- 01 Feb 21
Amid the chaos of the New Year, the surprise arrival of soul singer Celeste’s debut album is a reason to be cheerful. She talks about her spell in pop star stasis, the influence on her work of Black Lives Matter and how the death of her father motivated her to become the best possible version of herself. Photo: Sophie Jones
A year is a long time in pop. And it’s coming up for 12 months since soul singer Celeste Waite blew the shutters off the Brit Awards at the O2 in London. Her performance of ‘Strange’ – think Billie Holiday spliced with Amy Winehouse – seemed to set her up imminent mega-fame.
And then the world closed down and the 26-year-old Brighton native was cast into pop purgatory. So it’s both a cause of relief and excitement for her that her debut album, Not Your Muse, is finally on the way. In the end, it’s actually coming out a month ahead of schedule. She feels like pinching herself.
“It’s been quite last minute,” she says of the decision to put out the record on January 29th (rather than late February). “I’m so happy. Music and art have meant a lot this year. I have found so much solace in other people’s expressions of creativity.”
Did she worry all her hard work might go up in smoke as the world was turned on its head?
“I didn’t panic about losing momentum when the lockdown happened,” she says. “I saw it as an opportunity to finish the music the way I wanted. Back in February and March, I was due to go on tour. So I had to have the record finished. It took it [the lockdown] as an opportunity to keeping working on music and have a bit of leeway. The world wasn’t going on the way it had. It gave me the opportunity to slow down and take stock.”
Not Your Muse is a stunning entry card from Celeste, winner of both the BBC Sound Of and Brits Rising Star accolades in 2020 (she overcame such contenders as Beabadoobee and Joy Crookes). And, as is often the way with debuts, it isn’t so much a portrait of the artist at a particular point in life as much as a chronicling of their musical awakening.
The oldest songs date back three years. The most recent were written over the summer and recorded in September. The title track had perhaps the longest gestation. The song is about how a musician can put pressure on themselves as they strive for perfection, she explains.
“I wrote the chorus three years ago,” says Celeste. “I’ve been intrigued since I was young with the relationship between the art and the muse. This putting of the muse on the pedestal – it comes with unrealistic expectations.
“As I got closer to completing the album I felt more confident in my ability to be able to present something that is a true representation of myself. When that song came together it made sense for it to be the title track. It’s the beginning of me unveiling my true self as a singer and someone who expresses themselves and tells their story through song.”
As a mixed-race kid growing up in Brighton, Celeste would occasionally feel that people were treating her differently compared to her white friends. It wasn’t until last summer’s Black Lives Matters protests in London that she was able to truly contextualise those experiences.
“Unconscious bias was something I had definitely had to deal with – more than outright racism,” she says. “But I was never really aware of the terminology until last year. I knew it existed because I felt it. I didn’t know it had a diagnosis. Having that terminology makes it so much easier to communicate some of the things you go through. I feel like something has lifted from me. It gave me a sense of empowerment.”
Celeste was born in California in 1994 to an English mother and a Jamaican father. Her parents separated when she was three; she and her mother moved to Dagenham on the outskirts of London. When Celeste was five they relocated to Brighton where she grew up.
Her father was always a distant figure to her. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t get on. More that, with an entire ocean between them, he was peripheral in her life.
He died when she was just 16 and was starting to sing at open mic nights and on the Brighton pub circuit. Her dad was just 49 and the passing of this man who was in some ways a stranger rocked her. It also made her determined to do something with her life. To seize every opportunity. And when opportunities didn’t come, to create her own.
“My dad passing away was a catalyst,” she says. “I wanted to find something to focus on. That became music. I wanted to write a song that was a homage to him and his memory and my memory of the time I spent with him. I spent three or four years at it.”
Inspiration came one afternoon when she was out with some pals watching a soccer match on TV. By the time she got home, she had the outline for her stunning early single, ‘Father’s Son’.
“I was with a load of boys and they were watching a game in the pub. There was a fight breaking out down the road. People started throwing stuff. It was a World Cup game, I think. And I was like, ‘I’m not hanging around for this’. I walked away and I saw this graffiti that said, “Father’s Son”. Right away I thought, ‘ah that’s how to say this thing I’ve been wanting to say for a while’. I started writing it down in my phone. And I thought, ‘I’m my father’s son’ – can I say that? I’m a girl. But I thought – ‘no… follow your gut’.”
The feeling after The Brits was that Celeste had seized the sceptre and was about to become Britain’s next great soul singer. That hasn’t quite happened yet. But she remains optimistic and insists on seeing the silver-linings peeping out behind those Lockdown clouds.
“I just feel lucky the album is now coming out,” she reflects of her very strange year. “If you’d ask me a few months ago, I’d have told you I’d be happy for it to be finished.
“So I’m glad that things are happening. I guess after that the next thing to look forward to will be playing some shows. I’ve missed doing that. Hopefully people will be familiar with the songs by that time. And hopefully I won’t feel too overwhelmed. Right now, I’m just excited.”
Listen to Not Your Muse below.