Last week, we embarked on the road back to live performances and interviews at KCRW with the great Celeste. The soulful singer gave an exclusive lunchtime performance on Zoom and talked with KCRW members and staff about her journey as a young artist.
If you’ve seen “Trial of the Chicago 7,” you’ve heard Celeste’s standout song “Hear My Voice,” which is nominated for Best Original Song at this month’s Oscars. She also recorded two other original songs for that soundtrack.
But she’s been up to a whole lot more, including releasing her debut studio album “Not Your Muse” earlier this year. Alongside critical acclaim, the record made Celeste the first British female artist in five years to have a number one debut album on the U.K. Albums Chart.
The record is a top-to-bottom knockout work of soul, R&B, and jazz that features sharp, deeply personal songwriting that’s as powerful as her voice.
KCRW: The first song that you play for our live session is “Love Is Back.” It's the fourth single from your album, sort of an instant classic. To me, this song really embodies your style and your songwriting spirit. Tell us a little bit about how it came to be.
Celeste: “I wrote this song about two-and-a-half years ago now. And I was in a studio, which is called the Church in North London, in a place called Crouch Hill. And I was actually recording the drums for “Stop this Flame.” And whilst the engineer was setting up everything and all the microphones, Jamie Hartman, who's a writer that I work with a lot, he came up to me, and was like, ‘Last night, my daughter Ettie came and tapped me on the leg and said, ‘Daddy, daddy, I thought of a song title.”’
And he thought it would be something silly. And she was like, ‘Love Is Back.’ And then he was like, ‘That's brilliant.’ And then the next day, he told me, and we went to this back room whilst they were setting up all the recording stuff, and then we wrote this song. I guess it just came from over time accumulating a pattern with men of just going for the types that aren't necessarily any good.”
I don’t think you’re alone in that. Did you record the whole album in that same church?
“No, in the end, actually, I recorded the album in a studio in northwest London, which is like five minutes away from where I live. And it used to be an old chemical factory, actually, that's converted into a studio. But it definitely had some spiritism around. It was a really exciting place to be in. It was one of the first studios I've been to where I actually felt like I could settle into it as a sort of second home for a long period of time. So I just stayed there, really.”
There’s a line on your song “Ideal Woman” that says, “Please don't mistake me for somebody who cares.” Tell us about it.
“There's kind of two meanings to that line in particular, and one that somebody else gave me clarity on, which is kind of the most buried version of what it's about. But I think, at the time, when I came up with that lyric, it was kind of a guardedness, where it's like, you don't want to come across like you care too much to not get hurt. But at the time that I was writing it, I didn't necessarily realize it was that, or interpret it as that. But that's definitely how I see it now.
This song just came out naturally in the room, as though I was having a conversation with a friend. And in the moment that I was having those realizations, it was kind of there on the recording. Because I usually just turn the microphone on in the room, and then just sort of sing whatever comes out of my mouth and out of my head. And that was one of those moments. And actually, the version that's on the album is the original demo sketch kind of thing, but it just has the right feeling to it.”
There's just something very present about it. And you also, in that song, talk about “heaven in my head.”
“It's kind of about saying to people that we shouldn't have this idyllic or ideal view of what we think a woman should hold or present, or even represent. Instead, we should just accept them for who they are. And whether that is flawed, which of course everybody is, accept the good and the bad and embrace it, rather than try to change it, basically.”
That also bounces off the title of your album, “Not Your Muse.” There's a song with that title, but the title of the album really seems to dovetail out of that. That seems to be a through line. Is that true?
“It was kind of me finding a way to say to the people that perhaps had tried to mold me and quite heavily suggest that I should be something that I wasn't naturally, ‘Hands off, and trust me and what I'm doing. And perhaps if you allow me to follow my heart, and you follow it too, then actually, you'll get the best results.’
That's why I like the first lyric of the song. That's what that means, where it says, ‘It could mean your silence with my heart the word.’ It's saying to allow ourselves that full-out intuition and not dread or heavily constrict everything, to control things in the hope that we get this amazing result. And instead, just let things be a little.”
Tell us how you did that in your life. Because you didn't quite take to going to school and being told how to be as an artist.
“I think I've just always been like that. Ever since I was a child, I've had quite a strong idea of who I am and who I want to be. And it has always come out in different ways. In adulthood and in my career now, and as a part of the music industry, I think more than telling people how you want it to be, because you could repeat yourself so many times and still no one listens, you kind of just have to show people.
And I think that takes quite a lot of strength. And you have to have your head really screwed on and know what you want to do in order to push through to show people. I've definitely found that's been my way of communicating, rather than trying to get my own way in a more heavy handed or throwing-a-tantrum kind of thing.”
You were very focused or adamant about the kind of music that moved you. A lot of it was from your mom's record collection or your grandparents.’ What was that music, and what about it spoke to you?
“From about the age of 3 was my first and earliest musical memory, which was spending a lot of time with my granddad, who's about 80 years old now. He loved Aretha Franklin and Sarah Vaughan. Even the other day, I was listening to Dinah Washington with him in the car. And I think that even though he's actually a very quiet man, you can tell there's a lot going on in his mind. And I guess he then took to this music and listened to this music to find some emotion that he could understand, but perhaps he couldn't express himself with. Maybe that's the understanding I've come to as I've gotten older, and knowing him a bit better.
And I guess the reason why I found myself so drawn to that at such a young age was that it was the thing that really brought me together with adults in my life as an only child, as well. It was the common ground. And it was the time where I saw adults animated and vigorous, and that's what made me then want to listen to it more and know who these people were.
The first thing he showed me was Aretha Franklin. And the second was Nina Simone. What I was drawn to in both of those singers was just their full pelt, kind of no holding back. Aretha, in terms of her vocal delivery, but then Nina Simone in both that and her writing, and just how the emotion travels with the writing and vocal delivery. I just felt there was so much raw emotion in that, and very much uncensored, especially from Nina Simone.
And so I've learned a lot from continuing to listen to those people, not just in the way of wanting to take inspiration from how they write and the sounds of their music, but also what they stood for and what they stand for, and how that holds relevance even today.”
You can feel that in your song “Hear My Voice.” Did you write that song for the film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7?” Or did that film come to you wanting to use that song?
“We wrote the song for the film. It was kind of a funny process because I'd never met Aaron Sorkin before, the director. And Daniel Pemberton, who I wrote the song with, I hadn't met him either. And he reached out to me during the pandemic, the spring of last year. I was in my room where I'm sitting now. And he just asked me to start sending him ideas. And we started sending stuff back and forth. I recorded most of it from my room and in my house, downstairs and stuff. And so I really didn't expect at all that it would lead to now being nominated for an Academy Award.
Actually, I think they had a Beatles song lined up for the closing credits originally. And when they played the music to the picture, it just didn't have the payoff that they wanted, even though obviously the Beatles are amazing. And luckily, Daniel and myself had been secretly writing this behind the scenes. But there was definitely a part of me that kind of knew that the director wasn't aware that I was involved. When I was at home, I was thinking like, ‘Is this ever gonna go anywhere?’ And now it's even more to my amazement all the things that are happening as a result of it being out there.”
How did the pandemic affect your writing, recording, and chronology of the album? Did it start during or before?
“From around the end of 2018 and then into 2019 was when I did the bulk of the writing for this particular album. And it was one of those things where, during 2019, I started playing so many more shows than I expected that then the writing was kind of second fiddle to getting myself out there. And so I'd find that I would then go to the studio for a month here and a month there.
So although it's kind of tracking my evolution and my own journey in my personal life, there are definitely bits that are missed where I just couldn't get to the studio for the time where I had this feeling or this idea. There are definitely points where it feels really post adolescent, where I was writing close to my early 20s. And then there are points where I've come to be at 26, which are the songs like “Ideal Woman,” and “Not Your Muse,” and even “The Promise,” where I've realized what those instances or interactions really mean.
In the pandemic, I just got to spend so much time at home listening to music. And one of the ideas that I'd started writing about two-and-a-half or three years ago was the chorus for “Not Your Muse.” It had been one of these songs that had always been niggling away at me, because I'd wanted to complete the verses so badly, for so long, and I tried so many times. But I think I just hadn't had the experience to write about what I wanted to write about so badly. And so I had some time.
I remember just sitting in my room one day, in the summer, looking out my window, and I had time to myself, and I thought, ‘I'm going to just do it. Today, I'm going to make sure I just do it.’ And I started writing down the lyrics. And it came together in the ways I wanted to, in terms of linking what I'd always hoped for in imagery in the song and the emotional narrative of it.
I definitely felt a sense of empowerment in completing that, which then helped me a great deal to go into the studio in September of last year, when we were finally allowed to go back in, and have a lot more clarity over where I stood in that process and what I wanted it to actually come out like. Here in the U.K., I'd begun to reach a lot more people and gather a lot more attention around my music, and all of a sudden now there was this rush to finish an album.
Which, when we were at the point in 2019 of playing shows, we didn't imagine it would come out for another two-and-a-half years, really. Then there was this urgency to complete something. So I was quite blessed, in a way, that I was then graced with that extra three or four months to just try to put it into an order that felt closer to what I really wanted it to be.”
- Love Is Back
- Tell Me Something I Don’t Know
- Ideal Women
- A kiss
- Hear my Voice