The sweet and soulful singer who’ll make your heart ache.
Dress MARQUES ALMEIDA, shoes MAISON MARGIELA, earrings PROJEKT PRODUKT
Dress MARQUES ALMEIDA, shoes MAISON MARGIELA, earrings PROJEKT PRODUKT
Preparing questions for Celeste was an oversight. When we meet in west London, the singer paints stories as vivid as her songs, and our transcript ends up reading like a monologue. That’s not to say she’s commandeering; she speaks softly, often breaking for a sheepish laugh, or to look into the steam rising from the rooftop pool opposite to collect her thoughts, momentarily mystic.
If we’re talking chronologically, Celeste is American. Sort of. Born in LA, her makeup artist mum followed a director to the US to be his right hand woman on set, before she met Celeste’s dad and sacked it off in favour of an adventure. “I’m not really American,” she reasons. “The earliest memory I have is of us being in Essex in Dagenham in my nana and grandad’s house.” Her and her mum moved back when Celeste was three and her upbringing sounds, in part, like something from Narnia.
The next-door neighbour Alan had a home menagerie, with an owl in the front room and an 8ft python called Tilly that he’d let loose on the lawn. “It was actually so mad now that I think about it,” she laughs in retrospect. “He had a red Persian rug over his front garden, one day I asked why. He was like, ‘Oh I breed slow worms under the rug.’” Which is to say, Celeste has always been surrounded by “eccentric characters”, shaping her perspective. “It made me really open to anybody and not very judgemental,” she explains. Although Essex is beloved in her memory, after a bout of bullying for being of dual heritage — “there weren’t that many other kids of any other ethnicity at all” — her mum packed their bags for Brighton.
(LEFT) Jumper ANNA OCTOBER, trousers TOPSHOP, shoes CONVERSE, necklace CELESTE’S OWN
(RIGHT) Shirt XANDER ZHOU, trousers CLAIRBOURNE, boots MAISON MARGIELA, earrings PROJEKT PRODUKT, top CELESTE’S OWN
Jumper ANNA OCTOBER, trousers TOPSHOP, shoes CONVERSE, necklace CELESTE’S OWN
Shirt XANDER ZHOU, trousers CLAIRBOURNE, boots MAISON MARGIELA, earrings PROJEKT PRODUKT, top CELESTE’S OWN
“We had two priests and one was literally called Father Moody, and the other was called Father Baldy,” the 24 year old’s next tale begins, reverting back to primary school in Brighton and the home of one of her earliest musical memories, singing hymns. “We would go [to church] every morning and I wasn’t really interested in what they were saying, I’d look at the walls and sing. I probably enjoyed it because all of me and my friends were singing together, but that’s something I found out later, I became interested in listening to the blends of voices. Whether it was The Supremes or Destiny’s Child; even on the Solange album there’s elements of Motown but it’s just in a way that is so minimalistic.”
An introduction to Aretha Franklin by her grandfather, and a fateful Billie Holliday CD played on repeat in the Brighton pub she worked at as a teenager supplemented Celeste’s aural education, placing emotive narratives at the top of her priorities as a songwriter. “If I wasn’t writing about stuff that wasn’t real to me, then I wouldn’t really see the point in singing it,” she tells me. “I think I’m getting better at writing, I’m making it easier for people to understand the song, maybe it’s not obvious at first. I think sometimes as well, it doesn’t have to be a very clear, literal meaning to communicate it to a listener.”
Her first single proper, last October’s “Both Sides of the Moon” is heartachingly honest, accounting a mutual admission of love lost.
Instrumentation fades between languid, drawn-out notes to let Celeste’s vocals fill the silence to the brim, stretched like the metaphoric tidal pull of the moon she sings to. “The first song I actually wrote was in the form of a poem,” she smiles. “I did it the night before my first proper writing session in London. I knew I was coming to meet a real writer/producer and I felt I needed to take an idea… It just kept coming and coming and I kept writing it down… I didn’t even really know the name for melody at that time.” Even before those first studio sessions at 18, singing was something she’d revisited throughout her life, but it was college that realigned her towards music as a career.
“I was doing four subjects… Then the second year, my dad had passed away and I wanted to take it easy and go into college a bit less,” she tells me. “I couldn’t really deal with the work that I had… So I did music and textiles, they were always the things I was most interested in… I didn’t really know which one would naturally take its place.” Shy by her own admission, it was when Celeste found her people that her mind was made up, “I fitted in more with the music kids.” One of her friend’s houses went on to become a haven, jamming around a drum kit at the end of someone’s bed.
(LEFT) Top MOLLY GODDARD, top underneath KAREN MILLAN, shoes TOPSHOP, jewellery and trousers CELESTE’S OWN
(RIGHT) Top JAZZ GRANT, trousers PRADA, shoes YUUL YIE, earrings PROJEKT PRODUKT
Top MOLLY GODDARD, top underneath KAREN MILLAN, shoes TOPSHOP, jewellery and trousers CELESTE’S OWN
Top JAZZ GRANT, trousers PRADA, shoes YUUL YIE, earrings PROJEKT PRODUKT
“Sean’s house” turned into the accidental group’s rehearsal space. “It felt comfortable,” she says, “there was no pressure. There was no intention for it to be our band or to be famous or anything.” They rallied together to play covers of the songs they’d grown up with. “We enjoyed doing it and everybody that we did it with was obsessed with music… From 18 to 21 I spent all of my time going out in Brighton. I had so much to write about, and I still do.”
Her most recent single, January’s “Father’s Son” touches on that coming- of-age and the change that came with the death of her father. “Maybe I’m my father’s son/Or I’m nothing like you” she wonders aloud on the song, over muted instrumentation and echoing organs. Celeste deals primarily in lyrics about heartbreak but is resolutely restraining from writing about its romantic root. The result is an instant connection with Celeste as a listener. By sharing her most vulnerable moments in song, you can’t help but feel close to her.
“I’ve tested myself this year to not put the word ‘love’ into a song,” she explains. “I want it out… It’s such an easy way to make something make sense… It used to be my rule when I first started writing but then I got lazy and slipped back into it.” She laughs, “unless there’s one song that has to have it!” Her next track due for release is called “Love is Back”. She’s allowed a pass to her own rule, after all.
“I’m really looking forward to that song coming out,” she continues, “I really like it. I might do an EP around it.” Having just come out of a week in the studio recording another EP, pencilled for a March release, and hoping to have her debut album finished by the beginning of 2020; when she said she still had a lot to write about, she wasn’t kidding.