British-Jamaican soul singer Celeste has won BBC Music’s Sound of 2020, which is given to artists who are tipped for success in the coming year.
The 25-year-old’s entrancing voice and jazz-steeped songs made her the runaway winner, after votes were counted from 170 music critics and industry figures.
She joins the likes of Adele, Haim and Ellie Goulding, who have all topped the Sound Of… list in previous years.
Indie band Easy Life came second, while pop-punk firebrand Yungblud was third.
“I’m really, really happy,” Celeste said, after being told she’d won. “It’s like all of the work that went in throughout the [last] year wasn’t invisible.
“I can’t wait now to see what the rest of the year will look like. I’m so thrilled and so excited. I can’t wait.”
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Brighton, Celeste Waites started making music as a teenager, while working in pubs and charity shops to make ends meet.
She wrote her first song, Sirens, at the age of 17, in tribute to her Jamaican father, who had died of lung cancer a year earlier. The track was uploaded to YouTube, where it got the attention of her manager – but success was still a long way off.
Three years ago, the singer moved to London with just £100 in her pocket; but got fired because she kept skipping work to write songs.
“I’d rather call in sick and go to the studio than have the money for that month,” she tells the BBC, “and there was a couple of months where I was like, ‘What am I going to do?'”
Luckily, unemployment coincided with Celeste’s discovery – first by Lily Allen’s label Bank Holiday Records, which released her first EP, and later by Polydor, who signed her in 2018.
Since then, she’s supported Janelle Monáe, Neneh Cherry and Sound of 2012 winner Michael Kiwanuka on tour. Fellow soul singer Jorja Smith recently described Celeste as “incredible, stunning, everything”.
Selected winners and nominees
200350 Cent, Electric Six, Dizzee Rascal
2008Adele, Vampire Weekend, MGMT
2011Jessie J, James Blake, Anna Calvi
2015Years & Years, Stormzy, Wolf Alice
2018Sigrid, Khalid, Billie Eilish
“Celeste is a phenomenal talent, a voice that does not come around often and when you are exposed to it, is impossible to ignore,” said Radio 1’s Annie Mac, who has supported the singer on her show.
“I have received countless emotional texts from listeners who have had to sit in their car and lose themselves to her song Strange before carrying on with their evening. Her songwriting is personal and poignant but with universal appeal.
Celeste’s victory in the BBC Sound Of 2020 follows similar accolades from the Brits, where she received the rising star award, and BBC Music Introducing, who named her their artist of the year – but she says awards have never been the goal.
“When I write music I never think about whether anybody wants to listen to it,” she explains. “I just keep pushing myself in all these different ways where eventually, hopefully, I’ve made something distinct that can be enjoyed by other people.”
Read the full interview below.
Congratulations on winning the Sound Of 2020. How does it feel?
There’s an element of heightened expectation, potentially. You really want to make sure you live up to it but, ultimately, it’s really encouraging to know you’re on the right track.
What do you hope it will do for your career?
Hopefully it’ll mean more people will hear my music. At the moment, there are people listening to it – but it’s not, like, everyone in England, so I hope that will widen out.
Let’s go right back to the beginning… What were you into as a kid?
All sorts of things. I was very hyperactive and I was very much into sports, and on Saturday I’d go to ballet. The teachers there took a liking to me and they told my mum, I could go to a performing arts school on a scholarship. So I went there for a year when I was 10.
What was that like?
It was really intense, everyone was being nurtured to be a product of the school.I remember saying to my mum, “Everyone’s like robots!” So I went back to normal school with my friends.
Was there a lot of music at home?
None of my family played a musical instrument – but there was such an appreciation for lyrics and melody. On a Friday night, we’d put music on and my step-dad would pick it apart, he’d be like, ‘the strings in this part are nuts’. So without really thinking about it, I began to take note of those things myself.
Which artist got you hooked?
My granddad had this cherry red Jaguar, and he only had three CDs in it – but one of them was Aretha Franklin, and that’s the one I remember the most.
I love her for her storytelling – just how she structures her songs and her raw delivery and her emotion. From the first note she sings, it doesn’t relent. That’s something I’m interested in, in any music I listen to. It just has to be really raw and real and true.
Is it true that you started collecting vinyl in your teens?
Yeah! There was a charity shop at the top of my mum’s road and I used to go in there and rummage around the vinyl section. Initially, I was just interested in the artwork – I didn’t even have a record player at the time!
A few years later, I got to listen to those things I’d been collecting for three years, music from the 50s and 60s like Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and Shirley Bassey, and I was like, “Woah, this sounds amazing!”
Were you already thinking you could become a singer?
Actually, at my college we were all encouraged to go to university and I started really optimistically. I took on loads of subjects – English literature, history, fine art and media studies – but then my dad passed away in the first term. I came back after that a bit bewildered and confused. I stopped working and going to classes, and I wasn’t handing in my work.
My teachers were confused because I hadn’t told them, or even my friends [about my dad dying]. When I finally explained, they gave me the opportunity to drop some subjects – and that’s when I took up music. But most of the focus I put into that was in my own time. It wasn’t in that class.
Was it hard to be creative in school?
Definitely. If you’re slightly more introvert, which I was at the time, you don’t necessarily want to do sing in a room of 20 or 30 people.
But I had some friends who played in bands and they were like, “We’ve heard you can sing, do you want to come round to our house after school and try and play some stuff?” And I loved it. It was self-discovery through my friends helping me build my self-confidence.
What was your first gig?
We played a cover of Wild Wood by Paul Weller, and some other songs in a little bar underground near the seafront in Brighton. I just remember the process of being in that room and performing took over; and any nerves I had evaporated. People were surprised because they’d known me growing up but they had no idea I could sing.
Daydreaming was the song that got you noticed. When was that written?
I was actually working in a pub! It was one of the hottest days of the year and all my friends were texting me like, “We’re going to the beach!” but I was stuck in work.
And there was a little side door that used to blow open sometimes; and a tiny beam of light came through and hit the stage my boss had built to the left of the bar. I started imagining what it would be like to be to be in one of those amazing concert halls of the 1930s, singing under the spotlight – which was the light coming from the door – and I started writing down the lyrics for Daydreaming.
“Another day, another wage, work again / I’ll play away, I’m drifting, not listening,” and those were my thoughts exactly.
Your family obviously play a big role in your music. Isn’t that your mum on the artwork for She’s My Sunshine?
Yes it is! That song’s about her and the cover is mum in 1994 when she was pregnant with me. The other day she was like, “I’ve gone viral!” I was like, “I don’t think so”.
Father’s Son also talks about growing up in a single-parent family.
Yeah, a lot of my friends grew up in similar situations, especially my male friends, and we’d been having conversations about whether they’d inherited traits from their fathers, even though they hadn’t grown up in the same household.
When I met my dad for the first time as an adult, we had a very similar personality but it wasn’t something witnessed and learned from him. So I thought, “Yeah, maybe I am my father’s daughter”.
Why do you sing “Father’s Son” in the song?
I went to a football match with my friends and there was graffiti on the wall that said, “Father’s Son”. I remember it like a film: England had lost, and it was all smoky and there was a pandemonium on in the background – people throwing traffic cones up in the air and all this stuff. But the phrase really struck me.
Straight away I thought, “Maybe I’m my father’s son, because I’m surrounded by men and I feel this affinity with them, but I’m also myself and I’m still feminine”. That’s why I wanted to write the song in the way I did.
Your most recent single, Strange, has taken on a life of it’s own.
I’m really pleased. Initially, people thought it wouldn’t be easy to get it played on daytime radio, so I’m pleased I stuck to my guns.
The first time I first sang it, I got a feeling I’d be singing it a lot more…
The vocals are incredible. You’re barely there, it’s almost like a whisper, but it’s so moving because of that.
Thanks very much! It’s funny because I was actually in America when I recorded it and there were a lot of fires at the time. There was so much ash and smoke in the air that I found myself really husky, so when I went to the studio, I couldn’t sing to the full extent. It made me approach singing and the chord structure in a different way. I went in with a whisper, because I was trying to be careful with my voice.
I think it’s that song in particular that’s earned you the Sound Of 2020 and the Brit award… so what do you have planned for the rest of the year?
I’ve hit the ground running in January and I’m not going to stop! I’m still working on my album and I’m aiming to complete it by the end of this year. I’m just hoping everything will align.
Celeste was chosen for the BBC Sound of 2020 list by a panel of 170 music critics, broadcasters, festival bookers and previous nominees – including Lewis Capaldi, Chvrches and Billie Eilish.
On 5 February, Annie Mac will host Sound of 2020 Live on BBC Radio 1 from 8-11pm, welcoming all of the longlisted artists to the BBC’s legendary Maida Vale studios for a mixture of live performances and interviews, in front of a studio audience.