- 05 Jun 20
Fresh from appearing on the chart-topping Live Lounge Allstars version of ‘Times Like These’, rising neo-soul singer Celeste discusses individuality, overcoming early struggles and more.
“It felt like the daydream fantasy you have when you’re in your room, thinking about what you want to be when you’re older.”
Celeste is laughing down the phone from her home in London. In recent months, her life has seen a huge spike in journalistic interest. People are eager to talk to the 26-year-old soul singer, who earlier this year collected the Rising Star award at the BRITs.
She’s topped just about every list of 2020 breakthrough artists, and industry professionals and press alike have been quick to mention her “meteoric rise” in the same breath as Adele and Amy Winehouse. In truth, it’s been a longer road than people think.
“At a young age, I’d been offered very different things,” reflects Celeste. “Some didn’t come to fruition for whatever reason. And then there was a stage where, all of a sudden, I’d been at it for four years and hadn’t made any real headway.”
It was enough to make Celeste question her faith in the whole endeavour.
“I was thinking – am I one of those delusional people who believe they’re really good and are going to be something, and it’s just not ever going to happen?”
Luckily, almost as soon as she’d had the thought, Celeste picked up a new manager, who helped her pay the rent and encouraged her to keep at it. After these growing pains, the 26-year-old forged her musical identity, spending as much time as possible in studios and writing sessions. One such session was undertaken with her friend Tim Larkin, who introduced her to Sun Ra’s Space Is The Place – Celeste was hooked.
“I’d never heard a piece of music like that in my life”, she marvels. “And then I listened to Thelonius Monk, and all of this other experimental jazz from the ‘70s.”
Celeste enjoyed a hugely notable moment during lockdown, when she joined the Live Lounge Allstars - including Sigrid, Ellie Goulding, Dua Lipa and more - for a charity cover of the Foo Fighters classic ‘Times Like These’, which duly topped the UK charts. Meanwhile, her recent single, ‘Stop This Flame,’ capitalises on her fruitful working relationship with Jamie Hartman – together they wrote much of her upcoming debut album and breakout track, ‘Strange’.
“We wrote that song, and in that moment, I could feel a sort of adrenaline,” she remembers. “He literally knew nothing about me; I don’t even think he’d heard any of my songs before. I was pleasantly surprised he was a pop writer who had jazzy chords.”
Celeste takes another flight of musical fancy on ‘I Can See Change’, her latest track, which is produced by FINNEAS. While her sound has evolved, personal identity has never been an issue. Celeste was born in Los Angeles and raised in England by a single mother, who always instilled the value of individuality.
“My mum always said, ‘You’re just you, and it’s fine to express yourself in that way’,” she notes. “For me, that’s been really healthy. To not feel I have to identify solely as a musician, or a woman of colour, or mixed-race. And it doesn’t mean I shy away from my responsibilities as all of those things, but I don’t want to have to fit in any particular category.”
And what about the responsibility of representation?
“I do feel a responsibility toward one thing in particular: I grew up in a white family and a white community, but I’ve always had Afro hair. I always used to want it straight, because everyone around me had straight hair. And I never really had a role model with hair like mine who celebrated it.
“That probably seems like a small thing, but it’s really important to me, and it’s why I wear my hair the way I do. I always get comments from little girl’s mums, asking me if they can take a picture to show to their daughters. At the BRIT Awards, we nearly had a hair disaster backstage," she giggles. "For some reason my hair just wasn’t looking like an Afro! It was really stressing me out. Like, I can’t go on TV with my hair not looking how it would naturally, because that’s not the example I want to set for little girls who are like me! It’s funny, but that’s one of the things that has been important to me.”
More broadly, the issue has had a huge impact on the singer.
“When I decided to stop wearing my hair straight, it was a certain turning point in terms of my career. Because I think people could see my identity and understand or relate to it a bit more. It’s part of just accepting who you are.”
• Celeste’s ‘I Can See The Change’ is out now.