Benjamin Clementine on Immigration, Artist Sustainability, and Pushing Boundaries with Music

Alaia D'Alessandro
photo by Craig McDean

Earlier this year, KEXP Video Producer (and member of the band Tres Leches) Alaia D'Alessandro sat down for a chat with Mercury Prize-winning artist Benjamin Clementine, along with her bandmate Ulises Mariscal. As Clementine celebrates his 30th birthday today, KEXP is sharing this special conversation between the three artists. 

One day fellow Tres Leches member Ulises Mariscal and I saw something rare in the urban cities of the Northwest: a cowboy.

We were thrown off by Benjamin Clementine’s white cowboy hat, Canadian tuxedo, and leather boots. I had imagined him in the blazers, European-cut suits, and twirling capes that he was dressed in online in photos and videos. We walked up to him and asked if he was playing that night and discovered this cowboy was indeed Clementine who was opening for David Byrne’s American Utopia Tour.

Now a few months after seeing his stripped-down performance of bass, tracks, and mannequins, it’s time to wish Clementine a happy 30th Birthday. We’ll do that by sharing a conversation that Mariscal and I had with Clementine walking the streets of Portland. Benjamin Clementine met Ulises and I across the street at a steakhouse after the show because he was “absolutely hungry.” Unfortunately, he wouldn’t eat for another couple of hours as each restaurant we tried to go to was either closed or had a line wrapped around the block. As we roamed, we talked about immigration, artist sustainability, the audience’s relationship to the performer, how music pushes boundaries, and many other eye-opening topics.  

As we passed groups of people in search of food, one person would start clapping and then another. Cheers would follow as the people recognized the star man in the cowboy hat. People are very important to Clementine.

Clementine: You have to build a relationship with people. People need to understand the life of a musician has gotten even harder now because if you don’t make hits or all that kind of stuff then you’re totally fucked. If you don’t make a hit, then most certainly you’re not going to get a Grammy or go on television to play your songs, and if you haven’t got a hit then they can’t play your music on the radio. So, you have to build a relationship with people. That’s why when I’m performing most of the time I’m looking at people and their faces. Because they’re much more important to me. They’re very, very important to me. I can’t go “Fuck You,” you know, these guys pay my bills. I see it as the American flag and a pole. As an artist, you can either be a pole or a flag. But one of them is the audience and that’s that. A pole will still be a pole without a flag and a flag will be a flag without a pole. But why do you put them together? That’s how I see my audience. They help me and I supposedly help them.

I was taken back to a moment in Clementine’s performance where the American flag draped around a mannequin. During the song “One Awkward Fish,” Clementine broke out into an opera as he and his bassist walked two mannequins across the stage and let them fall to the ground in front of the audience. Ulises had asked Benjamin what he was trying to portray with the mannequins, one of them being a child.

Clementine: Well, you know he’s a kid. And that kid specifically — if we were to be very specific — represents a kid that died at the sea… beach.

The child that is Alan Kurdi from Kobanî, Syria. His family tried to escape the ISIL attacks on Kobanî in 2015 but were rejected for refugee sponsorship by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Alan Kurdi’s body was found in Bodrum, Turkey after his family boarded a small boat that capsized, overloaded with other families trying to escape including that of Zainab Abbas who lost two children.  

Clementine: I think somehow we human beings have managed to love and care for children for some reasons. That kid is meant to have two hands and in that particular moment I meant to put the kid’s body back together and then afterward I would destroy it again just to show what and where, how far we’ve come as human beings. We used to protect our young ones because we thought they were the future but now kids are certainly being killed around most places I know. And you know, gone are the days where they actually killed men, now they’re killing children so it’s gone so far. So it was my way of trying to tell people — or show people — we’ve got a situation. Obviously, personally, I can’t point fingers because before I start pointing fingers I have to point a finger at my own self. And I can only do it by using certain things… that’s music and also sculptures.

Ulises and Clementine continued the conversation of immigration and refugees at a diner that — in an eerily fitting moment — was on the verge of having us leave for the lack of Clementine’s identification, his passport with his manager for safekeeping.

Ulises: You said about words. I speak Spanish as my first language so when I hear that song where you’re saying "Adios," I couldn’t understand a lot of the words in English because when I hear performances the English sometimes, it just becomes noise. So, when I hear familiar words —  even though you’re not from the country I am, from it takes me back to my country  you know, I can’t go back to my country. So, having those connections with other artists that are traveling, doing their stuff, it really connects me to that, so thank you.

Clementine: Cheers. Thank you. I wrote it when I was leaving as well. When I was leaving England to Paris. I wrote “Adios” and I was just saying goodbye and I just thought it sounded better in Spanish than in English. “Adios” is more like… it’s more passion, you know?

Ulises: I have a song that is called “Deja De Joder” that wrote when I saw a lot of refugees and immigrants being rejected and just being treated really unfairly all over the world. Not just here in the U.S. it happens where I’m from [Mexico], it happens in Spain, it happens everywhere! So, this song that I wrote is kind of like therapy when I play it on stage because it becomes like me giving all that energy. So, I was wondering if that happens to you when you’re singing “Adios”? Does that take you back to that moment and just releasing that?

Clementine: Honestly, my first album was really personal… very, very personal. The second album I was looking out… to people’s lives. And the second album is mainly about travelers and wanderers. The fact is, we’re all wanderers and travelers and it’s an absolute fact. We’ve all been traveling for millions and millions of years or thousands and thousands of years and somehow some people think that they never did that. And one, it’s very scary. And two, Francis Bacon, he says that falsehood… what did he say…?

We each broke out with a bit of laughter, keeping us grounded.

Clementine: I’m sorry, I’m being very passionate now and when I’m passionate, I forget things. But he said, "falsehood in the hands of God is brevity and in the eyes of man is cowardice." So, we are such cowards, right? That we don’t want to admit to the fact that somewhere down the line, our great-grandfather moved from this place to that place. And that place to that place. And even if we were to talk in a layman’s term, some people, all of us have —when we grow up after living in our parent’s house, if we’re lucky to live in our parent’s house — we leave the house, we go out there to find our own things, and we meet somebody. We travel to meet somebody. It’s a thing called love — we actually travel. We don’t sit down in our houses. We travel and we find somebody and then we travel in love! With them! So, how on earth can you tell me that I can’t travel here? Or I can’t come here? But you can come here. It’s scary, it’s very, very scary. It shows class — class and power — because surely if you’re telling me I can’t come here it’s because you have more power than me. It’s the only reason why I can’t. It’s because you’re exercising your power whether it is right or wrong… we all know that it’s wrong… but… I’ll end this by saying that I moved from London to California. I live in Topanga Canyon now. And the first day that I went there my landlord didn’t tell me that there were snakes.

Benjamin chuckles as he recalls this surprise

Clementine: And the first day I woke up and there were three snakes just hanging outside. I was like “Holy shit!” And you know for about one to five minutes, I stood there to look at the snakes. And then I went back inside the house to read about the snakes in Topanga Canyon. There’s rattlesnakes… there’s king snakes… and there’s Coluber Constrictor. Now rattlesnakes are the deadliest snakes. But Kingsnakes, they’re not deadly, but guess what they do? They imitate rattlesnakes so they don’t get eaten. See? So, I believe that sometimes good people imitate the bad to be safe. To feel safe. Do you understand? So, when you get people saying that, "Oh, you can’t do this, you can’t do that" — most people don’t agree with the so-called person saying that. But because they want to feel safe, because they know the amount of power this person has, they will agree with them. It doesn’t mean that they are bad; it’s just that they are scared of them. So that’s the situation that we’re in right now. I’ve been traveling all my life. And I just met you guys and tomorrow I’m going to meet other people. For me I totally… I always feel sad when I feel immigrants… even to call people "immigrants"… it’s just… so sad… to call people immigrants… I mean…

Ulises: It’s something that the people in power have put that word into our head.

Clementine: The name! The name! It’s a name! You know I was called an “alien”.

Ulises: Oh yeah, they call me an alien, too….  

Clementine: How can you call a human being an alien? I’ve got an "alien visa"; it’s called an alien visa… Imagine that… I mean, it’s kind of cool because I’ve never met an alien before. But obviously, we know what they’re trying to say. But that’s why I sang that song.

Alaia: Ben Is an Alien?

I was referring to Clementine’s song “Jupiter”.

Clementine: Yeah, that song.

Ulises: You know what’s funny? Or not funny but it’s sad… it’s that they would treat an alien way better than they would treat us.

Clementine: One thousand percent! They will take all our tax money and they will take it to Mars/Jupiter looking for another life. And I keep on asking myself one question though: so what if they find life on Jupiter? Or on Mars? Who’s going to go there? Who’s going to go to which land? Who?? Who’s going to say, “Okay well you can’t come here and you can’t go there”? Who??

Alaia: Space colonization.

Clementine: Exactly. So, it’s gonna start again. So, we might not be able to go there. We might not. Maybe, unless we have money to pay for a land. And even to travel from Earth to Mars costs millions and millions of dollars. If you even wanna go there, it costs millions and millions of dollars let alone to have a land. So are the rich people or the powerful people gonna go or are they going to take us there?! Are they gonna switch it and go, “Okay, you guys are gonna live up there.” Or maybe there might be something special there they want… I don’t know, it’s a question I’m asking myself. There might be minerals that someone might go up there and bring it down here, but if they keep it for themselves it will mean the value will be nothing. 

We were finally told we have to leave the diner after receiving our food to go.

Inside, we had talked of titles referring to immigration and refugees. Outside on the sidewalk, we talked about titles and art. I had asked Clementine about his relationship to art as a multi-faceted performer capable of outlets through sculptures, photos, music, and who knows what else.

Clementine: I think it’s up to people to describe, in some ways, you know? I didn’t know that I’d be taking pictures, you know, of David Byrne and his great ensemble, but it’s just that sometimes things happen this way… it’s like meeting someone out of serendipity. For me, it’s all about what I love and honestly, people are going to judge me and if today I say that I’m a photographer, they’re going to look at all the great photographers and they’re gonna go, “Well, no, actually you’re not a photographer; you’re shit.”

Clementine chuckled.

Clementine: You know? So for me, titles are just what people put on you. I’m only doing what I love and I’ll make them judge me by whatever they want to judge me by…

Benjamin had explained his relationship to his audience using the metaphor of a flag and a pole. He left it open and didn’t say which was which or why we put the two together, but I saw another relationship between audience and musicians.

Alaia: The musicians and the people who love the music are kind-of creating microcosm. They’re reflecting off of their society. They’re taking those rules and they’re choosing to implement those rules into something… but, I don’t know…music could be so many different things!

Clementine: Well, certainly. If you look at classical musicians they’ve got rules, you know? Unfortunately, they’ve got rules. I’ve played with so many classical musicians and sometimes I just hate them. Because I know how great they are and how they’ve got perfect ears. I had to work hard to get a perfect ear. They were born with it. Of course, they practice. But like, they could make music, right? Just by hearing something. But they will never do it because they are not being told to. They’re so used to getting their conductor going, “Do this, do that, and do that,” but they know what I know and that’s that they could just do it by themselves. You’ll meet a lot of classical musicians who have never composed a song in their lives. They don’t want to because they’re scared. They’re scared because they’ve been playing Beethoven. Imagine if Mozart said, “I’m scared to play…” — there’d be no songs like "Moonlight Sonata." So the more risks they take, the better. And I love playing with classical musicians. I love them totally. I’m usually very traditional, but by now I’m playing with tracks.

Clementine laughs.

Clementine: But you know, maybe it’s a way to reinvent myself — I don’t know, we’ll see.

Clementine wasn’t able to bring his full band for lack of funds, an all too common barrier for artists. He’s adapted beautifully creating a unique performance with tracks, piano, bass, and sculptures.

Alaia: So that was a rule that you had to break, too. There’s a part of you that is classical and you like specifics and you like those things that you admire about your classical heroes. But then you do have that ability to create – obviously you write songs, but then when there’s a rule that gets broken from you that you don’t have control over  in this case, money — you have the ability to create and go beyond that and not say,  “Well, I don’t have my things, I can’t do it, I’m scared!”  

Clementine: Well, I suppose it all boils down to our stories, you know? We all have experiences of our own and we learn from what we go through. And for me, I remember when I was homeless and I had nothing… and I would go on the streets of Paris and I would play music and the money I would get from that… me and a bunch of musicians would go and play in a bar and after I would take that money and give it to them. I would give them that money that I made in the streets and by playing music. So, it’s kind of shaped me in a way that I believe that nothing is impossible… you know what I mean? It’s like, if they won’t come, I’m surely going to find a way and I will try and make it work even if at the end of the day people might say that it’s shit. The thing is that I’m at least trying.  So that’s what has pushed me here and David Byrne, as I told you before, he’s a lovely man. And I came here two years before and I performed in different places in America. And if I count the amount of people I’ve played in front of through David Byrne you would say to me, “Why the fuck did I come here two years ago?” because it was almost useless you know? I could count on my fingers the amount of people that showed up. Surely as Miles Davis says, “Playing in front of one person is good enough”. But this is the 21st century, you know? It costs like ten thousand grand to come from Europe to here and then play in front of one person? You know, what the hell! So, you know… it’s an honor and I’m just going to keep on working hard.

photo by Craig McDean


Whatever you want to call Clementine — whether it’s a beautiful human being, an alien, an artist, or something else — he is a being that is doing what he loves. In the song “Quintessence” off Clementine’s 2017 release I Tell A Fly, he says, “But I believe in the little bit of my young years of tasting fruits of fear in the depths of my own sorrows / Love is all I need to give although it clearly hasn’t been dear to me.” So, what is the audience’s responsibility to its performer? What are our responsibilities to each other as people? It’s clear that we need each other. That we all are capable of love, and yet we’ve gotten so far from it. I’ll let Clementine close it out. Ulises and I were silent after he told us this.

Clementine: Look, at the end of the day, as I referred to this whole situation as a flag and a pole. We don’t have to be together. A flag doesn’t have to hang on a pole — it doesn’t. A flag is a flag and a pole is a pole, but somehow we put it on there. So maybe it’s 'cause of the wind, I don’t know. But yeah, I need my audience. Every artist that says they don’t need anyone to look at their piece of work is a liar. The fact is, ever since we’re born, we always wanted to be loved and that’s the situation. And out of love comes care. And out of care comes money. Because one has to care for one by money. Byrne has helped me and I will not swap what I’m doing now with anything else. I won’t. But I hope it’s more like the beginning of something. I don’t want it to be like an experience and then afterward nothing happens and we’ll all just be back to square one. I don’t want that to happen. I want to build on it and see what happens. Honestly, I am only not famous in America. I’m not trying to tell you guys I’m still poor and have no money; that’s not true — I do, I have money. But it’s just that if we’re talking about business and the music business… before you pay musicians you have to get them to where they are, where you’re going. It’s a real business, it’s not like going to the bar and paying someone…

Clementine referred to when he couldn’t afford to bring his backing band and had to adapt.

Clementine: Anyways… you’re right in saying there are people… I’m always looking out to the people I’m performing to because I want them to take what I just gave to them. Take it. And hold on to it. Not just for their family, but I want them to pass it on. Because I might die tomorrow. But I want them to pass on some inspiration. Something that they find or found when they saw me playing. Whether it was my hat, or my voice, or my shoes, or my music, my words — take something and kind of just live with it. It’s kind of... not folklore but… something that is not tangible. Because once it’s tangible, then it can go missing.

Benjamin Clementine's most recent release was last year's LP I Tell a Fly, available now via Behind / Virgin EMI. 

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