If British singer-songwriter Celeste isn’t already on your radar, chances are you’ll be her biggest fan by the end of the year. The 26-year-old artist was recently won BBC’s Sound of 2020, and took home the Brits’ Rising Star Award—a kind of barometer of future success (previous winners include Sam Smith, Haim, and Adele).
“I find those things really encouraging but I try not to let it go to my head too much,” Celeste told Vogue. “There’s still a lot more to do.”
Celeste is laying a bit of that groundwork with her new single “I Can See The Change,” produced by recent Grammy winner Finneas. Despite the video’s humble production—it was filmed during quarantine in Celeste’s living room (with the help of her flatmate) and directed by Sophie Jones via Zoom—the black-and-white clip is the singer’s most evocative visual to date. Channeling the old-school glamour of classic film noir, Celeste sings of her desire for change in many forms alongside footage from a 1963 Martin Luther King rally: “I can see the change / Come what may, I won’t regret today / I am what remains / Standing here in spite of everything.”
“The song was originally something quite personal to me in terms of what it was about, but it's taken on a new life with the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement,” she says. “It’s taken on a new meaning even for me.”
Taking a break from a recent recording session at Abbey Road Studios in London, where she’s currently at work on her debut album, Celeste spoke with Vogue about the inspiration behind her latest video.
What’s the story behind “I Can See The Change”?
“I Can See The Change” was one of three songs I wrote that I really liked on a recent LA trip in February. Half an hour before I had to leave for the airport to go back to London, I got in the car and went to the studio to finish the lyrics. My friend picked me up and we barely made our flight, but as soon as we got on the plane I felt so glad I was leaving L.A. with a finished song. That was the last thing I wrote before [the pandemic] but it still feels relevant to this moment in time.
How did Finneas get involved as a producer?
I met him and Billie [Eilish] when I performed at the BRIT Awards in February and talked to their mom backstage. I was getting my dress zipped up in the corridor, about to go perform, when they walked by and Billie said something like, “You're fucking sick!” Finneas and I had a brief encounter and just said hello, but later I sent him the demo to see if he wanted to work on it. He was up for it so we just started talking over text for hours over the course of a few days until we finished. He'd iMessage me with different sounds asking "Do you like this?" and I’d go “Yeah!” until we had the finished song.
How did that experience compare to making music in a traditional studio environment?
It pushed me because I think if I was in the studio with my band and engineer then we wouldn't have added the electronic synths and tones that Finneas brought to it. It went into more experimental territory for me as far as using sounds I'm usually too shy to dabble in.
How did you pull together a music video shoot in quarantine?
My housemate Holly and I did everything in our living room. We had everything delivered to the front door and set up all these drapes to black out the entire apartment. We started at 2 in the afternoon and finished shooting around 2 AM. Sophie Jones directed it on Zoom the whole time and we had a DOP [director of photography] who worked remotely and explained all the camera settings to Holly and how to adjust the lighting. She was pretty much everything rolled into one over this 12-hour shoot.
What inspired the visual concept?
Sophie and I wanted to do a video that was an homage to film noir and this style of ’60s TV performances that we were fond of. Sophie used to run through all the clubs in London snapping pictures of everyone in the crowd. We've been friends since then and she tends to take the photos that capture my character more than most others. I came to her and said I had this visual idea where I wanted to sing the song in what I think I described as a black abyss—an empty space that could be interpreted in different ways.Photo: Courtesy of Celeste
Can you tell me more about the gown and headdress you’re wearing?
I'm wearing a headdress by Susan Fang, who makes these beaded glass accessories I’ve been wearing a lot recently. The dress is by a designer called 16Arlington based in London. There’ve been so many different occasions where I've wanted to wear something of theirs and it just never felt right. This was a case where I saw a dress of theirs that was unique and simple with a sixties neckline that still had a sparkle to it, which is what we wanted so the light could pick it up.
Watching the video I got a lot of Josephine Baker vibes.
Absolutely and it’s funny you say that because at the BRIT Awards I wore a curl on my forehead how Josephine Baker used to wear her hair. But it wasn't just because I liked the way she looked, she’s such a remarkable woman who worked with the French resistance in World War II basically taking down the Nazis. She used to keep hand-written messages in her underwear and deliver them all over the world! It was an aesthetic choice and a hairstyle I like, but there was also a sort of message in it that inspired me at the time and while making this video.
Are the song and video a good representation of what we can expect from your debut later this year?
I'm still writing for my album because I've been given some extra time with the pandemic. I want it to have a contemporary appeal but I'd rather sound old-fashioned than too modern. I hope there are elements that resemble how this song ended up being finished, but I'm really better at communicating musical ideas with other humans in the room. The way I describe things isn't the way trained musicians do but a way that my band has learned to understand. I had a lot of songs ready for my album, but there was part of me that felt like I still had more to do. I feel blessed that I've got this time to really spend the next couple of months figuring out how I want to fill those gaps.
Watch the music video for “I Can See The Change” here: