RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Listen to this voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORNERSTONE")
BENJAMIN CLEMENTINE: (Singing) I'm alone in a box of stone. And all is said and done.
MARTIN: That is a young man named Benjamin Clementine. And his voice and songwriting made him a star overseas. While he's headlining sold-out shows in Europe and recently signed with Capitol Records, Clementine is still waiting to break out in this country. That might be about to change with the release of his first U.S. EP. It is called, "I Dream, I Smile, I Walk, I Cry." Benjamin Clementine joins me from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us and for playing for us.
CLEMENTINE: Thank you very much for having me.
MARTIN: I have a lot of questions about that song. The lyrics are really simple, at some level, but evocative - really evocative - this idea of being alone in a box of stone. May I ask where the song comes from?
CLEMENTINE: I mean, we're bound to be alone sometimes. And I've just had that most of my life. So, you know, when I wrote this song I was pretty much writing to my own self. And the reason why, it's simple - because I like William Blake, the poet...
CLEMENTINE: And painter. And I remember just reading his work when I was very young. And I liked it because, you know, it's really written in simple text and simple literature, but it's quite deep, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORNERSTONE")
CLEMENTINE: (Singing) I've been lonely, alone in a box of my own. And this is the place I now belong. It's my home.
MARTIN: Did you grow up surrounded by a lot of music?
CLEMENTINE: No. Yeah, I had to look for music myself, you know? I had to...
MARTIN: So where did you find it?
CLEMENTINE: Yeah, I mean, my brother's the one that brought a piano home. And I would play it when he stopped practicing. And eventually, I got better than him.
MARTIN: Oh, you did? (Laughter).
CLEMENTINE: Yeah. And then he gave up. But as soon as that piano came, you know, I started, you know, imitating pianists. And then, I made it my own, like, you know. I just made it my own.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T COMPLAIN")
CLEMENTINE: (Singing) It's a wonderful life. It's a wonderful life, traversed in tears from the heavens.
MARTIN: When people do write articles about you, talk about you, everyone seems to bring up this phrase that you had a difficult childhood, or that's how they characterize it. How do you want to talk about that chapter of your life?
CLEMENTINE: I think it's not necessary to say that I had a difficult upbringing because, you know, I would say that I'm quite privileged with, you know, the traveling that I've done so far. And I would say that I'm very lucky, you know? Of course, everyone's life is different. And, you know, obviously, if I had to had known, I'll just say that I would do better.
(SOUNDBITE OF BENJAMIN CLEMENTINE SONG)
MARTIN: You ultimately moved to Paris. And you started performing on the street, which I always find to be this really brave thing to do, to just set up shop on a street corner or in a bus station, train station...
MARTIN: And just sing, let that very intimate part of yourself out.
MARTIN: Can you describe what that was like? Were you afraid to make yourself vulnerable in that way, or did it just come quite naturally to just sing in public?
CLEMENTINE: You know, there comes a time that, you know, a man has no choice (laughter).
MARTIN: So you needed to do it just to get money?
CLEMENTINE: Yeah, I needed to do it to survive. And most importantly, I did it 'cause I loved it. And I've used that - that principle's - I hope it stays there forever. And that is, I'm doing music because I love to give and to create, you know? And, you know, people will appreciate you. Some people will hate you. Some people will say, shut your mouth. But overall, I would say that I was very lucky to have this experience because I think I have shifted of a gear in my confidence and my music. And of course, I'm still vulnerable. And I'm still not totally confident, of course not.
(SOUNDBITE OF BENJAMIN CLEMENTINE SONG, "NEMESIS")
MARTIN: Let's get back into the new album. I want to play a little bit of another track. Let's listen to a song called "Nemesis."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEMESIS")
CLEMENTINE: (Singing) If I held my breath on you, I would have died a thousand times. And if chewing was to show you how much I cared, I would probably be wearing dentures by now. I said, if I held my breath on you, I would have died a thousand times...
MARTIN: Why do you feel compelled to sing? You're a beautiful piano player, which that in and of itself is such an immense talent. And to feel compelled to sing is a different thing.
CLEMENTINE: As I always say, I'm not really a singer. I'm just an expressionist, you know? I express myself, you know, and it comes out the way it comes out. And I'm quite lucky that it comes out in tune.
MARTIN: (Laughter). People compare you to Nina Simone. I'm sure you've heard that.
CLEMENTINE: Yeah, I mean, that's incredible. I mean, that's - for me, it's a bit too much, you know. This lady stands purely alone. I mean, I get people when they say - what they're trying to say, which is maybe that my music is coming from, you know, me. You know, Nina Simone's music was sincere and straight from the heart. I guess that's what they mean 'cause we don't look alike.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEMESIS")
CLEMENTINE: (Singing) Next time, treat others the way you want to be treated.
MARTIN: So it sounds, based on our conversation, that you have this idea of where you're at right now, that the success and the fame that's come with it you understand to be this kind of ephemeral thing that is great when you've got it, but it could evaporate.
CLEMENTINE: I haven't made it in America yet, so I'm not really...
CLEMENTINE: I'm not really that famous. But yeah, I just say that I'd rather fame chase me than me chase fame - 'cause even when I'm dead, hopefully fame will still chase me. So I just keep it like that and worry more about, you know, what I'm trying to create or project to the people because I'm really excited.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, I'd love to ask you to play one more song to take us out on. Would you mind playing "Condolence" for us?
CLEMENTINE: Don't mind. Thank you.
MARTIN: Benjamin Clementine. His EP, "I Dream, I Smile, I Walk, I Cry" is out now. He joined us from our studios in New York. Benjamin, what a pleasure, thank you so much.
CLEMENTINE: Thank you very much, Rachel.
(Playing piano, singing) I swear, you've seen me. Yes, you've seen me here before, before. And so...
MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. B.J. Leiderman wrote our theme. I'm Rachel Martin.
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