With Spike Lee, Elton John and Edward Enninful already among her fans, Brighton soul singer Celeste catches up with Hunger as she gets ready to take the UK music scene by storm.
In this age of information overload and algorithm-generated playlists, music has become increasingly forgettable. Viral hits pop up one week and disappear the next, while a steady stream of artists achieve a certain level of industry buzz before being relegated to our internal catalogue of Oh yeah, I think I’ve heard of them. Even for the best of musicians, it is too easy for them to lose their voice as they battle with our shrinking attention spans.
Celeste’s music stops you in your tracks. It’s the deep, expressive vocals, full of pain and starkly different to the slick auto-tune we’re used to. Or maybe it’s the lyrics of love and loss, so direct they could cut you. Whatever it is, you sense, Celeste has got it.
There’s a musical persona, and then there’s her real self. She’s compelling. In her songs she’s melancholic and reflective. In conversation she’s a bubbly, down-to-earth 24-year-old. This isn’t a coincidence. Despite the packed schedule of studio sessions and live appearances that is currently her life, she values authenticity more than anything. Making sure she doesn’t get caught up in big city life (“those funny London parties,” as she puts it), she focuses on maintaining as pure a connection with her craft as possible. “For me, music is about following my gut feeling and doing what’s good.”
She makes clear that staying true to her own vision is the only hard and fast rule. “If you can really focus on your sound, stick to it and make it good, then that really pays off,” she says. “A lot of people meander between styles because they want to do what’s cool at the time. I did that before, when I was younger, and it doesn’t really feel like ‘you’.”
Beyond her music, Celeste has recently taken on the creative direction of her videos. While she admits she knows to step back – “I’m not a video director” – her distinctive stamp can be seen in the tender portrait of masculinity that accompanies poignant single “Father’s Son” and the transportive homage to contemporary Jamaica that offsets the coming-of-age theme of “Coco Blood”.
Even if she’s not too enamoured by London’s social scene, the city has been positive for her in other ways, in particular, her connection to the capital’s resurgent jazz scene, which has attracted some of the country’s most exciting musicians. “Recently I’m mostly influenced but the people around me, like I’m a massive fan of the drummer Moses Boyd. There are so many interesting things going on in different parts of London where people are innovating their instrument with techniques from the 40s and 60s. There’s this amazing energy.” As much as jazz has crept into her musical style – on last spring’s Lately EP she collaborated with Leeds jazz squad Gotts Street Park – her first love will always be soul.
She traces her fascination back to those internet deep-dives common among any teenager trying to find themselves in music. “I was a bit of a nerd for my age, listening to a lot of music from the olden days. When I was 14 I got my first computer and started going on YouTube, and I saw all these old videos of the Soul Train Music Awards and I loved how the women performing held themselves and the men’s flamboyant dress.” Her early attraction to soul went beyond the purely aesthetic, extending towards an appraisal of the vocals that could just as easily be used to describe her own singing style. “All the vocalists were so raw yet technically impeccable. In modern music it can be hard to find someone that can hit the notes but also convey the pain or the real feeling.”
Celeste makes clear it’s her support network that has helped her discover who she is, whether it’s her mother’s unfaltering belief in her or her grandparents’ endless supply of vintage jazz vinyl. So even now, with a major record deal under her belt, continuing to nourish longstanding relationships is her main priority. “I just try to focus on my music and on hanging out with my old friends. I think that keeps you grounded and in a mental state where you can remain in touch with yourself.”
By her own accord, it’s only by continuing to encourage her inner growth, rather than disappearing into her career, that Celeste has been able to produce such emotionally insightful music. “I try to write from the heart as much as I can and be truthful to what I’m experiencing in my life,” she says. “People will have an emotional response to my music if they can identify that it’s real or identify something they’ve experienced themselves in the story.” Songs such as “Father’s Son”, an imagined conversation with her late father is filled with lines – “Maybe I’m lonely, maybe you’re lost / Maybe I’m an echo, or maybe you’re a ghost” – pulled from her own thoughts. Yet for anyone that has suffered the loss of a parent, her own uncertainty and struggle for identity will have a profound resonance.
Celeste’s desire to connect with others on a personal level – whether she’s writing emotive lyrics that connect with listeners, or in her everyday interactions with friends and family – is something that feels increasingly rare. It’s practising and encouraging kindness, rather than some grandiose plan to change the world, that she sees herself making a positive impact. “Ultimately one thing I really care about is people being kind to one another. Something that I think is really important is self-confidence,” she says. “When I meet people, I want them to feel a sense of belief in themselves, whatever they’re doing, and to be able to have integrity in what they’re doing.”
Celeste is one of our cover stars for HUNGER issue 17, Listen Up, available here.
19 November 2019