CELESTE IN LONDON, FEBRUARY 2017. PHOTOS: LAUREN MACCABEE. STYLING: RACHEL CAULFIELD. HAIR: SVEN BAYERBACH FOR CAROL HAYES MANAGEMENT USING BUMBLE & BUMBLE. MAKEUP: LYZ MARSDEN FOR CAREN AGENCY USING NARS COSMETICS.
For Celeste, making a good song comes down to honesty. She emphasizes being vulnerable, true to the “real story,” whatever that may be to you. It’s a clear-eyed approach that’s felt in her lyrics, and becomes transporting with her deep, soulful voice. “I think the main thing is you have to be living,” she says matter-of-factly over the phone from Brighton, England. “You have to do what you usually [do]. If it’s going out with your friends and having a romance or…sometimes terrible things happen, but that is just life in itself, and then it’s always engaging with that emotion.”
Celeste’s first song stumbled out at age 16 when she “accidentally” wrote it with her former bandmates. It was that very track that was found online by her current manager, who urged her to take professional writing classes while she completed her studies. She says that at age 18, when she started working in the studio after graduating, things changed. “I started writing songs a bit more seriously, thinking, ‘Okay, I could do something with this now,'” she says. “That was the real beginning of writing for me.”
Now, at age 22, she’s signed to Lily Allen‘s Bank Holiday Records, was named one of Annie Mac’s “New Names” (marking her first radio play in December 2016 on BBC Radio 1), and below, we’re pleased to premiere “Milk & Honey,” the title track of her debut EP, which will be released March 10. It sees her longing for a place that’s more an idea than somewhere attainable, and speaks of what’s to come: deft, poetic storytelling; commanding vocals; and a generous spirit.
FULL NAME: Celeste Waite.
BORN: Los Angeles, California. I originally left L.A. when I was three years old. I was with my mother, obviously. Where my mum’s from is an area just on the outskirts of London, so we moved back there at first, and then we came to Brighton when I was five years old.
BASED: I live in Brighton, which is an hour away from London on the train. It’s funny, because it’s such a good place to grow up when you’re a teenager because it is quite safe, really, so you can do all of that underage clubbing and go out when you’re 16. But by the time you get to 20, or even 18, you want more. It feels like quite a small place once you’ve lived here for a while, but the good thing about it is I’ve always felt free to just create and do what I want. There’s not real pressure to fit in and be something that you’re not. It’s always that you could do what you wanted to, in a good way.
I think I really want to move to London, mainly because now I want to spend time in the studio more and I have, over the last few years, been traveling back and forth to London. I’ve made groups of friends there, so it feels like the natural thing to want to be there. But I think Brighton is always a place that I’ll come back to because it does feel really nice sometimes; when you’ve been feeling shitty then you come back and you can be near the ocean. There’s not a time of day where everyone’s rushing around because it’s not that kind of place.
LOCATING THE LAND OF MILK & HONEY: I think this is something I realized after I wrote the song: Growing up, my mum would always tell stories, bedtime stories, that would be like, “There once was a girl named Celeste Epiphany in the land of the milk and the honey.” So that was probably always in the back of my mind, and when it got to being in the studio that day, there’d been loads of things that I was thinking about. I was born in America, so I think there’s always this want to be there, as well, because I have a whole side of my family there. So it’s not necessarily an exact place, the milk and the honey, but it’s an equation of all the places where I want to go to. Originally, when I wrote it, it felt like it was about an ultimate place of either happiness or success, so a lot of it touches on material wealth and love and stuff like that. Milk and honey over here can relate to money in the rhyming slang, and my background—my mom is Cockney, one side of my family is like that, so I think it came from that a bit. It was an amalgamation of everything that was swirling around in my head that day.
When I wrote the song, I’d been writing for a couple years and I’d written a lot of songs that I like, but when I finished that one, even though it’s not necessarily a huge song where I’m belting out the chorus or anything, it felt like the most significant one to me at the time.
PEN TO PAGE: I always try to spend time listening to the music that inspires me so it’s there in the back of my mind. Then when I go to the studio, I usually have one or two people that will be playing some piano and starting to produce the beat, and I’ll see what melodies come to me, just come into my head, and I’ll sing them out loud. I usually voice record that, the very beginning of the session, and I listen to the voice recorded back and see what kind of words it sounds like I’m saying, and then I might have an idea in the back of my mind of where I want the song to go; I’ll put the pieces together like that. Sometimes, it can be really quick. You could write something in, like, half an hour and it’s your favorite song. I remember when I wrote “Chocolate,” I’d spent two days in a session writing another song, and I finished that song and it seemed like that took ages to write and finish. At the end of the second day, the producer played this beat and within 10 minutes, we had the first verse and the chorus, so I put it on the mic; that’s how it can happen sometimes as well. That’s obviously one of my favorite songs, but there are a few songs that I like just as much that have taken more time.
PRESSING PLAY: I’m quite shy with stuff like that. I have a small team of people around me that hear my music when it’s just being finished. [My producers] Tev’n and JD. Reid, I really trust their opinions. Mostly I want them to think it’s good. But then there are a couple of my friends, literally two or three, that I’ll be like, “Do you want to hear this?” If we’re in the car or something. It’ll make me feel really shy to show it to them, but there are a few ones where I really value their opinions and I’m like, “I’ve got to play it to you.”
MUM, NAN, AND GRANDAD: My mum looked after me from three years old by herself. She’s a makeup artist, so she was working away for a few days at a time, then coming back. When she was away, I’d be at my nan and grandad’s house and [theirs] was the first music that I heard, really, from a really young age. Just because of their age, it tended to be those classic singers like Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and things like that. Naturally, then, as I got older, I got used to that music falling upon my ears, and it not really seeming like a thing. When I first heard it, when I was younger, it was amazing to me, but then to grow older, it seemed to me like there’d be no other music that I would like [in that way].
My mum is funny because she’s not musical at all, but she loves music and she’s always singing weird versions of how she thinks the song goes around the house. When I grew up, I found it really interesting, her weird off-kilter, off notes, the way she would sing certain things. The whole thing is unrecognizable! [laughs] I’d be like, “What are you singing?” But I think maybe in my head, it painted this picture of how I could then make my own versions of songs that I really liked. As I got older, I had more time to go and buy my own tapes, then CDs, then all of us would be on iPods. That’s when I started listening to more than just different hip-hop, because I really liked their producers. Then I started collecting quite a lot of vinyl, so I tried to shop at the thrift shops, and that’s an ongoing thing.
A DISCOVERY: I was born in California, and my dad lived there, but he passed away when I was about 16. When I was 21, I went to his house and his mum had left all of his belongings still in his room, so I remember going there and finding this wardrobe full of vinyl, and thinking, “Oh my god!” and trying to fit as much of it in my hand luggage as possible coming home. [laughs] I’m still getting through all of those. I’m trying to listen to each one because it might be that I sample it, because it’s something I’ve never heard before, and sometimes I might hear a song and think, “Wow, that’s something I’d like to write—something like that.”
HEARING HERSELF ON THE RADIO: It was just before Christmas. That was really great. Obviously, you always want to get your stuff on the radio. When I first started writing music, I wanted to get on the radio, but I also wanted to make music that I like without thinking too much about, “I wonder whether they’ll play this.” So it felt really good that they played something that was an honest song that I liked making and enjoyed making. When I heard it was coming on, I think I actually got dressed up in my house to listen to it, even though no one could see me. [laughs] I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to listen to this!” So that was really, really cool. Hopefully we’ll hear it more.
A POST-EP TREAT: I can’t even remember what day it was [that we wrapped recording]; I should probably have written it down in a diary or something. But I remember ordering this really nice takeaway at the very end of the night that I’d wanted. It’s round the corner from the studio and I remember thinking, “I’m not just going to order it any time. I’m going to have it when the whole thing is finished as a treat.” It was so silly! [laughs] It’s chicken, but they do this really nice honey dip and the honey, oh my god, it’s so nice, and that was the main reason why I got it. But it felt like, “Oh, it’s all finished.”
INSPIRATIONS: I did, obviously, like probably a lot of people in 2016, really like the Solange album [A Seat at the Table]. I listened to that a lot. Even when I was a teenager, I remember she had songs like “T.O.N.Y.” and I decided, from her first couple of albums, that I really, really liked those songs. They were always early references for me, when I was a teenager, because I felt like she probably came from a similar place in the music she grew up listening to, and I felt like she really delivered her songs well in terms of that blend of having those as your inspiration but then trying to bring it up today. I thought the Solange album was a really great example of that; it was probably one of my favorite ways of hearing that and hearing the subtle references in how she thinks.
When I was younger, I used to listen to a lot of blues music and recently I’ve been going back to listening to some of those singers, like Koko Taylor, and she’s great because even though the words and the lyrics aren’t necessarily things that I would say in 2017, the ideas are there. Learning from those people, there’s a wealth in their music, so I try to listen to it as much as possible.
FROM THE START: I remember always singing songs when I was younger, and my mum’s friends being like, “She’s actually got a really good voice!” And being seven you think, “Oh, they’re just being nice because they’re my mum’s friends.” But I remember, when I was about nine, I used to dance every weekend at this stage school; I used to go there every Saturday for ballet classes. I remember I was singing in the corridor, and one of the teachers heard it and they spoke to my mum about it, and they said I could have a scholarship at the school if I wanted to go there. Pretty much straight after they offered me that, I started going to school there, and I had a singing teacher. I think her name was Miss Ross or something. She was speaking to my mum like, “Celeste’s got a really nice tone to her voice. This is really interesting.” But I only stayed at the school for about a year. I think it was quite expensive even with the scholarship. And the kind of attitude of that stage school thing didn’t really suit me because I felt like, in that situation, in that particular school, it was like they wanted to turn everybody in the school to be a certain way that was very similar to each other. Whereas, growing up, I always felt like I really knew myself and what I wanted to be like, and I remember them telling us all to smile in the same way and stuff like that, and just thinking, “No, this is not for me.” Then going back to my normal state school, which is the normal free school, and really enjoying it again, seeing all my friends. Music was always something that stayed with me, and I just had to work out how I was going to do something in music. I always knew I wanted to do something to do with music.