Though she obviously wouldn’t have wished for it, Celeste Waite might be one of the few people - the founders of Zoom and Jeff Bezos aside - for whom a global pandemic has proven something of a blessing in disguise. “People have their assumptions about how something makes you feel, like, ‘Oh you must feel really dreadful that you were the [BBC] Sound of 2020 and it’s been the year of coronavirus’. When actually, that’s not how it made me feel,” she explains.
Instead, the 26-year-old BRIT’s Rising Star Award winner and recent chart topper is refreshingly candid - a defining trait throughout today’s conversation - about the machine that plugs in when you become the most talked about new artist of the year.
Crowned with the industry’s two biggest hype accolades back in January, Celeste was heading towards a 2020 of constant touring and commitments, her debut album - last month’s tellingly-titled ‘Not Your Muse’ - scheduled “to be crammed into whatever I could do in two weeks in March”. “When you’re in the studio there’s a lot of back and forth of people’s ideas and you can’t just say ‘I’m Celeste. This is my album. My idea overrules [you]’,” she continues. “You have to let things filter themselves out naturally, and two weeks isn’t long enough for that to happen.”
The subsequent derailing of those plans, then, became something of a lifeline for the record - not only as a means to give the singer’s ideas literal time to develop, but in resisting perhaps more insidious problems too. “By the time the pandemic had happened, a lot of fear of not making something the label would like had gone,” she nods. “Everyone was like, ‘That’s not what matters to us right now’. Whereas in March, around the heat of the BRITs, everyone that was coming into a room with me was like, ‘This could be a really big album, so let’s make sure we please… maybe everyone except from Celeste’.”
“[I would rather] not be the most famous singer playing songs I really like than play songs I hate to 50 million people.”
It’s hardly a groundbreaking revelation that being a major-label pop concern comes with its compromises; in recent years, everyone from Lorde to Charli XCX to Celeste’s former label boss Lily Allen have publicly denounced some of their own songs, the takeaway being that, had they had it their way, those offerings would never have been pushed as hard.
Today, Celeste is pragmatic about the realities of the situation - albeit happy to casually throw some of her recent singles under the bus. “There’s a give and take that has to happen, so ‘Stop This Flame’ and ‘Tonight Tonight’ are those push and pull moments where I was like, these aren’t my favourite songs but we’ll find a way to make it work among the other pieces of music that I favour and feel proud of,” she shrugs. The rest of the album - a collection of intimate, jazz-indebted offerings that bring the listener in close (in which those two tracks stand out a mile) - she feels represent her better, and yet there still remains something a little sad when an artist’s immediate reaction upon being told they’ve reached Number One is something of an ‘I told you so’ moment of relief.
“I guess for me, it was a good pay off because when I first made the album people definitely had doubts as to what capacity it had commercially. It changed forms at different points because the feeling generally was that it didn’t have enough singles, I didn’t work with big enough producers, all that kind of thing…” she recalls. “I definitely have that within me where I’m like, see? Just trust me a bit more. That’s how it feels because I’ve always known within myself that I could go on to do certain things and still make music in the way that I want to.
“I remember when I was about 21 and I brought out this song ‘Milk & Honey’. It was one of my favourite songs I’d written because I made it with a jazz drummer, and a few people were like, ‘Oh you shouldn’t have that as the main song because it won’t get played on the radio blah blah blah’,” she continues. “And I just thought whatever, let’s try it, and it ended up being played quite a lot. So I guess I always had the belief and determination to persevere to see those things happening for me.”
“By the time the pandemic had happened, a lot of fear of not making something the label would like had gone.”
There’s something attractively honest and uncensored about the way Celeste is navigating her current situation. Whether she’s chuckling that she feels “mummified” but essentially fine with having zero interest in TikTok or recalling her centre stage red carpet moment at last year’s BRITs (“Everyone was like, who is this ominous, not very bubbly person?”), you sense that, despite the obvious determination and ambition, she probably wouldn’t be that arsed if those crystal ball mainstream predictions didn’t lead her to become the next Adele.
“I feel like I’ll have more longevity in what I’m doing if I do something that I find fulfilling, ‘cause I could not be the most famous singer in the world but still have a career for 10 years doing shows in different countries and feel happy because I’m playing songs I really like rather than playing songs I hate to 50 million people,” she says. “That would last five minutes for me and I’d be like, I’m going to a different country and never coming back.”
She’s happy to have found herself in the position she has this past year, but acutely aware of maintaining her integrity throughout it. “If you’re in the hedonism of it, it’s sometimes hard to go: How do I actually feel about all this stuff? Where am I?!” she concedes.
Having first pricked up ears with fragile, goosebump-inducing torch song ‘Strange’ (a pin-drop moment of tender emotion among a BRIT Awards ceremony of whistles and bangs), however, there’s always been a sense that Celeste’s appeal lies in being the anomaly in the line-up. A vintage fashion-wearing, Nina Simone-loving Brightoner, ‘Not Your Muse’ - and the singer’s career to date - really shoots for long-term importance when it’s the truest to itself.
“When people talk about clever pop music, what they’re really talking about is the B-sides that sit really well with the hit songs without the hit songs feeling like they’re completely compromising the artist’s integrity,” Celeste nods. “When people heard ‘Rehab’ for example and then they heard everything else [by Amy Winehouse], it didn’t feel completely out of place. So eventually with the trust of the people around me, if I keep working away to find ways to communicate my ideas, then hopefully my music will get to that level of intelligence because those are the people that really last and really change something.
“And with a lot of the big pop stars, that’s not their concern; they have a lot of hit songs and they don’t really mind that the album tracks aren’t really saying much. And the other side is the independent artists who’ll have a hit in their own right that people play all the time, but it’s really about the whole body of work that goes around those songs that keeps those artists vital,” she continues. “But I hope that eventually I can bring those two things together.”
‘Not Your Muse’ is out now via Polydor.
As featured in the March 2021 issue of DIY, out now.