When Benjamin Clementine won the Mercury Prize at the end of last year, it came as a surprise to music fans and industry alike (Jamie xx had been hotly tipped to pick up the award). Even the 25-year-old musician himself could hardly seem to believe it: “I never thought I would say this,” he said emotionally as he took to the stage. “If anyone is watching, any child or youngster or student, the world is your oyster. Go out there and get what you want to get”. These words feel particularly resonant in light of his recent ascent to renown; having spent years busking on the Paris Métro after leaving his hometown of Edmonton, London, Clementine has quickly risen to a kind of universal acclaim, his soulful melancholy and almost breathtaking good looks combining to project a powerful, otherworldly majesty when he performs.
Most recently, renowned photographer Craig McDean and collaborator Masha Vasyukova were taken aback by Clementine's timeless elegance while shooting him for T Magazine, and they subsequently went on to direct the accompanying video for his painfully poignant single I Won't Complain. An immersion into 1920s surrealism, it combines the psychoanalytic symbolism of Jean Cocteau with the grace of Man Ray, and serves to enhance the disquieting impact of Clementine's haunted melodies. Here, McDean and Vasyukova reflect on the inspirations behind their collaboration, and what makes Clementine so resoundingly appealing.
How did the collaboration with Clementine come about?
Craig McDean: I was asked to photograph Benjamin for T Magazine back in January. To tell the truth, I wasn't familiar with him and his music but he had this incredible, elegant and sophisticated look to him that almost reminded me of a beautiful jazz singer back in 1920s. T Magazine also asked for a short film to go with the shoot and I invited Masha to come along and do it with me, as we've collaborated a lot in the past. She flew in literally the night before the shoot and we drafted some ideas... then the next day we had only 45 minutes to film.
Masha Vasyukova: Craig was shooting pictures in daylight and we wanted the film to match. When we started filming, we could see the daylight was already going so we had to be really fast. We pitched Benjamin the concept on the go, and he just trusted us as we were putting green gaffer tape around his wrists asking him to do all kinds of unevident things at the quickest possible pace. Then the film came out, and Benjamin approached Craig and I to collaborate again, to make a music video for I Won’t Complain.
CM: Masha and I had just started our own film production company, Spoon Films, so we were really excited to take on the music video as one of our first projects under Spoon, and to have a complete creative "carte blanche".
What struck you about working with him?
CM: It was a process of creation versus production. Benjamin is a true poet, probably one of the most interesting artists of the decade; there is nothing fake about him, he is standing for what he believes in. And he has a cool look. We had the most special time working all together.
MV: Craig and I worked a lot on ideas and the script before the shoot, which allowed us, despite the tightest schedule, to have time for play. There was a very special moment, a kind of synchronicity, when all three of us were in the same momentum and thoughts started flowing faster than words. There was a lot of beauty in that.
How much did his presence, and music, inspire the concept of the video?
CM: This video is a synergy of Benjamin's music and our vision with Masha. His lyrics are pure poetry and creating this film was like "naming things that can not be named," or showing the invisible. There are no rules to filmmaking; it's all about vision and translating it into your work.
Where did the idea of all of the surrealism come from?
MV: Benjamin transmits mythology; he is one of the rare people you meet who trespasses time. And the song as well is about dreams, unknown shadows, something invisible that haunts and holds you which in fact may not even exist but merely be a ghost from the past hiding in your subconscious. There is also the idea of duality and how contradictory our minds can be, and all these themes are closely linked to both psychoanalysis and surrealism.
Were there any specific artists, or works, you referenced?
CM: Both Masha and I love surrealism, it is something very present in our lives and work that we constantly explore and evoke. And with Benjamin's video, we wanted to make a film that has a real soul. We did all the trickery in an old school way – like how they would do it in the silent era, or how [Jean] Cocteau and Man Ray translated poetry into the visual. We also did that for the editing; it is all part of a game for us, including the filming and editing. We filmed everything ourselves on two small black magic cameras, and we always edit our own films, too.
MV: There are specific references – as Craig mentions, there is Jean Cocteau and Man Ray, there is also Dorothea Tanning and Magritte. When it comes to surrealism, there is definitely some kind of collective memory: things happen on set and in editing, you get little gifts that come through errors. There is a lot also that derives from personal experience; it is very linked to what we have lived, how we see and perceive art, dreams and film. A film comes to life when all those things merge together.
What was the atmosphere on set like?
CM: I have this memory of arriving at this old 1930s New Jersey theater at 8am and seeing Benjamin standing alone outside in a beautiful suit, smoking a cigarette. It looked like he was out of another era. The song was played throughout the whole process: the film was storyboarded to the lyrics, and the song was the creative inspiration for the film. There was one cut that didn’t make the first film that was a bit too surreal; when Benjamin was on set he asked us, "what happened to the flying Benjamin?"