Celeste, a short and poignant name, that soon won’t lead to confusion anymore because the singer is working on leaving her imprint on the contemporary soul scene. Praised after the 2020 BRITS Awards, the London-based musician has spent the year working on her debut album Not Your Muse. Signed with Universal Music and working with other producers like Jamie Hartman and John Hill, some of the singer’s efforts clearly hit a mainstream pop nerve. Songs like Never Stop This Flame and Tonight Tonight will probably sound vaguely familiar.
But the musician has more to offer and her debut record shows the depth she can go into. The true gems of Celeste’s LP lie in the stripped back songs. Carried only by her voice, warm and husky, she sings herself into a distinct and recognizable place. We caught up with the busy musician for a short chat about her record and contemporary soul.
Calling from her London flat, I meet the artist on Zoom. Even though we barely had fifteen minutes to chat, her open personality made the conversation rich and easy going. Even through the computer speakers you can still make out the unique vocal timbre of Celeste’s voice. Warm and with a little rasp, she speaks quietly, leaving room to imagine the profound place she channels the soaring vocal performances from that almost seem to overtake her entirely on some songs.
Celeste sings each note with an inherent passion to it. As a self-taught singer, she learned from what she loved and what inspired her. Greats like Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Dusty Springfield were regulars on her speakers. It explains the inherent warms and enthusiasm she puts into every note. They ring effortlessly, whether it is a rich bass tone or a crystal-clear high note.
Staying creative during a pandemic can be a challenge. But Celeste tells me that she even found some solace in these challenging times as well. “Initially it was harder to find the concentration within myself, not working with someone who pushes me. But in the end, I could finally really take my time and not feel rushed while creating. The pressure was lifted off and it allowed me to explore different places personally and in my songwriting”.
The honest and personal note clearly shows on Not Your Muse. Father’s Son for example, is a down-tempo soul jam that reminisces about the relationship the singer had with her father, who passed away when she started college.
Allowing Yourself to Get Personal
Celeste incorporates her utmost emotions into lyrics because that is the only way she knows how to deal with them. “You have to allow yourself to get this personal”. It is a hard process. During the pandemic you are confronted with yourself without a place to escape to, that can be a push in either a good or a bad direction. “Yes, it is hard to get comfortable just sitting with yourself but once you start accepting and working with that level of honesty and vulnerability, it makes the outcome more profound.”
“It was only me and nothing else. I really had to dig to the core of things.”
On the minimalistic tracks, Celeste explores her emotions, examining each under the microscope of her pen. Accompanied by gentle guitar strums, she dissects ideals and social and personal expectations on Ideal Woman coming to own her imperfections.
Being Your Own Muse
The song Not Your Muse was one of the last ones the musician wrote, she tells me. “It came from a feeling of having a lot of external and internal pressure and expectations put onto me. It felt like an image or an outside idea of who I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to sound like was imposed onto me – by myself and other people. In the process of making the album, I came to be in that place where I started feeling empowered by the decisions and the work that I was creating without doubts and fears”. Not Your Muse is Celeste arriving at a point in life where she walks with confidence and trust in herself.
The artist knows where she is going and will not be stopped – neither by a pandemic, nor by trying to fit the narrow image others imposed. Especially following her neatly choreographed performance at the BRITS Awards, for which she put work into each detail, the singer felt like she had to live up to that standard with each output. “That was when I started feeling the pressure and the heaviness of expectations. But the world changed and over the course of the last year we have had to get used to dealing with things we have never dealt before. And all of a sudden, I felt some of that pressure relinquished. We all had to come to terms with not being in control of everything anymore.”
“I have no control over how people are going to receive me and my music. All I can do is put the best version of what I think myself is out there and let it be.”
The core of emotions
Listening to Not Your Muse is a ride from the somber and melancholic songs to euphoric upbeat pop-tinged tracks. “For a long time, I thought that I could only write songs when I was hurt or sad. When I started songwriting, the songs were coming from that place of raw pain and anguish”. Following the death of her father, the musician spent a lot of time dealing with those emotions and the grief through her music.
“I realized that it is not the pain that makes the music deep. It is about finding the core of the emotion and then responding to it – for me the response is always music.”
The core emotion is often either on the happy or on the sad spectrum, she explains, the mood shifts on Not Your Muse. Celeste digs equally deep into both. The cinematic Strange is a great example of the emotional depth that the artist dives into. “Isn’t it strange how people and change / from strangers to friends / friends into lovers and strangers again” she sings. Her hummed vocals almost break with emotion. While Celeste’s voice clearly shines in the higher pitches as well, it is the deeper tones in which the true resonance of the voice comes to show. On the other hand, songs like Love is Back are upbeat and infectious.
The greatest musical icons all had a trademark quality – distinct guitar skill, unique melodies, poetic lyrics. While Celeste possesses all of those, it is her voice that clearly is the secret weapon. It bears the entire range of emotions and the musician performs with goosebump evoking beauty on each song. Breathing soul, her voice is nothing short of the greats and give each Celeste song a unique stamp.
But while she channels the past of soul music, she also looks forward. Not Your Muse stands with one foot in the musical past that shaped it and takes a step into the future of soul with the other. “I think my desire to move forward comes from my need to evolve as a person and with that inevitably as a musician as well. The soul music from the past is the infrastructure, the blueprint, through which I perceive music and based on which I judge it. It shaped the very beginning of my understanding of music.”
Past and Future
Celeste brings the past into the future. Especially on the deluxe version of the record, which includes features with several other artists from different genres, the push into a new musical direction shows. Unseen in collaboration with Lauren Auder has an electronic jazz flavor and she teamed up with Gotts Street Park on Lately and Both Sides of The Moon for an exploration in the lo-fi hip hop direction.
The Londoner singer will not be your muse – that much is clear. Celeste stands her own ground and shapes her songs and creative process on her own terms. So, maybe not a muse but an inspiration, a collaborator, a distinct musician on the way to places we cannot wait to see.
Not Your Muse is out now via Polydor Records.