Celeste, a Young Singer with an Old Soul, Makes Her Move

Rob Tannenbaum (The New York Times) writes about British-Jamaican singer, Celeste Epiphany Waite, and her new album Not Your Muse. [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

The best way to learn about Celeste, the rising British soul singer and songwriter with a gift for channeling earlier eras, is to ask about her songs.

Take “Ideal Woman,” the opening track on her first major-label album, “Not Your Muse,” which was released last Friday. In it, she sings, “Please don’t mistake me for somebody who cares” with a husky, jazzy sang-froid that calls to mind Billie Holiday. The lyrics reflect ongoing insecurities she’s had in relationships. “I would always think, maybe boys don’t like me because I’m too tall,” she said evenly during a recent video interview. “Or maybe it’s because I’m mixed race. Or maybe they don’t like me because I’m outspoken. My mom was like, ‘You’re just too beautiful — they’re intimidated.’”

Celeste, who’s six feet tall, laughed. “I knew that wasn’t the answer I was looking for.”

In “Ideal Woman,” she’s processed those insecurities and accepted that tall, mixed race and outspoken “is just who I am, and I can live with that.” She’s trying to talk herself into being someone who doesn’t care, because caring is painful, she said.

Celeste Epiphany Waite, 26, is a thoughtful, unaffected British-Jamaican woman who has dazzled people with her singing since her first professional gig, at a basement bar 50 yards from the pier in Brighton, where she grew up. She sang Paul Weller’s “Wild Wood” and “Worried About You” by the Rolling Stones. “Not many people my age were listening to that music, but I just liked it,” she said during the conversation from London, gesturing often with her hands, smiling readily and averting her gaze when discussing some difficult details of her life.

Like a lot of 20 somethings, Celeste loves hip-hop, especially Tyler, the Creator, ASAP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar, whose 2016 album “Untitled Unmastered” served as a template for the kind of music she wanted to make, the sounds she’d imagined but couldn’t fully describe. But hip-hop isn’t evident anywhere on “Not Your Muse.” Like many people who are considered “old souls” when they’re young, Celeste loves music (and fashion) from previous generations. In addition to Billie Holiday, there are echoes of Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt and Amy Winehouse in her music, which can veer from “Stop This Flame,” a funky, jittering tale of romantic determination, to “Strange (Edit),” a showstopping ballad that lingers over romantic despondency.

Buzz around Celeste’s sound has been growing in the past few months. The TV host James Corden tweeted his praise (“I dare you not to love her”) and Elton John raved about her while adding two of her songs to his personal playlist on Apple Music. She won a few rising-artist awards in Britain, and made two sensational live TV appearances, including a showcase spot at the BRIT Awards. On Sunday, her rendition of the lullaby “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” will appear in a Super Bowl ad for Inspiration4, an all-civilian charity space mission, and then released as a single. On Wednesday, her song “Hear My Voice” from “The Trial of the Chicago 7” was nominated for a Golden Globe. [. . .]

So imagine the surprise when “Little Runaway” didn’t crack the British singles chart. “We were all head-scratching at that point,” Hartman said. “There was a two- or three-month period when it all kind of went wobbly.”

Hartman said that Celeste’s British label considered releasing a six-song EP instead. Confidence in her talent eventually straightened out the wobbles. But the modest success of “Little Runaway” revived conversations about British soul music and race. “Especially from the U.K., we seem to export soul very well in a white format,” he said, mentioning Adele, Amy Winehouse, the Scottish singer Lewis Capaldi and Sam Smith.

This fact hasn’t escaped Celeste’s notice, either: “The origins of blues are work songs — literally Black people working on plantations as slaves,” she told The Guardian. “Why aren’t more Black women able to succeed or be visible in a genre that they’re at the origin of?” [. . .]

[Photo above: Celeste’s “Not Your Muse,” her debut major-label album, channels earlier eras. Credit: Adama Jalloh for The New York Times.] For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/03/arts/music/celeste-not-your-muse.html

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