Interview. At home with Celeste: “It’s very surreal. I don’t quite feel deserving of certain things yet”
(Podes encontrar uma versão desta entrevista em português aqui)
2020 was shaping up to be a promising year for English singer Celeste. It started off big with the release of her single “Stop This Flame” in January, such a hit that it was featured on Sky Sports and the soundtrack of the FIFA 21 video game. In the following month, Celeste received the prestigious “BRIT Award for Rising Star” and in March she was listed on Forbes’ “30 Under 30 Europe Entertainment” list. However, March was also the month a certain pandemic impacted our lives; Celeste included. The singer had her European tour cancelled and found herself stuck at home for the better part of the year. It was precisely from her home that Celeste spoke to Comunidade Cultura e Arte about her career, the Portuguese language, Timothée Chalamet and even time travels.
I guess we can start with your latest album, Not Your Muse. How does it feel like to finally have your baby out now and available for everyone to listen to?
I’m just so happy, because there’s so much emphasis on what you can do in the lead up to the album being released, like promoting it and everything around finishing it. Then once it is out there, it’s in everybody else’s hands, you know? So I just feel happy that I have that relief that it’s out there now for people to listen to it and to make its own journey.
Your voice reminds me of other talented British singers of past years, such as Adele and Amy Winehouse. Who would you say your biggest musical inspirations are? Both contemporary artists and from the past.
I’d say in contemporary music it’s probably someone like Solange and even like Kendrick Lamar. The reason why I say those two specifically is because of something that I recognised in hearing and seeing how their music evolved over multiple albums. They were clearly coming from this place of being inspired by soul and jazz and funk. Then eventually they found their own sort of language, their own way within it. They kind of reinterpreted the genre and made it original again. In hearing those people do that, I was just so impressed because that was always what I wanted to do, coming from a place of being inspired by soul and jazz. I always wanted to reinterpret the genre and find my own version of things. That was my main inspiration, I guess in the last five years or something. Then, earlier than that, it was singers like Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. Those were the singers that I grew up listening to. As well as Otis Redding, Bill Withers and Al Green. I just really liked their singing voices and how they constructed a narrative to melody.
When you moved to London some four years ago, you had to juggle a job and making music. What would you say was the turning point in your career? That moment when you could finally dedicate yourself 100% to your music?
I think that it was probably in the last two and a half or three years, that turning point. It was about a year and a half that I lived in London until I started to see music paying off as something that I could lean on financially, to support me and to live in London as well. I always wanted to live here, but it’s so expensive. In the end, I just took a leap and I got a job to be able to afford to [live in London]. I would work on Saturday and Sunday in a restaurant, and then go to the studio in the rest of the week. But quite often the music schedule is so unpredictable that I would have to cancel my shift or move something around to go to the studio. I found it hard to hold a job down for that long, because people were not really accepting of that.
Would you say your passion for music was something you inherited from a family member, from a friend, from someone else?
My family definitely was really passionate about music. That love was definitely passed down to me. My grandma’s dad did actually sing, but he passed away when she was about fourteen. He could sing and play piano. I think she always thought that if he had been in her life for longer, she probably would have learned to play piano and been a bit more involved in making music and singing. But it wasn’t that reality. I think that maybe I could have gotten this voice from him or my nan. Sometimes I hear my nan singing around the house and she’s got a nice voice, so perhaps it’s from her side of the family.
She’s got a Celeste ring to her.
Or rather: you got a grandmother ring to you.
You recently recorded some songs for the film “The Trial of the Chicago 7”. Your song “Hear My Voice” has since been nominated for a Golden Globe and it made the Academy shortlist for the Oscar for Best Original Song. How does it feel having all these iconic awards recognise your work? Not to mention the “BRIT Award for Rising Star” that you won just last year.
It’s very surreal. I don’t quite feel deserving of certain things yet. I just feel somethings come around so quickly and then you’re not sure if you’re really worthy of them. It means so much to me, especially as I have been writing for a really long time, but my music in the world is very new. So, it means a lot to me that I get that recognition, because it puts a lot more faith in me and what I’m doing. Then for the people in the public that are there, it can give them a reason to listen to it.
How was it like to venture into the cinema industry? Was it something that you always wanted to do or did the opportunity just come your way?
It sort of just came around to me. I had always imagined that I would write songs to film and I always really, really wanted to. When I first started writing when I was younger, I always thought maybe if I didn’t become a singer and have myself on show, that’s something I could do behind the scenes. It’s come as a result of me being my own artist and being out there. When you’re a singer, there’s so many different opportunities and there’s so many different routes you can take with it, once you get to a certain stage. I’m just hoping that I get to a certain height in my career, I can then kind of go off and delve into different avenues. Perhaps that means that I’ll be a bit more away from the public-facing thing and I’ll be behind the scenes, but I really want to do more of that kind of thing.
What was the process like? Did you work closely with Daniel Pemberton, the song composer?
Yeah. Well, he wrote the score for the film, so he had different scenes that he had to make instrumental musical accompaniment to, but he actually asked me to write with him for the song for the closing credits. We weren’t able to meet in person because of the pandemic, so we were just exchanging our ideas by sending messages to each other and speaking on the phone. That’s kind of how it all came to be. Eventually we got to meet in a studio, around August or September of last year, and finish the song, but the majority of it was already written by that point. It was just like a few minor changes that sort of came to light, that felt right in the room. That was kind of how it went. He’s someone that I’m getting to know more and more, now that we’re doing more performances and more things around this whole song.
We’ve discussed your early days, your current rise, so what’s next for Celeste? Now that you have your first album out, what are your plans for the near future?
I’m really wanting to write a second album. What I’m looking forward to the most is going and playing some shows, because I’ve missed that so much. That’s all that’s really in my mind right now. I always think of the bigger picture and the things that can happen way later on down the line, but I just take it each day at a time.
I believe you have never performed in Portugal, is that correct?
Yeah, it’s true.
So of course, I have to ask you: in a post COVID-19 world, will you stop by Portugal in one of your upcoming tours?
I hope so, yeah! In 2019, when I was playing shows, maybe nobody in Portugal really had an awareness of me. That might have changed around a bit now. So definitely I’d love to.
Have you ever visited Portugal? As a tourist, I mean.
I haven’t actually. It’s one of the places that I haven’t been that I’d really love to go. I look forward to it.
Do you know any word in Portuguese?
No. [laughs] But you know what? Someone on my management team, she speaks Portuguese but she’s quite new. I’ll have to learn from her. If I ever come, she’ll have to come with me.
I can teach you one word. Do you want to learn one word?
Which word would you like to learn?
How do you say “hello”?
Oh, you just say “olá”… [laughs] OK, how do you say “it’s so good to be here”?
You can say “estou muito feliz…”
Estou muito feliz.
“…por estar aqui.”
Por estar aqui. Estou muito feliz por estar aqui.
That was very good! I think you’re a promising learner.
Now about your fans, who would love to see you live right now, what other options do they have? How can they follow you right now?
Instagram is the best place for people to keep track of what I’m doing. That’s the thing that I go on the most. I’m not necessarily going to do a live stream show, but I’m definitely going to be putting more and more live versions of the songs on my YouTube. Just look out for that on my Instagram. I’ll post it and then there will be some direction to where it is.
I’d like to ask you what music you’ve been listening to recently. Any 2020 album that you really enjoyed?
Slowthai just released an album [Tyron] that I was listening to. He’s a rapper here in the UK. I guess it’s an older album now, but I really like When I Get Home and A Seat at the Table by Solange. Actually, there’s a Maverick Sabre album, that I think came out last year, that I really enjoyed. Those are the more current things I’ve been listening to, but I always listen to quite old music to be honest.
I would like to wrap up with a series of questions I imagine you’re not usually asked in interviews. Just for a laugh really.
The first one is: if you had a time machine, which year would you travel to?
1932. That was just off the top of my head.
Why the past and not the future?
That’s a good question. I have always really wanted… actually, I changed my mind! Yeah, I want to go to 2030! See where I am in nine years’ time.
Let’s hope your career will no longer be rising, but rather fully established by then.
Hopefully, yeah. We hope so.
What is a film that always makes you laugh?
Probably “The Hangover”. [laughs] I don’t really watch that many funny films, but that was probably the last funny film that I watched.
What is a film that makes you cry?
Probably the one with Timothée Chalamet.
No. What’s the other one?
“Call Me By Your Name”?
Yeah, that made me cry. Actually, the Alexander McQueen documentary, that’s the last thing that really made me cry. It’s just called “McQueen” and it came out in 2018.
I’ll have to watch that one. Is there a song you love that you wish you had written?
You know what, there is always a song. There’s a Bill Withers’ song called “In My Heart”, that I really love. I would have liked to have written that.
My last question is: if you had to become an object for a year, what object would you choose?
[gasps] Definitely not a vase, because that can easily get broken!
[a few seconds of silence] I’m just looking around my room but there’s nothing in here that I want to be. [laughs] Maybe I’ll just be a flower.
And hope someone takes good care of you.