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Benjamin Clementine, Avant Garde Opera

Photo of Benjamin Clementine

Benjamin Clementine

If Benjamin Clementine wasn’t a genius, he’d probably still be homeless and busking on the streets of Paris. As a child, he got bored with pop music and turned to intricate classical works—teaching himself difficult piano pieces. He’d play hooky from school to read classic literature at the library; what a rebel. When you look at his childhood, it’s not all that surprising that his performance is equal parts weird and genius—an avant-garde cabaret of spoken word poetry, classical orchestration, and dramatic charisma.

Clementine casts aside structure for long, arcing sagas that ramble and build and ebb and flow alongside his powerful voice. Gentle, intricate piano builds into dissonant, chaotic, and staccato crescendos, as if channeling Arnold Schoenberg to undo the conventions of modern songwriting.

Photo of Benjamin Clementine

Photo by Micky Clement

He moans and screams desperately. Moments later, he whispers intimately about the burden of loneliness. He breaks verse and rhythm and blows syncopated scat-raspberries. He tiptoes all around the line of being on key and in time. Sometimes his voice breaks as he pushes his range. And yet it’s all so elegant. While the stylistic resemblance to Nina Simone is obvious, the comparison understates Clementine’s originality.

As beautiful as his composition and lyrics are, experiencing Clementine is all about watching him perform. He walks onstage wearing nothing but a long cloak and sits at the piano. His hair juts upward, exaggerating his staggering height. Every movement or glance is both deliberate and natural, speaking to his animalistic passion and intensity. It’s no wonder he was plucked from the streets and put in the spotlight.

his performance is equal parts weird and genius—an avant-garde cabaret of spoken word poetry, classical orchestration, and dramatic charisma.

Benjamin has said of his work, "I don't think I'm a singer, I think I'm an expressionist." And this statement is reaffirmed by his April 2016 performance of “Condolence” for the NPR Tiny Desk video series. In the first few moments, Clementine shoots the camera a look so dramatic you brace yourself. Throughout the concert he gestures and improvises, giving the impression of an actor playing the part of a musician. It’s a spectacle that’s about more than just music.

Between each song his quiet, reserved demeanor is such a contrast to his opera singer-like projection and flamboyance, you get the sense that he exists purely for the stage. His connection to the audience seems to transcend normal human interaction—even via Youtube video. He is the embodiment of a modern troubadour and a true artist who lives for expression and creation. The recently released “I Won’t Complain” music video has allowed Clementine to show the world his intense theatricality. The surrealist, artsy short film shows him at his best—wandering the dramatic crossroads of performance art, interpretive dance, musicianship, and acting.

His current tour is taking his exceptional talent through 12 cities in the US and six across Europe, and throughout social media, the reactions to his performances are overwhelmingly positive, citing Benjamin as “mesmerizing” and “incredibly talented.” Catherine Sedgwick, of the UK culture e-zine The Upcoming, describes his recent performance at Somerset House as, “... pure remarkable honesty.” Clementine’s love for his art is garnering notice, securing him as one of the great alternative performances of our time.