Hummingbird Beats: Clemency Burton-Hill

Born in London, doe-eyed Clemency fell into acting in her teens.. but swiftly followed up by studying at Cambridge University (English Literature). In 2009, she relocated to New York City. She’s always been a freelancer and for that, she falls squarely into the bird category. Why enjoy nectar from only one flower, eh?  This one’s tasting the sweetness as a novelist, freelance journalist (from FT & Economist to Grazia & Glamour), musician, actress and TV & radio host of arts, music & books shows – mostly for the BBC, which means an awful lot of travel….

What’s in your bag? When you pack for a trip, in your handbag, in the pockets of your jeans…?

Parker 5th pen, Moleskine, MacBook Air, iPhone and iPod, Lumix LX5, whichever book/s I’m reading, headphones, cheap sunnies, my New York MetroCard and my London Oyster Card. Plus YSL Touche Eclat, Lancome Hypnose mascara, MAC Studio Fix and a Chanel Rouge Coco Shine lippy because I honestly can’t remember the last time I didn’t have to do my make-up on the run.

You have 5 minutes to pack up, for a trip of what duration you’re not sure. What do you take?

Chargers! Passport! All of the above, plus at least one pair of beloved jeans, a few extra pairs of underwear and my sneakers because I’m a zealot about the joys of running around in fresh air, wherever I am. Also: more books (I still don’t own a Kindle). And a functional credit card, clearly, so that more books and other necessities may be purchased if I’m away for weeks on end.

What is your most essential article of clothing?

A pair of Jimmy Choo biker boots that I bankrupted myself with a few years ago as a present for finishing my novel and have basically never taken off. They’re quite battered now, but go with everything from vintage print dresses to jeans; and, because they’re made out of non-synthetic leather, can be worn right through from winter to summer. Plus you can walk a million miles a day in them, which is handy.

What are the top 5 songs you need to have access to hearing at all times?

Five? Are you kidding me? I am a music junkie, I have to have access to everything at all times. I even have the clunky retro iPod because it’s 160 GB and I panic when I can’t listen to a lot of music. I’m a classical and jazz nut, but I also love hip-hop, rap, soul, disco, indie, rock’n’roll, much pop music. Name a musical genre and there’s almost certainly something in it that I heart. I’m addicted.

What is your preferred hummingbird beat/cities you like to frequent?

I’m a born & bred London girl and I’ve lived in New York for the past three years. I’ve also lived in Paris, so I’m obviously biased towards those three. I’m also mildly obsessed with San Francisco, Cape Town, Melbourne, Barcelona, Stockholm and St. Petersburg. Freetown, Sierra Leone, where I met my man also scores pretty high – most people have no idea but it has one of the most staggeringly beautiful coastlines I’ve ever seen. It’s a magical place and has about seven tourists a year.

What’s something crazy that you did to follow your passion? (Like, did you live out of your car for a month? Drive 10 hours to pick up a certain, weird material you needed?)

Even as a teenager, I knew I had multiple passions: writing, music, storytelling; a giant creative curiosity that was never going to be satisfied by doing one thing only. In the UK, it’s not really acceptable to try and juggle different lives so I think the craziest thing I did was just silently refuse to accept this. For so many years after I graduated, people would say, ‘Wait, but I don’t understand – are you a novelist? A journalist? A musician? An actress? A broadcaster? When are you going to make up your mind?’ I used to shrug, smile sweetly and then just get on with it.

What is one tip you have for traveling – a beauty tip, a survival tip, a culinary tip… ?

It’s going to sound nuts but I truly believe that J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier, a long suite of short solo classical piano pieces, has some kind of mystical, medicinal property to restore equilibrium and ward off jetlag. I listen to it on long transatlantic plane journeys, as a backdrop to whatever I’m reading or working on, and I get off and I’m fine! If I don’t have it, I’m broken. Crazy, but true.

What makes you a good house guest?

I bring a lot of good wine and a Diptyque candle. I play the piano. I’m scrupulously tidy (despite being a mess magnet at home). I donate books. I take my hosts out for dinner. And I never, ever, ever expect them to look after or entertain me.

What’s a recent or favorite meal you had while bouncing around the globe?

In Caracas, Venezuela last month, I ate at this incredible restaurant called DOC in which they source the best local, seasonal produce the country has to offer – we ate phenomenal lobster, unbelievable cured hams and cheeses, delicious salads. I was expecting the Venezuelan cuisine to be all fried pork and rice, like previous South American experiences, but this place really blew my mind. I’m also smitten with the shoestring fries and the buttermilk fried chicken at Verjus in Paris which I ate the other day. Too magnifique for words.

Where have you had your best night’s sleep?

Tough call. In a hut in rural South Africa in the middle of the bush with a gazillion stars and even more frogs. Camping al fresco on the beach on Banana Island, Sierra Leone, lulled to sleep by the crashing waves. Or in New York, at home, in my bed with my husband, where the perma-noise of traffic, sirens and general buzz is no less enticing.

Who would you like to travel with – three people (you guys can caravan together or on separate trips)?

If I could bring people back from the dead I’d pick Martha Gellhorn, in a heartbeat. Easy. If not: my husband James because there’s no-one better at throwing a few basics into a backpack, jumping on a plane and being up for an adventure somewhere on this globe; my best friend Amber, who’s the world’s funniest, most gung-ho, most curious and generally glorious travel companion; and my mother Gillian, who took me on our first girlie jaunt to NYC when I turned thirteen and set in motion an unstoppable love affair with the city.

Follow Clemency on Twitter @clemencybh or at her website at

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