True Panther Presents: Celeste
Brooklyn, NY, 11211
Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM
This event is 18 and over
There's a quiet softness to Celeste that makes you feel instantly relaxed by her presence. The track 'Both Sides Of The Moon' subtly introduced her voice last year; one oozing with sophisticated, undeniable soul. Her voice has that natural ease that seems to just escape her throat, but contains so much detail, so many stories, such complex personal histories. For a 24-year-old, it's staggering how much she shares with the greats, both modern and old: Amy, Etta, Ella, Otis, etc. Like their voices, hers doesn't belong to a specific time or place, and yet it's always welcome. It's always needed.
From her bedroom in West London, she talks about where her voice and perspective came from, and she does so at length. Celeste can talk for Britain. She grew up in Brighton but she was born in Los Angeles. “It's an odd and long story,” she laughs, remembering the tiniest fractions of sensory memory as she paints scenes from her young life.
Celeste is mixed race. Her mum is from Dagenham, and her dad is from Jamaica, and both of them wound up wherever the wind would blow. Her mum is a former raver, who went to beauty school in London and wound up working in LA via Hong Kong as a makeup artist. That's where she met her dad, who had moved to the States to be with his mum while she was studying at university there. He returned to America after a stint in the UK where he had married and had kids. After the divorce he met Celeste's mum in a whirlwind romance. They broke up when she was young. When her mum was pregnant she returned to the UK to visit, realised her US visa was expired and flew to Mexico to be smuggled back into LA by her paternal grandmother. Celeste was born soon after.
At the age of three, Celeste moved back to Dagenham with her mum and lived with her grandparents until she was six. Her granddad was the one who'd expose her to music. “The first singer I remember hearing was Aretha Franklin,” she recalls, offering details of hearing a cassette in her granddad's old Jaguar. “He could tell I liked it and played 24 more of her songs.” They'd listen to tapes of Aretha and Ella Fitzgerald on repeat. On a trip to Romford Market she discovered Otis Redding when she was buying a gift for her granddad. She didn't realise it back then but there was something in the raw emotion of those singers that she connected with. “In my songwriting I'm far more inspired by heartbreak,” she says. “There's a darkness even though some songs are underlined with optimism. Those moments were far more thought-provoking for me.”
She and her mum moved to Brighton when she was six. At school she made friends quickly, but more importantly she found herself struck by the compulsory church hymns, even though she wasn't religious. “I loved singing them and hearing everyone's voices blend together.” Even now she's obsessed with choirs and religious iconography, but at the time it was her first vehicle for communal singing. She remembers her first music teacher – down to her colour of stockings. “There was so much freedom in that class compared to others,” she recalls. “I looked forward to it.” The seeds were being sowed but it wasn't until Celeste was in her mid-teens that she started basing life decisions upon her love for music, deliberating over university versus pursuing a career as an artist. Her time at college had been testy and coincided with her dad's death.
“I'd never experienced that heartbreak in my life,” she says, revealing that she kept it more or less secret. “I was brought up to be optimistic. My outlook was positive in terms of the unpredictable nature of life. It shocked me and affected my confidence in the world and I became anxious for a year.” She stopped turning up to class, she stopped hanging out with her friends. She wouldn't leave the house. She nearly got kicked out of school. After she plodded through that difficult year she felt a new sense of purpose, and a strong desire to use the opportunity of college as a means for self-discovery. At the age of 18 she'd befriended a group of young talented local boys. They'd meet up at “Sean's house” and gather around a tiny bedroom with their instruments, playing soul, funk and jazz. Celeste would sing. She'd never performed for people before. They'd rehearse covers of Sly And The Family Stone, The Clash, The Specials, The Moody Blues, Alice Coltrane, Janice Joplin, Thelonius Monk and Ray Charles, turning each other on to classic discoveries.
Eventually she began to write original material with the boys. “The more time I spent playing music with my friends and doing shows the more I wanted to do it as a career,” she says. Her first show was a heady cocktail of nerves and adrenaline. “The feeling overpowers you,” she laughs. “It seemed to work for me. It gave me a hunger.” Without any industry nous or contacts she just did what came naturally to her. “I had an instinct towards what I should do to get where I wanted to be.” She posted a blurry video of her and the boys jamming in the garden and her first manager stumbled across it. He booked her writing sessions with credible songwriters in London. For two years, she'd jostle working in pubs in Brighton with staying with friends in London for half the week, taking sessions, finding her sound, etching out several EPs on her way to signing with a major.
“I understand my sound and how I want me to be perceived as an artist. Realising that making music isn't just about singing, it's about having something to say,” she says now. The journey was long but there was always a little light whenever things got too dark. The music she's making and releasing now feels rooted in pain. Last year's single 'Lately' is inspired by her mother's tumultuous relationship with her partner, who Celeste has lived with since she was 10. It's an observational song about wanting change, about struggling to get out of bed, about being in denial. “I'm not a dramatic person at all but small things affect people in a huge way,” she says. “For me, significant things jerk me or make me overthink and inspire me to write.”
On the song 'My Father's Son' she plays with gender as a means of coining a universal anthem for those left searching for explanations for their behaviour. Celeste herself ruminates on the questions she has left unanswered now she walks through life with only one parent. Her father passed away from cancer when she was 16. “I heard it's in your blood baby,” she sings. “I heard you got the same taste in your mouth.” She explains it by way of example of a guy friend, who is a womaniser and has been told that his dad used to be similar. It's not an excuse for your actions, but it's perhaps a respite from the searching and the self-loathing that comes with figuring out your brain. “My mother has covered so much in my life but there were points where I thought it would be cool to ask my dad this one question,” she says.
The inspiration came as she was walking home from the pub after watching footie with her mates. She'd been contemplating writing a song for her dad, but didn't want it to be feel like a memorial. She saw “father's son” graffiti'd on a wall and the idea struck her because she was never afforded the chance to be a daddy's girl. That honesty is key to her relatability. “I'd like people to see me as approachable,” she nods.
In terms of her own inspirations, Celeste cites Frank Ocean as a songwriter who presents endless dimensions to their sound. Beyond Ocean, it's everyday scenarios that form her muse. “I'm in a position where I'm fortunate to do the thing I want. My life feels quite easy,” she says, offering that she's energised by everyone else caught up in the general rigmarole. “I admire people who do regular jobs,” she smiles. “Waiters or people that drive the bus I get. They get up every day at the same time and they don't want to but they have to.” It's Celeste's ability to see the full picture that breeds her intimate portraits. Her voice speaks to our innermost worries with outermost strength.