A few hours out of her lockdown bubble and Celeste Waite is practically swinging from the chandeliers.
She’s up on the restaurant table of Kensington’s lavishly appointed Milestone Hotel in a gold embroidered dress and red feather boa, toying with the palatial light fittings, wondering whether they might hold her weight. Later, she’ll ride the porter’s luggage trolley through the foyer and lounge across a luxury leopard-print bed in a psychedelic azure outfit and shock wig, like the empress of the Blue Meanies.
Demure, modest and with her party days some years behind her, she’s on no wild rampage. But having dominion over a plush five-star boutique hotel for a photo shoot reflects the sort of opulence that 2020’s hottest new act might have expected in any normal year. In February, Celeste won the Brit Award for Rising Star, hot on the heels of winning the BBC’s Sound Of 2020 poll, the industry unanimous in celebration of her dusky, intimate soul and R&B, and a classically husky voice that has drawn breathless comparisons to Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Amy Winehouse. She’d been feted by Elton John, Billie Eilish and Michael Kiwanuka while fans the breadth of the internet were enthralled by the emotional devastation at the heart of songs such as ‘Strange’ and ‘Father’s Son’. Celeste’s parents were remarkably prescient when they gave her the middle name Epiphany.
Such acclaim would traditionally have marked her launch towards the upper echelons of international stardom — previous winners of her Brit award include Rag’n’Bone Man, Sam Smith and Adele. Yet, Covid-19 has made Celeste a phenomenon in stasis. Lockdown stymied the touring and festival plans for her breakout year, leaving her a socially distanced superstar in waiting.
‘I was wearing some interesting outfits around the supermarkets and around the house,’ she says, settling into a sofa in the book-lined drawing room in a trademark statement collar and black sheen jacket, a little apprehensive to be out in the world but as open as fans of her raw soul confessionals might expect. ‘Then I was like, “Oh, I’ve got nowhere to go!” It’s hard to tell at the moment what impact, good or bad, this year would’ve had on my career. I’ve just kept going so that next year I’m in a good position to go out and hopefully do all that stuff.’
In her Kensal Rise bubble, she had an ‘up and down’ lockdown. Initially coasting on her ‘overdrive’ momentum — ‘at the beginning of the year I felt I could do anything,’ she enthuses — she spent her time completing her debut album (due early 2021), cycling through a deserted Soho and performing remotely for online events such as Lady Gaga’s Together at Home. ‘You just don’t get the same rush that you get standing on a stage,’ she says. ‘I definitely found it difficult with my iPhone in front of me.’
She also proved that pandemic dating can be a success, firming up her fledgling pre-Covid relationship with poet and model Sonny Hall. Did they have to impetuously move in together? ‘Well,’ Celeste smiles with the mischievous warmth of a tempestuous bubble-breaker, ‘he just ended up being at mine the whole time…’
As the months dragged on, however, she began avoiding the news to allay her creeping anxiety and worrying for her fellow performers. What did she make of Rishi Sunak’s intimation that musicians could retrain for cyber? ‘I don’t really listen to that sort of authority anyway, so I wasn’t going to listen to that. If I’d listened to those people when I was younger, I wouldn’t be here today. My teacher said to me, “Simon Cowell isn’t going to come and knock on your door, Celeste, so don’t bother singing.” I thought, “I’m gonna do what I like.”’
Ironically, success seemed to stalk Celeste throughout her early life. Born on the outskirts of the Hollywood dream, her British make-up artist mother separated from her Jamaican father when she was three and moved her back to the UK to live with her grandparents and uncle in a colourful Dagenham neighbourhood where the next-door neighbour kept owls and pythons. Pulling up old pictures on her phone of her and her mother in matching pyjamas, she remembers this as an idyllic time, becoming enraptured by the ‘raw, naked emotion’ of the classic jazz and soul albums by Etta James, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin her grandfather would play in his cherry red Jaguar. ‘There’s nothing to hide there,’ she says, the honesty of those records set deep in her own musical identity.
Even as a child, her talent shone. Her earliest performances of Macy Gray’s ‘I Try’ impressed family and friends and, after she moved with her mother to Brighton, her singing won her a scholarship to a stage school aged 10. She quit after a year, almost put off performing for life. ‘There was a model they wanted me to fit into which I just wasn’t,’ she recalls. ‘I was very much my own person and they wanted you to have your hair slicked back in a bun, all wear the same thing and do the same dance every day. I thought, “I never wanna do this.”’
Living in Brighton opened Celeste’s eyes to a new world of liberal freedoms, whether running amok at Fatboy Slim’s raves on the beach or watching her mother at work in one of the first laser hair removal clinics, where the clientele was largely trans women in the early stages of transitioning. ‘I found it empowering and invigorating,’ she says, ‘seeing people feeling free to express themselves and become who they wanted to be definitely gave me that open-mindedness and freedom within myself.’ The experience made her a firm trans ally. ‘I don’t think there should be a debate. If people wanna be who they wanna be, let them be that. It upsets me that those people get persecuted… people that have that desire, it’s really damaging for them to not be able to live their true self.’
Her musical breakthrough, like her most celebrated songs, came shrouded in sadness. At 16, with her relationship with her father improving, she went to visit him in LA as he battled lung cancer. ‘It didn’t hit me until after that it was kind of a farewell,’ she says ruefully. ‘At the time I thought, “He’ll be fine then maybe I’ll get to spend more time with him and that will be the relationship starting back up again.”’ When he died soon afterwards, Celeste wrote her first song, ‘Sirens’, almost by accident, spewing words onto the page: ‘take me to the sirens’ went the chorus. ‘There’s a sense of grief and feeling that you need to be rescued out of that dark, sad place,’ she says, ‘and then this image of my dad being taken off in an ambulance and wanting to chase after.’
The song, posted online, caught the ear of a manager and proved her first big break. Was that fateful? ‘At the time I didn’t think that. I’d just made this thing that felt like, emotionally, something I needed to say. I followed my gut. I realised that music, for me, was catharsis. Like, I need to get this out because otherwise it’s making me feel unhappy or I’m dwelling on it too much.’
The impact of her father’s death made Celeste cut back on her college studies and focus on music, between stints daydreaming while working in a local Brighton pub about playing Carnegie Hall. In 2015 one of her tracks was picked up by Avicii, giving her a modest, if eye-opening, payday. ‘I felt like I was rich, but I wasn’t,’ she laughs. ‘I felt like I’d had a taste of some sort of life that was out there for me.’ Then, in 2016, she came to the attention of Lily Allen, who released her debut single, ‘Daydreaming’, on her Bank Holiday Records label. Suddenly the likes of Idris Elba, Riz Ahmed and Spike Lee were turning up to her club shows. ‘Spike was so lovely,’ she grins widely. ‘He asked for one of my vinyls and I gave him one, signed it and wrote my number and email on it. I heard a story about an actress, it might have been Rosie Perez, who’d done something similar and years later he called her up to be in his films. Still waiting!’ Since then, Celeste’s world has become a lot starrier. In 2018 Michael Kiwanuka saw her sing at a label showcase, convinced Polydor to sign her for last year’s Lately EP and became a ‘gentle, humble and grounding’ influence during the whirlwind to come. Elton John sang her praises on his Beats 1 radio show and she even randomly ran into a Rolling Stone. ‘I love Mick Jagger,’ she grins, ‘He was dancing in this bar I like to go to. He said he liked what I was doing.’
The uncensored vulnerability inherent in songs like last year’s sublime single ‘Strange’, crackling with the haunting emotion of Nina Simone (‘I was in a vulnerable place at the time, I wasn’t singing in my full voice because I was feeling like I wanted to hide’), evoke a smoky 1950s jazz club vibe, but her music speaks to the modern dilemma: introversion, isolation, injustice. ‘I Can See The Change’ and ‘Father’s Son’ — written as a conversation with her father — for instance, have taken on added significance in light of the BLM movement gaining momentum.
‘It’s been bubbling for a while,’ Celeste considers, ‘and I guess this action that was taken during the pandemic was something that was overdue. People seem surprised, which shocked me because we did this before and people listened and there was a change in the 1960s and 1970s. Things regressed slightly in a way that was a bit more hidden, but there was certain prejudice that still existed. It didn’t come as a surprise to me that people like me, people of colour, felt they needed to say something about it.’
As she becomes the toast of both the music and fashion cognoscenti — she also wowed the front row of Gucci’s Milan show in February — there’s an expectation that Celeste will not merely be a great voice of the roaring 2020s but an important one, too. Will she be able to cope with Adele-level fame and scrutiny?
‘People put celebrities on a pedestal,’ she says, ‘it’s like they’re these superhumans who look perfect all the time and they have this idyllic, godlike physique. But everyone’s the same. Any of those body positive messages [from stars like Billie Eilish] are good. Women say that to themselves every day in the mirror… but to get to the level that some of those stars are at you have to have thick skin anyway. I feel like the kind of person I am, I wouldn’t let it affect me or get to me. It’s not something that scares me.’
Pandemic or no pandemic, Celeste is ready to break out. Don’t sleep on that phone call, Spike.
Styled by Leah Abbott. Shot on location at The Milestone Hotel.
‘Little Runaway’ and ‘Hear My Voice’ are out now