Adele. Ellie Goulding. Sam Smith. Rag’n’Bone Man. When you join the ranks of the BRITs Rising Star award winners, you’re pretty much guaranteed - like the global hitmakers that came before you - to be thrust into the big time.
In February of this year, Brighton’s Celeste became the latest to be anointed with the crown, picking up the top spot placing in the BBC’s Sound Of 2020 poll along the way and immediately becoming the newest name on every hype-maker’s lips. It’s a tale as old as the Radio One A-List, and yet you rapidly get the sense that the 26-year-old, who peppers her excitable chat with memories of being a teenager at parties where everyone was “dressing in vintage and listening to the Shangri-Las with loads of eyeliner on,” isn’t cut from quite the same cloth as your typical major label type. She’s candid about the struggles of balancing her natural musical and artistic inclinations with the fact that, as a big commercial concern on Polydor, she’ll likely have to make some compromises. Far from putting the stoppers on what should have been ‘her year’, lockdown seems actually to have gifted Celeste with some all-important time.
“The album was meant to be coming out in September, I guess there was an idea that we needed to have it by then to keep the momentum that had been building up, but even at that point my instinct was that it didn’t feel right,” she explains. “I think it’s just about making sure that there’s integrity in every part of it, and working out the measure of that. There’ll be pop moments, but the album tracks are very much me being expressive in a way that isn’t polluted by the idea of them having to measure up to anything in terms of commercial success. I’m figuring it out as I go along, but I’m hoping that by the end of the year I have an album that’s what I wanted it to be.”
Growing up listening to Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and the pop stars of the ‘60s, the singer’s listening habits were out of step with the bulk of her peers from a young age. She recalls learning her craft by putting those artists on repeat, “singing over the top, rewinding until I knew the words”. “I’m learning some covers at the moment, and I’m doing it the exact same way. My manager will come to the studio and be like ‘Do you want an instrumental?’ And it’s like, no. This is how I do it. Just doing karaoke to someone else’s voice…” she laughs.
When it comes to her own music, it’s the deep-seated sense of truth that floods her most-beloved records that’s at the forefront of Celeste’s ambitions, too. “You listen to Billie Holiday and everything she’s saying comes from the bones of her body - there’s nothing that’s faked, and that’s first and foremost what I look for,” she explains. “It’s not this staged appeal, they just go and bare all. I like an extreme, nothing that’s sitting in the middle, trying not to offend anybody and be liked by everyone; the artists I like sit in their own lane.” And, while Celeste might currently be on a learning curve of how to stay true to that (“I find it easy to be authentic in my everyday life as a human being, but being authentic as a musician that also has to be commodified is not that easy all the time,” she admits), so far she’s been catching people’s attention thoroughly on her own terms.
“I like an extreme - nothing that’s sitting in the middle, trying not to offend anybody and be liked by everyone.”
When Celeste performed breakthrough hit ‘Strange’ - a sparse, arresting ballad that undeniably comes from “the bones” - at the BRITs ceremony this year, you wouldn’t have imagined that only 12 months before, the singer was debuting the track “at this BBC Introducing show at The Lexington to about 16 people”. Though she’s been writing and performing for half a decade, it’s only really been in the last year that the singer’s name has become public property. And, as such, her newly spotlit platform is something she’s equally had to adjust to.
When the Black Lives Matter protests around the death of George Floyd began, Celeste opted to post a poem by Maya Angelou on Instagram in place of her own comment. As both a person of mixed race heritage, and someone not naturally prone to personal social media sharing, the topic, she explains, felt too huge to try and distil into a caption.
“This is a big conversation - it’s hundreds of years of history up until this point, and there are nuances to every single person of colour’s experience within this. To express myself in that way doesn’t feel like enough,” she explains. “Even if you’re not experiencing outright racism, you might be experiencing a slightly different treatment when you walk in a place, and [your skin colour] is the reason why. And when it’s not something so literal or physical for you to be able to explain, people don’t necessarily understand how that can make you feel.
“I performed at a place in London where I arrived and the person was like, ‘Are you sure you’re in the right place?’. And I wondered why that was and why this person was quite stand-offish with me. I never jump to the conclusion that that’s why - I think, what else could it be? Have I walked in with an attitude? Do I look a bit tired? - but sometimes when you’re left with no other explanation, it isn’t necessarily something you can explain to other people,” she continues. “That this made me feel uncomfortable, because you don’t really have proof.
“But I went to the [first] protest, and I enjoyed seeing the nuances to everyone’s experience - understanding how people are feeling just by being around all these different people. Statistically, [that march] harks back to the size of a march during the civil rights movement; statistically it’s a similar period. So I think people are in fear that this will be a moment and then people will forget about it when it’s not as loud, but the fact that it has been this loud for this period of time has brought a new awareness.”
Undeniably, 2020 is shaping up to be a very different year than it was first meant to be for Celeste. But she’s spent her time in lockdown writing and trying to bring the album she truly wants to life; she’s fallen in love, as she tells us with an audible giddiness, and she seems content that everything is falling into place if not how tradition would dictate, then in a way that’s perhaps closer to how she’d like it anyway.
“I think when you’re putting in a certain amount of work, it’s silly to sell yourself short. It’s an ambition within myself to play big shows and do things like that, but to do it in my own way,” she nods. “So as long as I put in the work and I’m proud of it, then that’s the only way I can do it. If I’m fully invested in it, then I see no bounds.”
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