For British neo-soul stylist Celeste Epiphany Waite — aka Celeste — it was a dream come true when her uplifting ballad “Hear My Voice” earned a 2021 Academy Award nomination for best original song. The track, written with her go-to collaborator Daniel Pemberton for Aaron Sorkin’s Netflix docudrama “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (and also nominated for a Golden Globe), came on the heels of her R&B-retro, January-released debut album “Not Your Muse,” and was in many ways the culmination of longtime plans for a professional singing career.
Those plans almost derailed five years ago when a glass dessert dish was hurled in her face at her bartending day job.
Born in Culver City to an English mother and a Jamaican father — whose early death inspired Celeste to compose her first somber song “Sirens” at 16 after moving back to Britain — the go-getter, now 26, thought she had her trajectory mapped out. She received a MacBook for her 18th birthday, and quickly transferred her songwriting to GarageBand.
After studying music technology in college, she fell into a pleasing pattern by 2016. She worked long weekend hours at the local village pub, the Black Horse, in Rottingdean, and traveled to London on weekdays to record demos. But she hadn’t foreseen one snag, the Sunday roast dinner, “when everyone came into the pub to have a roast dinner, and the chef would just get so stressed out,” she says, sighing.
One particular Sunday, the chef blew a gasket. After delivering several diner complaints to him, a particularly snide one she relayed pushed the man too far.
“He had all these little desserts that he’d made in these glass pots — I think it was panna cotta with berries on top — and he just threw one at me, across the kitchen, right past my head, and it smashed into the wall,” she says. “And I just started crying, and saying, ‘Oh, my God! I don’t want to work here anymore!’” She was ready to throw in the bar towel on her careful planning, made more complicated by her staying out late on Saturday nights.
Celeste didn’t have to quit. The chef eventually did, after apologizing. Relieved, she carried on with her London sessions, eventually lending her voice to electronic artists like Avicii, Tieks and Real Lies, then issuing her first single, “Daydreaming,” on Lily Allen’s Bank Holiday imprint.
She rose to prominence via a month-long residency at London’s elite Laylow club for an audience that included Riz Ahmed, Idris Elba and Spike Lee. Elton John regularly played her on his Beats 1 radio program, and “Soul” soundtrack composer Jon Batiste selected her for an inventive cover duet of Curtis Mayfield’s classic “It’s All Right” (included on the “Muse” deluxe edition as is “Hear My Voice”).
At the urging of singer Michael Kiwanuka, Celeste signed a new contract with heavyweight Polydor Records for “Muse.” Today she lives with her model-poet boyfriend Sonny Hall in London’s posh Ladbroke Grove neighborhood, near the Laylow, where she occasionally drops by for a celebratory pint.
During lockdown, when many women have sworn off high heels, she’s diving deeper into fashion, having just gotten comfortable with expressing her own flashy style.
Full disclosure, Celeste says: “I am 6 feet tall, so in my early 20s I felt really too shy to wear heels, because I was just towering over everyone and it was so dreadful and embarrassing. But eventually, I got over it and just went my own way. So now I just think, ‘OK, even if I’m 6’4” in heels and everybody around me is much shorter in comparison, it’s OK, because my outfit still makes me feel good and I love it.’ And I think that during the pandemic, if anything, putting on a good outfit helped me feel motivated, and kept me from feeling too drab and lazy and depressed. Sometimes fashion can really help your mood.”
Not yet sure about what she’ll wear to the socially-distanced 93rd annual Academy Awards broadcast on April 25, Celeste says the nomination gives her goosebumps, and that winning would be “surreal and just totally amazing.”
But she’s taking things in stride, including the dessert-throwing chef. Looking back, she says, “I don’t think he liked it that I had an air of confidence about myself, so it probably was a bit annoying for him as an adult, watching me swanning around, like, ‘I’m working in a pub, but I’m just here trying to be a singer!’ That pub was his life at that point, so I think he took a lot of his frustration out on me.”