At the end of November 2019, Celeste played a three-night residency at London’s Omeara. The intimate shows were a true ‘I was there’ moment. In a sight that would now give you goosebumps: the 320-capacity venue was stacked, punters craning their necks from the back row as the crowd spilled out the door, all trying to catch a glimpse of Britain’s next soul hero.
These gigs – that showcased Celeste as a once-in-a-generation talent – were spectacular, the culmination of years of hard graft trying to break into the industry. It then came as no surprise that Celeste then topped a slew of ones-to-watch lists in following months.
You know what happened next, though. Shortly after smashing the ‘Adele slot’ at the 2020 Brit Awards (Celeste performed an emotive version of ‘Strange’, reminiscent of the Adele’s breakout performance ‘Someone Like You’ in 2011), the pandemic threw the world – and Celeste – into disarray. But while tours and festivals were cancelled putting many of the year’s buzziest artists on indefinite hold, she kept busy, continuing to release nuggets of her gorgeous modern soul.
The Londoner worked with Billie Eilish’s brother and producer Finneas on ‘I Can See The Change’, recording songs for the soundtrack to Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (including Oscar contender ‘Hear My Voice’, which is tipped for Best Original Song Academy Award) and Pixar’s latest flick Soul, as well as releasing last year’s John Lewis Christmas advert song, the searching ‘A Little Love’. It may not have been the breakthrough year that we’d expected, but Celeste’s soaring vocals and knack for writing a timeless song prevailed. It’s a testament to what an artist Celeste is – even in a most extraordinary year, she managed to make a mark.
Now, then, it’s time for Celeste’s anticipated debut, ‘Not Your Muse’. And while the pressure to live up to this level of hype may make lesser artists crumble, on her first album Celeste cements her place as the new face of British soul.
Opening with the lilting eye-roll of ‘Ideal Woman’, a slow-burn that sees Celeste consider why she might not be somebody’s dream girl, before concluding: “May not be your ideal woman / The freedom that you’d get / Please don’t mistake me for a woman who cares”. This self-assuredness is a theme that threads throughout the entire record, a collection of powerful, succinct songs that couple neat writing with tender lyrics and Celeste’s stunning vocals.
Musically it flits between tug-at-the-heartstring moments (‘Strange’, ‘Beloved’) and slinky pop earworms (‘Tonight Tonight’, ‘Stop This Flame’). ‘Love Is Back’ is a swaggering cut with brass lines evocative of Mark Ronson‘s work on Amy Winehouse‘s ‘Back to Black’ and diamond-sharp percussion atop of lyrics that celebrate finding a partner who’s worthy of you (“I’m startin’ to realise that all the boys that I find / Are all trouble, I told my mother / She said, ‘Girl, get your glass full'”). Meanwhile, ‘Stop This Flame’, which gained new-found popularity last year being used for the theme song for Sky Sports’ Premier League coverage, is fuelled by an unrelenting piano-vamp that drives the song into floor-filling euphoria.
The more subdued moments are equally powerful. ‘A Little Love’ is an elegant, albeit Disney-worthy (try arguing that “Of all the things to be / I’d choose a kindness” isn’t pure Mary Poppins), treat – a musical hug, equivalent to snuggling up and watching Paddington 2 on a particularly bleak winter’s day. ‘Beloved’, meanwhile, meshes sun-drenched production with cinematic swirling strings, resulting in a tune that’s pulled straight out of an old school Hollywood film.
But whether up-tempo or morose, Celeste’s remarkable voice is the real show-stealer on ‘Not Your Muse’. It has supernatural qualities, turning already poetic lyrics into gut-punch moments. Take breakthrough single ‘Strange’, a reflection on broken relationships (“Isn’t it strange? / How people can change / From strangers to friends / Friends into lovers / And strangers again”) transformed by Celeste’s smoky vocals into an emotional sledgehammer. The same could be said of the laidback ‘Some Goodbyes Come with Hellos’, whose relaxed acoustic instrumentation allows the full focus to be pulled onto Celeste’s narrative, delivered with dazzling aplomb.
In the past her powerhouse voice has been compared to those of Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday. And while these may be apt references, they don’t reflect what a singular talent Celeste is. There may be elements of these greats in her vocals, but as ‘Not Your Muse’ proves, Celeste is on her way to becoming a star in her own right.
Release date: January 29, 2020
Record label: Polydor