Pure Grace: Celeste Interviewed

Pure Grace: Celeste Interviewed

“If you make sense of yourself, then you make sense of other people… that’s what I think.”

When 2020 opened it seemed as though Celeste was about to conquer the world – the only problem was that the world was about to change.

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When Clash catches Celeste on a phone call she’s driving between two appointments. It’s been a hectic week – she’s recorded performances for both Top Of The Pops and Jools Holland, managing our cover shoot in between. Gracious and patient on set, she remains virtually silent throughout, protecting her voice for two performances that will underline her status as a shining star within UK soul’s divine firmament.

She started 2020 on sensational form. Winning the BBC’s prestigious Sound Of poll, she also picked up a BRIT Award – for Rising Star, naturally – and stunned fans within the arena and at home with an outstanding performance of her song ‘Strange’. Potent and ineffably natural, her exquisite grace transposed classic influences into something open, modern, and explicitly emotional. “That was one of those moments where everything came into alignment,” she beams. “Everything just felt really good. I got to sing a song that I really liked, one that I’m incredibly proud of, and I got to wear an outfit that I really liked… it just all all came together!”

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That one moment of peace and perfection, however, was quickly overtaken by some extraordinary events. With the pandemic largely shuttering live music, Celeste’s plans were overhauled – her hectic touring schedule was pulled to pieces, leaving her in limbo. She wasn’t to be deterred, however; taking time to process her emotions, she began doubling down on her songwriting, pursuing her goals with a single-minded sense of determination.

“I guess at that point – even though I was aware it was really tough for a lot of people – I felt quite grateful for the change in pace, really. I got to take an inventory of all the things had inspired me, and exactly pin-point how they made me feel, to the point where I could express that in a song.”

“I’d missed having that chance to nurture those ideas and let them exist in a natural way,” she muses. “When they appear to you in a way that’s natural then you can cherry pick which things you really want to take from it, and what you want to say, rather than rushing ideas and forcing something to be inspirational when it’s not necessarily that poignant to you or significant to you at that moment in time. I feel like having that spell allowing all those things fall into place.”

Debut album ‘Not Your Muse’ draws on this energy. The title came to Celeste some time back, but she knew that wasn’t quite ready to embrace it – she had to do some work on herself first. “I had that title written down about four years ago but every time I tried to write it didn’t really sound how I wanted it to sound. I wanted it to feel luxurious, in a way, and I wanted it to feel quite rich and indulgent. Every time I sat down to write it, it didn’t really feel like that. And it was only really this year, a few months into the lockdown, that I had experienced a few more things that allowed me to make sense of that idea. So I kind of just… waited for things to show themselves to me in a way in that makes sense.”

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As she wrote, the project expanded and retracted; initially she planned an EP, before it blossomed into a full length album. Calm and assured, ‘Not Your Muse’ feels organic and unforced, a potent message from a vocalist who can take those pristine influences – everything from Billie Holiday to UK Garage via Aretha Franklin and rare groove – and transform them into something singular, and whole. “I think this album just stemmed from me trusting in my own ability again,” she comments. “And kind of being my own maker. Obviously, you can have help with people around you, it’s not completely something you can do by yourself. But I felt that at the core of it, it was me believing in what I was doing.”

For Celeste, songwiting about “sharing intimacy” with her audience. For that, she needed to work with those closest to her – her live band, and collaborator Jamie Hartman – in a setting that felt true to her. “If I just took songs handed to me by people who didn’t know me well I don’t think I could sing them. It wouldn’t touch on the nuance of your personality and the ways that you think. I couldn’t really go out and sing that stuff in front of people.”

In being to relentlessly honest with herself, however, Celeste embarked on a quite solitary journey, one in which she developed her sense of self-compassion, and her resilience. As Celeste puts it, she was “working on herself through music”.

“When you’re doing that, you can’t help it coming out in the music,” she explains. “It’s like if I was writing a diary, it would come out in that way. Or if I was doing a painting, it would come out that way. This just happens to be the way I’m letting it out. I haven’t been able to help but do that this year on some of the things that I’ve come up against. I’m just trying to figure it all out.”

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One over-arching theme on ‘Not Your Muse’ is love. Matters of the heart dominate her lyricism – whether that’s breakout single ‘Stop This Flame’ or the tender sound of album cut ‘A Kiss’ - and Celeste freely admits that she’s someone who “loves deeply”. More than anything, though, she’s concerned with how love illuminates the everyday – how it can cause the ordinary to be rendered utterly transcendent.

“I think I’ve always seen things from a romantic perspective,” she comments. “Even if it’s the most mundane thing, I guess I always see how love and romance are playing their part in keeping those things alive. It always comes out even if I’m speaking about walking down the street or going to the bank or something. It’s always a part of it for me. Love is the thing that steers it, that keeps it going. And I don’t know how it arrives, it just comes into your life.”

Always explicitly personal, ‘Not Your Muse’ is a message from the heart. Constructed during the 2020 dystopia, it absorbs the crackle of electricity that flew through the air during that tumultuous year. ‘Tell Me Something I Don’t Know’ for instance, moves into political territory – it’s a cry of exasperation with a political system she often feels excluded from. “I just remember feeling that the people who I’m close to, and the place where I come from, and the people that I’m around, aren’t really represented. And I’m sick of hearing the same thing, it doesn’t really feel like we’re getting anywhere. And even now, it feels like there’s even more divide in terms of the rich and the poor. This year has revealed that even more. People are living in dire conditions and they’re not being given a chance. It’s something that I’ve never really talked about, because I’ve never really had a platform that’s given me that opening to talk about those things. But now I do.”

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It’s easy for forget that Celeste’s colossal rise has followed years of hard work. Still only 26 years old, she grew up in a single parent household on the south coast, working odd jobs and borrowing money to attend studio sessions in London, desperately trying to find her way into that world. Born in California to a Jamaican father, this feeling of being an outsider was put into sharp focus during the Black Lives Matter protests, when Celeste faced palpable feelings of grief and anger at endemic prejudice in societies on both sides of the Atlantic.

“At points,” she reflects, each word chosen with the utmost care, “I was just happy that people were realising that it was a time to say something and bring their voices together for a greater cause and a greater reason other than themselves. And I definitely felt a sense of empowerment. The education that came with the reinvigoration of that moment, meant that with conversation it was easier to explain some of your experiences as a Black person, a person of colour, a mixed race person, because there’s an understanding there now, not just of the outright racism but the sub-conscious parts that are more relevant in everyday life.”

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“Just that we’re talking about it now, is definitely positive,” she adds. “That’s something that had never really happened in the last year or so in interviews, and I found this year that I’ve had a lot more interviews with people who come from the same world as me, and having an understanding that makes it easier to communicate certain experiences. It does really help. It’s not really only about having Black people speak for the Black community, but also just having people that are a bit more integrated in those communities, and having an understanding of the experiences that you can have based on that, really. Your appearance and your culture and your background.”

“I found it to be positive, but I guess that the conversations that happened in 2020 are not dissimilar to the conversations that were happening in 1954 and 1960. Really, when you look at it. The difference is that there has been a progression made in society. But the conversation is not that different. It still comes down to the same point, morally, which is about prejudice. And pushing against it. I do feel positive about the enlightenment that has occurred, but I still feel like there’s a lot of work to do… not just for Black communities, but for all sorts of minority communities.”

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Throughout our conversation, it’s clear that Celeste is searching for moments of insights, for flashes of revelation. She’s wired like that – it’s also her approach in the studio – and her sentences carry this sense of continually probing for truth. Not for nothing is her middle name Epiphany – every few moments a flashlight will go off, and some revelation will occur. Right now, though, she’s completely fixated on the future – not only on her debut album, but on what she can achieve after that, the conversations she can open up over the next few years.

“I feel that with finishing this album I’ve actually learned a lot,” she says. “In my mind, when I first set out to start it, I was like: I have no idea how to do this. And so now, I know which parts I want to take into the next project. For me, what I’ve got out of it, is that the root of it all starts with really understanding how things make you feel and not ignoring those feelings because they might be difficult.”

Ultimately, Celeste is a puzzle only she can solve. “If you make sense of yourself, then you make sense of other people,” she smiles. “That’s what I think.”

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Celeste's debut album 'Not Your Muse' is out now. Buy this cover feature in print HERE.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Aidan Zamiri
Fashion: Ella Lucia
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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