British-born troubadour Benjamin Clementine soared to career heights when his eclectic jazzy debut recording “At Least For Now” won the overseas Mercury Prize in 2015. The achievement is all the more impressive considering he started on streets and underground Metro stations of Paris, where he busked to earn a living and found himself homeless. Eventually, he earned enough to afford a bunk-bed room in a Montmartre youth hostel, which he shared with nine others. Three years later, he was discovered.
You lived a romantic notion – moving from London to Paris at 19, on your own. How scary was it?
Well, it was life. And we learn from things like that. But I think this was my destiny, and I’ll never forget the things I discovered and experienced there. And Yes, it was hard. But it provided me with something to do, so I was lucky.
What was an average day like back then?
It would consist of just walking around and observing, and not trying to cause any trouble, and just wasting time, really. And I eventually started busking, but not as soon as I went there. I didn’t know that I would even end up doing that. It took me about six months before I realized that I could dot a note.
How did you discover you could perform?
In my travels, I met a lady from Scotland before I reached Paris, and she said, “If you’ve got nothing to do, you can go out in Paris and just sing, a cappella.” And I actually remembered that six months later, and I thought, “Well, why not? Why not just sing and see what happens?” And eventually I got enough money to get myself a guitar, and then I started doing nothing else but music.
Where would you set up shop each day?
Well, I didn’t just play on the streets. I found this Irish pub down in Pigalle, and they liked my songs, so I would play there on Thursdays and Fridays. And then for the rest of the week, I would go play on the streets or on trains. So on a normal day, I would usually sing for five hours, then spend the rest of the day walking around, getting to know Paris, and trying to get some food. And that’s what I did for a long time.
Did you speak French?
Oh, no — I didn’t. I was just thinking survival of the fittest, really. But all you’ve got to do is go into a shop, point to something, and say, “I want that.” And they’ll give it to you!
IF YOU GO
Where: Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. June 22
Contact: (415) 885-0750, www.slimspresents.com