Wonderland.

CELESTE

The Brits Rising Star Award-winner reflects on how music has guided her through grief, falling in love, and finding trust in herself.

Celest Spring 2021 Issue Red And White Floral Dress

All clothing and accessories by GUCCI

Celest Spring 2021 Issue Red And White Floral Dress
All clothing and accessories by GUCCI

Taken from the Spring 2021 Issue. Order your copy now.

On the opening track of her debut album, Celeste takes a sleepless night — you know, the kind spent torturously replaying the past, plagued with self-doubt — and captures it like a storm cloud in a glass dome. Think of every time a niggling voice in the back of the head has overridden logic, and the sword turns inwards. Another failed friendship, job, relationship. Was I too loud? Not attractive enough? What mark did I fail to meet this time? But before it can crystallise, with a knowing smile, she releases it onto the floor. And in doing so, encourages us to do the same. “Ideal Woman” is the kind of musical moment that awakens metamorphosis in its listener, an epiphany delivered by a heart-stopping voice. So what of my flaws, she seems to say. I back myself, and I’m past caring what you think.

This level of self-worth has been the result of years of introspection; take it from the 26-year-old British-Jamaican soul singer. The album — Not Your Muse — is chock-full of these personal revelations, steeped in the signature heady jazz flourishes that have drawn her comparisons to Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and the late Amy Winehouse. Slow-moving and enthralling, she taps into the pulsations of a more ethereal world, but her songs are ultimately grounded in a truth that she wants you to sit up and listen to. In the making of the record, she became intrigued by the idea of muses. Historically, hallowed women who served as a blank canvas to be desired and inspire; for men to project their life’s greatest works onto (see Hitchcock, Picasso, Dalí, Warhol). Someone without their hands on the steering wheel, buckled into the passenger seat along for someone else’s ride. This was a feeling Celeste knew all too well — in love, life and in work — but the last three years had served as a turning point.

“I think subconsciously in the last few years I’d grown and grown and I had come to a point in my life where it became apparent to me that I could unravel this relationship [between the artist and the muse] and understand why I was so intrigued by it,” she explains to me animatedly over Zoom. “The muse is expected to be the vessel for the artist’s message and meaning, and is put on such a pedestal, but in doing so, loses sight in who they are.”

Born in Los Angeles to a Jamaican father and British mother, but raised in Essex and Brighton, Celeste Epiphany Waite’s rise has been stratospheric. Her single “Strange” was a crackling meditation of a relationship splintering to pieces and then fading to black, and poignant track “Father’s Son” explored her complicated relationship with her own father, who passed away when she was 16. The devastating wake of these songs had rippled through the internet, and her shows evoked such an emotional response that people could be found weeping in the audience. Her talent for weaving a raw tapestry of storytelling and arresting melodies had not gone unnoticed. In February of last year, she won the Brit Award for Rising Star, hot on the heels of scooping the BBC’s Sound of 2020 poll, a roaring unanimous industry stamp of approval (previously earmarking the talents of Michael Kiwanuka and Adele). She had come a long way since working at her local Brighton pub, and the likes of Idris Elba, Riz Ahmed and Spike Lee had started turning up to her shows. She even now counted Elton John as a fan. Her achievements were snowballing, and before she knew it, she had reached household name status, all before a debut album. But with great success came a rush to protect the winning formula.

Celeste Spring 2021 Red And White Dress Red Glove On Face
Celeste Spring 2021 Chequered Blazer And Jeans

All clothing and accessories by GUCCI

Celeste Spring 2021 Red And White Dress Red Glove On Face
All clothing and accessories by GUCCI
Celeste Spring 2021 Chequered Blazer And Jeans

“Because of the expectation that had come with certain accolades earlier on in the year, people hoped that I’d work with a named producer that had a track record so there was less risk involved,” she remembers when we talk about the making of Not Your Muse. But rather than choosing the path of least resistance, she opted to work with her live band who she had never involved in the process of recording and writing in that way before. In the end, the riskier option was the one that had the bigger payout, not only because of the triumphant finished product, but also because of its impact on her psyche. “I think something happened in the process of making [this album], where stepping outside of my comfort zone and taking risks empowered me,” she enthuses. “Surrounding myself with my band and people who were there only to make good music, it brought me back in touch with why I love making music, without all the outside pressure I was initially naive to growing up, starting out in the industry.”

And it hasn’t been just in work that Celeste has felt more in the driver’s seat. This empowerment and growth has seeped into other areas of her life. But there has been no straightforward jump cut to the next scene. It has been a steady journey, and this is something Celeste wants to reiterate. “The verse of ‘Ideal Woman’ was how I felt in romantic interactions from the ages of 16-23, with all of these insecurities, questions and moments of self-doubt that I had tried to rationalise before, as this is why somebody wouldn’t want to be with me, or wouldn’t find me to be attractive or approachable,” she explains. “And then the chorus is probably how I felt between ages of 23-26, which is I know I’ve got these things, I’m a bit weird sometimes, and it’s actually OK. In accepting it, that empowered me and then made it easier for me to be in those sorts of situations and not go into it too guarded.”

These “sorts of situations” in question: she is one of the lucky few whose love lives have flourished in lockdown. Her boyfriend, poet and model Sonny Hall, moved into her West London Kensal Rise bubble last summer. And as is usually the case with the rose-hued refraction of light that infatuation can cast on everything — she has found that some of her songs, their lyrical meaning and the depth in which they are felt have taken on a new lease of life.

“Something that I experienced this year properly was falling in love,” she says. “So there is more warmth and sincerity to my approach to certain songs as opposed to how I would’ve treated them before, which was a bit more sombre and guarded. Now it’s like, big horns and make it triumphant! There are songs that have come to fruition because emotionally something has occurred in me and I’ve evolved in a way where now I’m clearer on what I feel.”

Celeste Spring 2021 Green Suit

All clothing and accessories by GUCCI

Celeste Spring 2021 Green Suit
All clothing and accessories by GUCCI

And this rare inherent attunement to her innermost feelings has always dictated the swells and tides of her music. If it feels like a thick veil of sadness hangs over many of Celeste’s most celebrated songs, it’s because it does. And her songwriting has always been a coping mechanism, an extension of her own ability to process the things that have happened to her, immortalised in the bars of a song.

“When my dad passed away, I felt all of these new feelings that I didn’t really understand, it was like the stages of grief,” she remembers. “There was so much chaos and mania going on within my mind. I was feeling anxious, irrational, and it built up to the point where I was scared to go out of the house or scared about my mum going to work in case something happened to her. You get to such a place of turmoil in your mind where you either exist like that forever, or your mind finds a new pathway. I needed a way to express myself and music became the most fluid and fluent way that I could map out my thoughts. Then I really felt a real sense of freedom going out in the world. It felt like flying in a way.”

Shortly after her father passed away, she wrote her first song “Sirens” — a heartbreaking depiction of him being taken away by an ambulance. Posted online, it soon caught the attention of a manager and led to her first big break. And in the same way she has come to terms with her trauma via her music, it has also helped her to explore her identity. During our chat, we talk about the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum, and she tells me excitedly about a career highlight some years ago at a night hosted by Edward Enninful at Notting Hill’s members club Laylow. The dinner was in celebration of legendary director Spike Lee, and the likes of Michaela Coel, Dave Chappelle, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Salman Rushdie gazed on as Celeste took to the stage. “I remember singing ‘Stop This Flame’ and all of a sudden interpreted it in a completely new way,” she remembers. “The night was also in honour of Black excellence, and I was in a room full of people that had come across adversity and surpassed people’s expectations in their area as people of colour. In that moment I felt a sense of empowerment and comfort in singing that song and it just took on a new form.”

Celeste Spring 2021 Chequered Blazer And Jeans Close Up

All clothing and accessories by GUCCI

Celeste Spring 2021 Chequered Blazer And Jeans Close Up
All clothing and accessories by GUCCI

Like all of us, the global pandemic threw a violent spike-strip into the trajectory of Celeste’s big breakout year, with tours and festival plans on hold indefinitely — but strangely, there is no sense of impatience when we talk, or irritation at time lost. Her journey has always been with herself, and judging from the rich sonic palette of Not Your Muse, it has all happened as it was meant to.

“I feel like I’m ready to fill the shoes of the artist rather than the vessel that fulfils someone else’s idea of what they think something should be,” she says. “And I’m excited to see how this is going to travel into my next project, because I am going into it with a sense of confidence and because things have turned around in a way that has made me trust in myself, knowing that I’ll get there.”

While she has been grateful for some element of slowing down and extra polishing time for her album, it’s clear that her sense of curiosity, and more importantly, wonder, is still very much intact. As we wrap up our conversation and I ask her about the first thing she can’t wait to do when a sense of normality is restored, in keeping to Celeste’s style, she pauses, looking back to see how far she’s come.

“Last year, I went to this festival near Amsterdam on a really small island built within the trees of this forest, and there was a silent disco. I was dancing along to Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, and I had this feeling like I was alone but also felt comfort in the fact that I was surrounded by a thousand people. I just can’t wait to dance and hear people and see people reacting to music, for myself as a spectator but also myself as a performer. And I want to see the world as well. I’m so excited about it, and now the idea of getting on a plane every other day doesn’t feel like such a travesty, when actually it’s not everyday that you get to do those things, so I feel like I’m grateful for that as well.”

Celeste Spring 2021 Red And White Dress Red Gloves Hands In The Air

All clothing and accessories by GUCCI

Celeste Spring 2021 Red And White Dress Red Gloves Hands In The Air
All clothing and accessories by GUCCI
Photography
Nwaka Oparaeke
Fashion
Toni-Blaze Ibekwe
Words
Maybelle Morgan
Hair
James Catalano using Colour WOW
Makeup
Rebecca Davenport using Gucci Beauty
Fashion Assistant
Anastasia Busch
Production Director
Federica Barletta
CELESTE
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