initial enquiry I suppose. Do you have an idea of who the listener is going to be and how they’re gonna be made to feel when you write?
Benjamin Clementine: I don’t really give a toss about it. I don’t care about what people think. I care about what I think, so it’s alright.
JM: You’ve spoken a little bit about your writing process, and I suppose I’m curious to know if there are any specific moments or spaces in which you find yourself inspired to write?
BC: Sometimes yeah, and I always remember, because I travel a lot and I always have my typewriter. I write down what I see, I’ve been travelling to America lately so I’m writing it down. And with what’s going on with Teresa May, Donald Trump, all those bastards, I get inspired by that. What I don’t want to do is sound pretentious and too political. I want to write in that Mark Twain sort of style. It’s witty and it’s darkly humorous… You laugh at it, but it’s actually true.
JM: Does poetry exist here, and music, songwriting, exist there? Do you see them as distinct forms?
BC: Well, words are music by themselves. So, for me, music is born by poetry. I don’t want to see them as distinct, but I think it’s like religion and science, they both need each other.
JM: You speak of religion and science and I want to build broader, because you said about Teresa May and Donald Trump a little bit, but I wonder, faith, metaphysics, the supernatural: how much does that feature in your writing?
BC: I think these things are important, yeah. I do believe that, for example, when I went to Paris, and I was by myself, strutting around the streets not knowing anyone, that my grandmother, who is dead, was next to me. I also sometimes play with scripture because I grew up with a very strong, religious family.
JM: Same, actually.
BC: I know the Bible from Genesis to the Books of Revelation. Sometimes with my music and poems I think that I get some stuff from there.
JM: Do you have a favourite passage of scripture?
BC: Okay, it’s a Christian interview now! John: 35, “Jesus wept.”
JM: You seem to have moved about quite a bit. Paris is an important place?
BC: Yeah it’s the Paris style, this whole thing. And then I came back and I realised that I was British.
JM: To hear you say that, “I’m British”, it tickles me a little bit because I identify in a similar way, but I have black friends who would never utter those words, you know.
BC: I think you need to travel, because when you travel you realise that you are from here and people will say that you’re from here and you’ve just got to accept it… If you’re a poet, you should travel.
JM: Yeah but the language I guess, is something that I imagined might stop me. Whereas I see with music, there is no language essentially.
BC: It depends where you want to go as a poet… Why do you write?
JM: I’ll tell you what I want to do. Create an escape, to lift someone, or carry someone away.
BC: And not bring them back?
JM: Not necessarily… There’s a better metaphor I could use but it’s almost – a secret cave of wonders that exists and I know it’s there. And so I suppose it’s almost like creating a secret place for someone that they can go to when things do get rough. Even in my kind of state as a mere pauper, how can I best enjoy this time? I see that art, poetry, music, is where I can be free. If not in the real world, if not with finances, then with art and with poems.
BC: That’s great. Great.
JM: I kind of accept that there is, objectively speaking, no way that anything should be. And the way that things are is quite simply the way that things are. And, if I want to change anything, I have to be realistic, and pragmatic, and come to terms with what is within my sphere of influence to change.
BC: Do you think you can change anything?
JM: Yes. People are moved by different things. So, I do have an audience in mind, but the audience has shrunk. I have like a kind of very specific person in mind. And that person, looks, thinks and sounds a lot like me.
BC: Well, obviously it’s eventually for other people. But it’s obviously for you right? We’ve all got different ways of writing.
JM: 100%, yeah.
BC: I think comparing it would be quite stupid. Right? But, for me – and you might be my next favourite – my all-time favourite is William Blake. And, you know, he wrote so simply. And I talk about what’s affecting me. It’s very hard for me to write something that I haven’t really experienced. It’s very hard for me. So… With Black Lives Matter… no-one is going around shooting black people here. I’ve only seen it on the news and TV, right?
JM: I suppose there was one done in –
BC: What, in Tottenham? Next to me in Enfield. I was in Paris at that time actually… But I can only talk about what I know. I’ve been spending some time in America so yes, I could talk about a new Texas law that’s just been passed. About little kids – about 21 year-olds – that can go to university with guns in their pockets… But all I’m saying is that actually I don’t know whether I’m a good poet or not.
JM: So this is actually one of my questions to you and I ask to myself on a regular basis. That there is this notion that there is no objective good or bad, right? Moral nihilism more specifically. And I wanted to ask you, do you consider yourself bad at anything? And would you like to improve on anything as a writer or as a person?
BC: I’m very negative. I tend to look at the dark side rather than the lighter sides of life. So that’s the first thing that I want to improve on. Secondly, you know, I could have more friends. I think that’s one thing that really bothers me because… I could, I could (laughs). Same question to you I suppose.
JM: I guess it’s almost like for me, as a writer, there’s always the revealing of some truth or split – some kind of observation or something that I hadn’t considered before. Or that I’d thought of but I hadn’t quite found the words. And I guess that’s what I want to get better at doing, perhaps. Finding the language to communicate these sort of like intangible things, these feelings, experiences, moments in time.
BC: I really need to read your poems!