“Spike Lee picked up one of my records and I signed it for him, which I never ever expected,” Celeste says, as we chat about her former residency at Laylow, London’s prestigious private members club in Ladbroke Grove. It’s a far cry from her Dagenham and Brighton upbringing and she recognises this as one of her most memorable experiences of her career so far. “He said, ‘I need you to do some music for me in my next TV show’. I was like ‘OK, I’ll just wait for your call,’” she says excitedly
Celeste is bashful as she reflects on her experience performing for the esteemed BlacKkKlansman and Malcom X director, at an event held by Vogue Editor, Edward Enninful. “The dinner became a celebration of black culture, black actors and people of colour in film music and fashion,” she says.
“Riz Ahmed was there, Idris Elba and all these crazy people, and I got to sing. For a moment I felt so nervous, but I could see the Trellick Tower out of the corner of my eye, and I was reminded of people in there chilling out in the kitchen, that just made me feel so calm. Now whenever I stare at it, it makes me feel so calm.”
That Notting Hill landmark has become a symbol of the area Celeste has firmly placed her roots in. We meet in her local, The Eagle, just a short walk from her home, Laylow and the studio where she recorded her first EP, ‘The Milk and The Honey’. “Now I live round here it seems so funny, the old Sarm Studios has been turned into flats now,” she says. “I just remember going in there and writing songs there for the first time.”
London hasn’t always been home though, born in Los Angeles, California, Celeste moved to Dagenham aged two and then Brighton when she was six. Those early memories and communities stay ingrained into her mind, and impacted her music making in the following years.
“Once a week, I used to go Romford Market with my Nan. There was a guy that sold loads of records and tapes. He would sell cassettes hanging from bags all in different pockets and I would go and pick one, then she’d let me get it and play it at home,” she says.
Her choices? “I remember I picked an Otis Redding one, and the reason why I remember it so vividly is because I just picked it up and my Nan was so shocked that I had an artist like that. To me, I just picked any one. I had some guilty pleasures as well. Like Will Smith’s ‘Wild Wild West’ and a J-Lo one that I used to listen to on repeat,” she laughs.
Those early experiences laid the foundation for her own jazz-tinged style. While her friends exposed her to the likes of London rappers like JME and Bashy, she found herself searching for something different. “I started browsing on YouTube a lot of the time. I would just type in Ella Fitzgerald and then I would just click on the recommended for hours and hours,” she explains.
Funnily enough, it was YouTube where Celeste would get her big break. She sang a cover of Little Walter’s ‘My Babe’ aged 16, and posted it with little expectations. She was quickly snapped up by a manager and sent to Sarm’s Portobello Road Studio to start writing her own music. It was here that she would begin to emulate those early influences to craft her own sound.
“I never had a formal education in music, I didn’t come from a musical family in the sense that none of them play, none of them sing, none of them make music,” she says. “I never really had that push around me, so I had to wait until I had it from myself. I guess I always knew what I liked, and I could always hear how I wanted to sound, but it took me a while to realise how to communicate that to people.”
Her approach to communicating is particularly interesting, “The most important thing for me is having a song title in my head. Sometimes you might have a really random title, and you don’t really know what it means at the time. But hearing the chords that provide you with a mood or emotion, they can put that into context,” she explains.
“My song ‘Lately’, I just had that title in my head for a few months,” she says. “I just didn’t know what it meant and didn’t know what I would write about until I heard the music and I was like, this reminds me of a time when I felt that everything was the same, feeling like the monotony of everyday was getting on top of me. Then I started singing and it came out, like a conversation.”
Following the release of that EP in 2017, Celeste landed her Laylow residency, one of the area’s most exclusive haunts. It was here that she would eventually end up becoming friends with the owner, opening opportunities such as performing for Spike Lee.
Having come such a long way from that YouTube video almost a decade ago, it seems necessary to ask Celeste how she feels looking back. “You come full circle. When I did that video, I was young, but I was very confident. I knew what clothes I liked, what music I liked and how all of that stuff would come together in my head. Then there was a period of time where I lost that a little bit and I didn’t really know. I was growing up and growing out of things, in a way I’ve come back round to having that mindset again,” she reflects. “I just know what I want now, and I know what I want to be. I feel ready to give that to people.”