Celeste: “This album is me taking a firm stance and saying, ‘This is who I am’”

Inspired by the soul and jazz greats, the megastar-in-waiting’s super-slick debut ‘Not Your Muse’ proves that bringing people together is what she does best

It’s almost a year to the day that Celeste Waite made an almighty splash at the 2020 Brit Awards, wowing an audience of Billie Eilish, Courtney Love, Stormzy and Harry Styles with a pin-drop version of her gothic jazz ballad ‘Strange’ before picking up the hotly contested Rising Star gong. The following evening, still in something of a daze, Celeste found herself at another starry event, sitting next to Florence Welch at a Gucci show. For Florence – who’d won the Rising Star gong in 2009, back when it was called the Critic’s Choice Award – it was like looking through a portal to the past.

“You’re in the position I was in when I started out,” said Florence to the then-25-year-old singer and songwriter. “And, um, had you finished your first album at that point?” inquired a nervy Celeste. “Oh no, I was still working on it!” responded Florence.

“I was like, ‘Phew!’,” chuckles Celeste over video call from her north-west London bedroom. “That gave me some comfort and confidence, because you see how far these artists have come when they receive those things and assume they had it all figured out. But I guess it’s like one of those things, you just kind of learn as you go along…”

NME Cover 2021 Celeste
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME. Jacket: Stella McCartney, Tights: Stylist’s own, Earrings: Patcharavipa, Rings: Phase, Katherine Scarlett and Len Manso

Which is exactly what Celeste has been doing for the past seven years. It might seem as if this fully formed, main stage-worthy talent has popped out of nowhere, but there’s been some extremely hard graft behind that voice: a burnished croon which sounds like it feels everything at 10 times the intensity of mere mortals. A husky fusion of jazz and soul greats across the decades, from Eartha Kitt and Dusty Springfield to Billie Holiday, it’s a vocal tailor-made to accompany candle-lit evenings, a martini or three and maybe, just maybe, floods of tears.

And though Celeste’s debut album, ‘Not Your Muse’, was far from finished when she and Florence had their fashion show chat, it’s now out after months of chopping and changing release dates due to coronavirus. And it’s worth the wait. A super-slick offering, the record’s jazzy, horn-section tooting and Bond theme-worthy roots are wrapped up in modern pop glitz, otherwise known as ‘the Amy Winehouse-meets-Mark-Ronson method’. If there were a surefire recipe for superstardom, this would be it.

Named after the last song she finished for the album, the heart-on-sleeve sound of ‘Not Your Muse’ isn’t just a rollercoaster of ever-fluctuating emotions, but a celebration of hard-worn confidence. “I’d already started writing two or three years ago, but I just couldn’t fully get across what I really wanted to say,” explains Celeste. The defiant ‘Not Your Muse’ saw her finally nailing her colours to the mast. “It was me taking a firm stance and saying, ‘This is who I am’.”

NME Cover 2021 Celeste
Celeste on the cover of NME

As well as being a Brits Rising Star and NME 100 alumni, Celeste also had the dubious honour of being named the winner of BBC’s Sound of 2020, a year most of us would rather forget – and one which saw her first ever headline tour scrubbed off the schedule. The day we speak more cancellations are afoot, with Glastonbury pulled for the second year running. “I guess in my mind I was optimistic that some of that stuff would happen,” sighs Celeste. “But the idea of hundreds of thousands of people [at a festival] didn’t seem that realistic…”

Though she’s accepted the fact that the biggest party of the year is off the table, with one of the most eagerly anticipated debut album releases of the year, it’s easy to imagine Celeste would have been a highlight of the weekend, had it happened. Picture the scene: a sunny Saturday afternoon, Celeste on the main stage in full diva mode and a fabulous frock belting out her bluesy bangers while you work on simultaneous sunburn and alcohol-induced dehydration. Bliss.

“I’m still learning the ropes in my new relationship, and am writing about how it’s made me feel”

That’s something we’ll have to wait another year for at least, but thankfully Celeste was able to experience the event in 2019, when she played the BBC Introducing Stage. It wasn’t the ideal set-up for her first time, however.

“I was performing on the Sunday, but I was there from, like, Thursday,” she remembers. “My band could go out all night and get drunk, but if I did that, I would have lost my voice. So I was just this hermit going home really early and not really getting to fully have the whole hedonistic Glastonbury experience.” Added to that, when she did finally get up to play, one of the first things she saw when she looked into the crowd was a guy she’d fancied for ages, who’d popped out at the front of the stage with his shirt off. “I had to keep on trying to angle my face, so it didn’t seem like I was singing all of these love songs to him!”

NME Cover 2021 Celeste
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME. Top: Dom Sebastian, Rings: Gillian Horsup, Earrings: Stylist’s own

Celeste Waite was born in 1994 in Los Angeles; her mum had moved to California to work as a make-up artist in the film industry, meeting the man who’d become Celeste’s dad while she was living there. Despite such starry roots, Celeste doesn’t have any memories of her Hollywood years, having moved back to her mum’s native Dagenham when she was still a toddler. With her parents separated, Celeste and her mum eventually settled in the seaside town of Saltdean, just outside Brighton. That the young Celeste ended up with a passion for music was no shock.

“My mum comes from that rave era of calling up from a telephone box and finding a big party to go to out in the middle of nowhere,” she grins of her mother, whom she lovingly calls “lairy”, adding with more than a hint of pride: “She used to hang out with Paul Oakenfold in the early days.” Raised on a diet of party-starting anthems such as Dutch producer Hithouse’s 1988 dance banger ‘Jack To The Sound Of The Underground’ – as well as a decent helping of The Clash – it’s almost fate that one of Celeste’s early breaks was working with synth-pop band Real Lies, whose sound plugged directly into the acid house party aesthetic.

“Lily Allen said, ‘You just gotta keep writing songs’, in quite a stern way! I respected that”

Not long after a teenage Celeste started uploading her own songs onto SoundCloud, Celeste would meet the trio at their sweaty club night on London’s Holloway Road, where, once a week, they’d take over a Jamaican bar, selling cheap and cheerful cans of Ting topped up with liquor as a middle finger to the scenester mixologists of Dalston a mile or so away. At that point, Real Lies and Celeste shared a manager and it was quickly decided that Celeste had the perfect voice with which to sing the band’s big and baggy soul breakdowns, just like Happy Mondays’ vocal powerhouse Rowetta. The band and Celeste soon hit the road for a run of dates supporting Foals.

“I made friends with Yannis and he used to tease me because I was quite nerdy still and quite shy,” recalls Celeste of her first tour experience. “But I could tell he liked what I was doing and thought I was good.”

NME Cover 2021 Celeste
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME. Skirt, trousers, corset and t-shirt: Charlotte Knowles, Boots: Acne, Rings: Katherine Scarlett, Earrings: Scout by Scout

By 2016 Celeste was starting to slip off that veil of shyness to branch out as a solo act, ditching her part-time pub shifts and releasing a woozy but confident debut single ‘Daydreaming’ through Lily Allen’s record label, Bank Holiday Records. Like Florence Welch would do a few years down the line, Lily was on hand for some words of wisdom.

“She was helpful, because she was quite honest,” Celeste says of Lily’s real talk, delivered when Celeste was struggling to work out if one of her tunes was up to scratch. “She was like, ‘You just gotta keep writing songs’, in quite a stern way! I just thought, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I’m not just gonna get it overnight.’ I respected that.”

She took Lily’s words to heart: five years down the line and Celeste has well and truly nailed the art of songwriting. Love songs are what she does best, running the gamut of head-over-heels infatuation to gutting break-ups. There’s her Brits-wowing ‘Strange’ – with its heartbreaking dissection of an affair: “Isn’t it strange / How people can change / From strangers to friends / Friends into lovers / And strangers again?” – the intense passion of the Adele-worthy ‘Stop This Flame’, which also comes complete with a Nina Simone-style piano riff, and crushed-out current single ‘Love Is Back’.

“At the end of last year, I felt completely insane and didn’t how to calm down”

Yet Celeste herself is the first to admit that many of her songs were inspired more by wanting than through experience. “It’s only really been recently that I’ve found myself to be in a real relationship, properly,” she reveals. “But I think before that it was coming from a place of longing for that idyllic love and romance. I think it keeps people alive and engaged in something.”

Her other half is a fellow creative, bohemian poet Sonny Hall, who features alongside Celeste in the video for last year’s tear-jerking piano ballad ‘Little Runaway’ and, when he’s not writing, works as a model, signed to Kate Moss’s agency. Despite their similar jobs, Celeste and Sonny have contrasting approaches to work. “I have all of his poems that he has, sort of like a work-in-progress, on my computer,” explains Celeste of her boyfriend’s casual way with a Google Doc. “Sometimes I can see it in real time as he’s editing them. But we have a very different process; he doesn’t really get to hear my stuff until it’s mixed and mastered!”

So now she’s got the big love that she always desired, will the songs dry up or will there be absolutely bloody loads of them? “I’m still learning the ropes in this relationship – it’s not like everything is just sublime and perfect,” she offers. “I’m writing about how this has made me feel. I’m figuring it all out as I go along. Actually, I feel more inspired again. I’m quite excited to see how that will come out in the next few months of writing.”

NME Cover 2021 Celeste
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME. Jacket: Stella McCartney, Tights: Stylist’s own, Earrings: Patcharavipa, Rings: Phase, Katherine Scarlett and stylist’s own, Boots: Christian Louboutin

Despite global lockdown, the past year has been a busy one for Celeste. With no festivals or tours to clutter up her calendar, it’s not a surprise to hear that she’s already thinking about writing album number two, despite a recent promotional run that’s seen her jumping onto an eclectic bunch of projects.

These have ranged from the uber-cool to more grandma-pleasing opportunities, the latter including a Tom Jones duet on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny, a John Lewis Christmas advert theme (she’s the first artist to pen her own tune for the retail giant, the typically lilting ‘A Little Love’), the Royal Variety Show and even the final of The Voice UK.

“I made friends with Yannis from Foals – I could tell he liked what I was doing”

Curiously, all of this sits in sharp contrast to her edgier appearances. There have been guest slots on every hipster’s favourite radio station NTS, on which she selected tracks by Ghanaian multi-instrumentalist Kiki Gyan and New York soul queen Sylvia Striplin, as well as tastemaking YouTube performance channel Colors. Then there’s last year’s collab with Billie Eilish’s big bro Finneas, who was so taken aback by her Brit Awards performance that he tracked her down for last year’s understated ‘I Can See The Change’, while Billie has sung Celeste’s praises too. But bringing people together is what Celeste does best.

In fact, it was at the seemingly stuffy Royal Variety Show that Celeste first met Mel C, who makes a cameo in the 1980s office-inspired ‘Love Is Back’ video alongside underground clubland legends like Princess Julia as well as actress Jamie Winstone, an experience which Celeste calls “surreal”. Her busy year also gave Celeste the idea for a trio of shows at London venue Union Chapel, set for this coming July; she’d recorded a live version of her song ‘Hear My Voice’ there for a promotional video to accompany last year’s Netflix film The Trial Of The Chicago 7, whose soundtrack she appeared on.

NME Cover 2021 Celeste
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME. Top and skirt: Dom Sebastian, Earrings: Stylist’s own, Boots: Paula Canovas, Tights: Stylist’s own

“It was the first place that I’d sung all year that without people or a crowd still felt like it had a genuine atmosphere and feeling to it,” she says.

Though they’re likely to be socially distanced and with masks compulsory, these shows are the silver lining we could all do with right now. It seems they’ll be just as beneficial to Celeste as they will her fans, as she admits that being busy doesn’t always mean being happy.

“At the end of the year, I did just feel completely insane and I didn’t really know what to do to calm myself down,” she explains, adding that she ended up in therapy for the first time in her life. “It’s really difficult because I felt completely fine and then I felt like, ‘Oh my God – I’m literally about to have a breakdown’.” The therapy improved things, as did making small changes. “I tried not to get too absorbed in the news and paranoia and anxious thoughts,” she says. “I made sure I was outside and was cycling around and painting and just listening to music – probably the most basic stuff, but it does help.”

Celeste holds up one of her paintings, others of which can be found scattered across her and her boyfriend’s places. It’s a vibrant, camp and cartoon-ish portrait of a stern-looking woman with neon pink hair and horn-rimmed glasses, whom she has named Gertrude. “They’re the kind of the ladies that would be rude to me in the shop,” says the UK’s next pop superstar. 2020 might have done its best to rob Celeste of her big moment, but with Gertrude by her side, she’s going to make certain that 2021 is her year.

Celeste’s ‘Not Your Muse’ is out now

CREDITS:

Styling by Ella Lucia
Makeup by Porsche Poon using NARS cosmetics
Hair by James Catalano