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Benjamin Clementine’s solemn sound

This year’s winner of the Mercury prize has a voice like Nina Simone and fingers like Erik Satie

Hazel Sheffield | November 23rd 2015

The Mercury prize ceremony took a sombre turn after the winner was announced last Friday. Benjamin Clementine, a 26-year-old pianist from north London, was momentarily lost for words when he won for his debut album “At Least for Now”. Then he dedicated the award to Paris, where he spent several years busking – and sleeping – on the streets: “I know that it’s about music, but I dedicate it to what happened in Paris about four or five days ago.”

A long pause followed. The music-industry executives, eating beef and chocolate mousseline in the stalls, waited in silence. But Clementine was overcome, and the presenter Lauren Laverne rushed across the stage to take over as the room filled with applause.

Clementine’s reaction matched his solemn presence as a performer. At 6 foot 3 inches, with austere cheekbones and sad eyes, he comes across as shy in interviews, but sings as though he is cleaving the words from his heart. On the album, Clementine writes about deprivation and resilience, his round vowels adding strangeness to what is, by any measure, an extraordinary voice. “I speak for the people and I”, he sings on “The People and I”, over a mournful cello and a simple piano line. To many, though, he is still unknown. Twitter mostly greeted the news of his win with a single word: “Who?”

One of the Mercury’s achievements in recent years has been to give lesser-known albums a sales boost in the short term. Young Fathers, the hip-hop trio that won last year, saw sales of their album “Dead” increase by 446% in the week after their win, though the group’s profile has not increased much since.

But the notion of giving a prize to an album is tricky when the format is on its last legs. The number of people streaming music increased 40% in 2014. Last year was also the first time streaming revenue matched revenue from physical and digital sales. And it looks likely to increase its share as more people decide that it makes little sense to pay £10 for an album with ten tracks when you can spend the same amount on Spotify to stream 43m songs for a month.

There is, however, one demographic that still wants their music packaged in the album format: the over-45s. They are part of the reason Adele can get away with withholding her new album “25” from Spotify and still sell 300,000 copies on its day of release (the same day as the Mercury ceremony). They are also the demographic most likely to be familiar with Clementine, who has performed twice on Jo Wiley’s BBC Radio 2 show, for which the average age of listeners is 51, and on “Later with Jools Holland”, beloved of people most likely to be watching TV at midnight on a Friday.

Clementine, with a voice that has been compared to Nina Simone and piano compositions that sound like Erik Satie, has been pitched squarely at this demographic. That makes him an excellent choice to carry the torch for the ageing album format – at least for now.

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