In the British soul scene, the balance between credibility and popularity has been a tough one to strike…
Culturally, we’ve always played second fiddle to America – the true hotbed of the genre – despite sharing the need for music that fits both protest and celebration.
Artists who stuck to the genre were generally ignored in the mainstream for a while, and those who broke through the glass ceiling – Soul II Soul, Beverley Knight, Amy Winehouse – didn’t necessarily have the longevity their talent deserved.
Finally, British soul may have found itself a new face.
26-year-old Celeste Epiphany Waite has been releasing singles and EPs for a few years now, but with her debut album Not Your Muse, she offers audiences the first substantial taste of her talent.
Raised in the outskirts of Brighton, Celeste developed an appreciation for classic American soul – Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday, amongst others – in her youth, before seriously pursuing music at A-Level.
After being noticed at performances across London, her first single, Daydreaming, gained acclaim when released in 2016 under Lily Allen’s Bank Holiday Records label.
Several singles and two EPs followed, and the work ethic that saw Celeste’s star rise reached new levels in 2020.
If you were a music fan and hadn’t already heard the hype, then a BBC Music ‘Sound of 2020’ title and the ‘Rising Star’ award at the 2020 Brit Awards would’ve grabbed your attention.
If you were a sports fan, then you certainly would’ve heard hit single Stop This Flame; it serves as the soundtrack to Sky Sports’ Premier League coverage.
If you were amongst those of us who spent the year hoovering up content on streaming platforms, then you may have heard Celeste feature on soundtracks to Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Disney’s widely-acclaimed Soul.
That is without mentioning the attention that befalls anyone who sprinkles some stardust into John Lewis’ annual Christmas ad frenzy, with A Little Love becoming the first original song written for that purpose and a significant testament to Celeste’s talent.
As such, the hype was significant, and fortunately, Not Your Muse delivers.
Across what could’ve been a lengthy 44 minutes, the album makes a big mark; distilling a wide range of influences and ideas into one cohesive statement, and largely succeeding at being economical.
The largest theme that strikes the listener is strength in oneself and one’s convictions, and across different stories of acceptance and rejection in love, we learn a lot about the woman behind the microphone.
One of the reasons Celeste’s star has risen so quickly is her vocal ability; a major factor to television and radio audiences when you only have three minutes to impress.
Those vocals are constantly impressive here, with the versatility to handle styles ranging from contemporary pop to swing, and sitting with equal perfection against slow piano melodies as the backing of some indulgent saxophone.
Setting out an acceptance of imperfection, opener Ideal Woman is a powerful start, backed up well by the storytelling of Strange, which evokes the raw emotion of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, albeit without the same political comment.
After Stop This Flame picks up the tempo, we are guided into a triple-whammy that makes the album great.
Title track Not Your Muse is, quite simply, beautiful, guided only by some barely-there guitar and percussion, and evocative of a night at the most tranquil jazz club imaginable.
On Beloved, there are nostalgic, bossa nova-inspired instrumentals and vocals that pay some homage to the Tony Bennett/Bobby Vinton classic Blue Velvet, creating a wonderfully measured performance.
Then we come to Love Is Back, and the album hits full stride. The lyrics drip with confidence – ‘For a moment there it goes / Turn around, next thing you know, Love is Back’ – and when lifted by lush, glittery production, the performance is truly standout.
If you’re going to hear any section of the album, that should be the one you go for. Two more entries are notable; A Kiss purely for the best vocal performance on the album, and Some Goodbyes Come with Hellos as what may become a classic album-closer.
Some moments do get lost in amongst such memorable highs, and this is understandable, certainly as the first release on this scale from Celeste.
Not Your Muse is a mission statement though, and hopefully, one that garners the attention of high-quality collaborators; the punchiness and honesty featured here need to be pushed to the fore for more success to follow.
We should have little doubt in that happening though, and with more music on the way – from Celeste and others – it’s an incredibly exciting time for British soul.
Not Your Muse is out now in all formats, with a deluxe version available to stream on Spotify
By Will Hugall
Feature Image Credit: Universal Music Operations