Every so often, national attention is arrested by a performance so natural it seems like a gift. For one long moment the public will hold its collective gaze as greatness reveals itself, the artist, musician or performer cresting on the zeitgeist. The solo performance by Celeste at the Brit Awards in February this year, where her soulful voice seemed to float through bone, was one of those generational moments.
In many ways, the 40th Brit Awards was the country’s last dance before an unforeseen long night. It was the wettest February on record and, unknown to everyone in attendance at The O2 arena that evening (and the 3.8 million who watched from home), the awards would be among the last major public gatherings before the country was shunted into the chaos and lockdown caused by the Covid-19 epidemic.
The evening was political and, at times, deeply personal for many of the musicians on stage. Before Celeste wowed, South London rapper Dave, who claimed the award for Mastercard Album Of The Year, used his platform to rally against social injustice, calling for action over the Grenfell Tower fire and labelling prime minister Boris Johnson a racist in a powerful rendition of his song “Black”.
Billie Eilish, who preceded Celeste, premiered her new James Bond theme tune, “No Time To Die”, that night, with a full orchestra conducted by Hans Zimmer, while Stormzy – a man seemingly built for such seminal moments – offered personal praises to the heavens with album track “Rainfall”, backed by an angelic choir as rap-generated rain soaked the stage.
Celeste, instead, leaned towards something more intimate. It set her apart. Alone under a dove-white spotlight, in a gothic yet regal black ballgown from surrealist bridalwear brand Wed, a piano moaned in the distance as she poured out the heartache of breakout single “Strange”. There was confidence in her tall stance as she moved through the song about love lost and found, her hips rocking slowly back and forth, her eyes shut, her fingers hidden under black silk opera gloves.
“Strange” is a slow-moving portrait of a relationship as it bleeds out. It’s a lament to the stars that burn with all longing and lust for one bright moment but must inevitably come back to dust. “From strangers to friends / Friends into lovers / And strangers again,” she sings. At what was undoubtedly the biggest moment of her career thus far, in front of the watching nation, Celeste seemed perfectly at home.“I feel like there has to be a rawness to a performance, wherever it is,” she tells me, six months later, from the comfort of her North West London patio. “It has to always feel quite beautiful and natural.”
In the weeks that followed, the UK knighted the 26-year-old soul singer as an icon-in-waiting, seeking to measure her talents by running comparisons to Adele and the late Amy Winehouse. The double crown Celeste wears, as BBC Music’s Sound Of 2020 (which she claimed in January) and the Brits’ Rising Star Award winner (which she collected that very evening), leaves a country quietly curious about the forces that have shaped the singer.
Celeste Epiphany Waite was born in Los Angeles to a Jamaican father who was mostly absent from her life and a British mother who, as a make-up artist, had crossed the Atlantic to assist a director on set. Mother and daughter chased blue waters in those early years, living by a marina on the West Coast. After Britain beckoned them back home, when Celeste was just three, they moved first to Dagenham, East London, and then found a new residence at a marina in Brighton, waking every morning to the hypnotic sounds of “boats clinking together and hearing the shore and the water crashing against the sea wall”. Eventually, they settled in the coastal village of Saltdean a few miles east of Brighton, a seaside city where grey cliffs run into clear skies.
Back then Brighton meant freedom, something Celeste feels is the result of the wave of creatives who drifted away from London in the 1990s and settled in for new lives on the southern coast with “a sense of open-mindedness” and “a more relaxed set of rules”. Such an atmosphere, she tells me, would go on to blood a generation of children, “unafraid to be themselves”.
Little wonder so much of Celeste’s music is informed by her early experiences. Her first encounters with melody, for example, were bombastic. Her childhood memories are peppered by a mother who blared The Clash throughout the house while daughter danced with abandon on the dining table. The drives they took together to see Celeste’s grandparents were frequent; the trips soundtracked by garage and two-step blaring from their car, windows down, system up, as they tore along the motorway.
When they arrived, Celeste’s mother would leave her for a few days to head away for make-up gigs. During those stays with her grandparents, the singer remembers, they would sway through the kitchen to the golden tones of Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin, then Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. This is the music that had the most influence on her: American jazz and 1960s blues pouring in through her ears, subtly soaking itself into everything that would come.
“Up until the age of 13 I was only really listening to soul and jazz,” she confirms to me. “As a kid it was one of the first times I saw older people around me animated; I think that encourages you to want to listen to it. Then, as soon as I opened up my mouth to sing, it was the same tone that I still have now. I always wonder whether I’d be able to sing that way if I didn’t grow up listening to that music.”
Songwriter and producer Jamie Hartman – who cowrote “Strange”, as well as her Finneas O’Connell-produced single “I Can See The Change”, released in May – sees a distinct quality in Celeste’s voice. “She’s a classic jazz singer,” he tells me. “Her voice is a combination of all of the heartbreak and soul that’s in her as a human being. A lot of artists are broken in one way or another and it’s the cracks in their soul that elevate their ability to bring people into their world.”
It’s said the greatest singers forge their talent from tragedy, not least the jazz icons. In 2010 Celeste’s father passed away after suffering from lung cancer. She was 16 at the time and just starting college. Though the two had lived apart, the loss careered through her personal life. Grief echoed into all corners, her college work suffered and she struggled with being present. Early aspirations of an undergraduate arts course were shattered as the fallout from his early passing took its toll.
“I went to college in September and my dad died in October,” she tells me. “In the beginning of college I was really enthusiastic and happy. But after, I got really behind on my work, to a point where I wasn’t going to get the grades I needed over the two years. I was so behind that they really just let me stay to have the stability and the routine of being around my friends. Truthfully, I wasn’t going to get a qualification or even enough to go to university.”
Yet, out of the darkness, light. The loss somehow moved something in her, giving way to a burning sense of urgency as she looked inward on her own life. “All of a sudden,” she says, “I thought, ‘I need to decide what I want to do right now.’ It became really important to me that I had direction.”
It was the kind of pivot on which entire lives can tilt. She leaned into music and became “obsessed”. She ignored teachers who attempted to steer her towards a more traditional career – “Celeste, you better get some Ucas points because Simon Cowell isn’t going to knock on your door!” – and instead daydreamed of a life performing to dazzled crowds in grand music halls.
The fallout of her father’s passing is scattered through her career’s work: “Miss my dad but I’m not mad,” she sings on “Coco Blood”, produced by Swindle and released in 2019, while “Sirens”, the first piece of music she uploaded to YouTube at 17, is a song made in his tribute.
Elsewhere, “Father’s Son”, is a tender peeling back of layers, a personal self-inquiry into how the grief of losing a parent evolves as we grow, echoing back as we run into dilemmas that we crave to be smoothed over by the guiding hand of a parent no longer with us.
“Before he died,” Celeste explains, “I maybe saw him two or three times in that year and I quickly drew parallels between parts of my personality and things that were similar to his. I realised there are some things that are inherently built within you, whether you’ve been around that person to learn their behaviour or not.
“I realised that something was lost when my father died,” she continues. “There was a wealth of knowledge in me being able to understand myself, in being able to ask him certain things, which I didn’t get to do. Because as much as I’ve been brought up by my mother, there’s definitely parts of my personality, maybe the more tricky parts to navigate, that are more like him. It would be cool to ask him how he would deal with certain situations.”
The earnest pursuit of any ambition begins in hope rather than expectation. It’s a Hail Mary pass at a future imagined and often requires a sacrifice of comfort and certainty. Like all daydreamers who have followed its call, Celeste has paid her dues. After leaving college, she began taking shifts in a bar while working on her music. She started in a band with school friends, refining melodies and writing poetry, their ensemble turning up in bars by the seafront, covering Paul Weller and Ray Charles, gracing their audience with homages to rare groove and old soul.
Around that time “Sirens” caught the attention of a prospective manager, who arranged sessions for her at the famed Sarm Studios in London’s Notting Hill with a writer called Jez O’Connor. When she arrived for her first writing session everyone was “shocked by my voice”, she says, “because they didn’t know who I was. I had just turned up one day.”
Celeste’s life at that point became a series of journeys back and forth between London and the coast for writing sessions, followed by humbling shifts in the bar to stay afloat. Those introductory years in the industry were chaotic. There were high moments when things seemed to be coming together – an excitement from the industry as record and publishing deals were both put on the table – countered by downswings soon after when it seemed as if “nothing really was going on” and the label interest had receded.
A turning point came from an offer to experience live music; she was asked to go on the road with electronic group Real Lies. The band themselves were touring as a support act for Foals in 2015 and needed a vocalist to perform the scattering of 1990s soul and house rave vocals sampled across their debut album, Real Life.
“We were playing quite big venues,” Celeste explains, “and I got to see all these different places around the UK, amazing venues I had never really been to before. That was my first live experience doing proper shows, that wasn’t just a show my friends and I had done in Brighton.” This minor breakthrough gave her focus and spurred her on to begin “honing in on what it is I should do and can do”. Headstrong, she began writing every day, “rather than just once a week or once every two weeks”.
Amid that period of her life, a certain afternoon stands out. It was one of the warmest days down in Brighton and her friends were sunning themselves at the beach. Out-of-town tourists had flocked to the pier and Celeste was working at the bar. There was a stage in the corner and sometimes the manager let her skip work for writing sessions and studio time.
During the shift, a breeze swung a small side door open and a crack of coastal sun crawled to the stage. In that moment she saw herself not as a bartender but as a performer under a shimmering spotlight, playing her songs to the masses gathered in a grand 1930s concert hall. Immediately, she began to write some lyrics: “Another day / Another wage / Work again / I’ll play away / I’m drifting, not listening.”
That air of longing and angst would eventually become the second verse of “Daydreaming”, her debut single released under Lily Allen’s Bank Holiday Records label in 2016. That record perfectly bottled her ambition and drive, seemingly unblemished by the withering scepticism that comes with age. It captured a wide-eyed Celeste on the foothills of her own personal Everest.
A move to North London in 2017 helped usher in this new dawn. There, she lived with friends in a flat in Islington and went out singing almost whenever she could. She was in her early twenties, embarking on a new chapter in a new city, making ends meet as best she could. She waited tables in restaurants, welcomed guests at bottomless brunch joints and spent afternoons working at a furniture shop that would ship in “chairs they’d get from a school in Bradford and then sell them for £800”.
Soon after, in 2018, she signed with Polydor and soon after that released her second EP, Lately, a vessel for songs such as “Father’s Son” and “Both Sides Of The Moon”. The tides had turned more permanently in her favour. Being able to work on her music full-time was “a liberating feeling. It felt like this hard work had paid off now; I didn’t have to do a day job to facilitate my dreams.”
The real breakthrough came with “Strange”. The record began with Jamie Hartman tinkering with chords and piano keys at his LA home. There was an adrenaline in the studio when Celeste first heard them. She sat on the chords for longer than usual, let a day pass before writing to the instrumental.
Elsewhere, contributing songwriters Eric Leva and Stephen Wrabel fitted their own pieces of the lyric jigsaw into the record. Yet, at that particular moment, California was ablaze with some of the worst wildfires ever seen. Acrid black smoke lingered in the air, drying out throats and weaving a distinct husk into Celeste’s cut-glass vocals. You can hear the rasp as the song opens. “I tried for you / Tried to see through all the smoke,” she sings.
After “Strange” was recorded, she took it to her label, slightly nervous, and watched as a man wept on first listen. It was a hint at what was to come: a song that would stir entire stadiums to their core. Before it was released in September 2019, she performed it live for almost a year, playing festivals such as SXSW in Texas “as an unknown” and noticing how out in the crowd whenever the song played “someone was crying. Each time I played it, the song got more and more meaning and gumption.”
The honours after its release came in waves. There was a tingling performance on Later… With Jools Holland in October and three soldout winter nights at Omeara in South London throughout November last year. There were the awards from the BBC and then that performance at the Brits, as well as a debut performance on US television on The Late Late Show With James Corden at the tail end of January. Within a year, Celeste’s life had changed.
“I’m in a position,” she says now, “where the things I’ve worked towards for quite a number of years are close to being a lifelong thing. But it’s daunting. It could either go well or tits up.” With the music industry at her feet and a country cocking its ears, Celeste was expected to turn in her debut album by March, ready for a September 2020 release. But amid the rolling conveyor belt of music industry and media demands, a nervousness crept in about the record, a feeling “that this isn’t the album I want it to be yet”.
Amid the mass standstill of Britain’s lockdown, Celeste has found relief. She has spent days back in Brighton and long afternoons locked in the sanctuary of the studio, writing about longing and romance and a song titled “Some Goodbyes Come With Hellos”. There’s a genuine excitement around her album now, simply entitled Celeste, which is due to be released next year. She has worked with producers Josh Crocker and TMS, but her past collaborator Jamie Hartman has worked closely across the bulk of the record.
“Celeste will take a good idea,” he tells me, “and she knows how to make it great. It can be the flip of a lyric, a repetition you hadn’t thought of, a different placement of a chord rhythmically. I’m going to look back at that album in ten years’ time and know that’s one of the highlights of my career.”
For Celeste, the album represents music that plays back “what I’m experiencing in my life at the time”, she says, because “all I ever really tried is for it to be honest. That’s all I ever really wanted.” That honesty has guided her from the cliffs of Brighton to the brink of national glory. The years of waiting tables, writing and chasing daydreams have paid off. Celeste has finally reached her beginning.