Celisse “Sisterly” Inspiration

In any context, the talent on display any time Celisse (nee Celisse Henderson) picks up an electric guitar and sings along to it would be mind-blowing. It’s even more amazing when you consider she only learned to play the guitar as an afterthought, something she wanted to try to expand her musical horizons from the instruments she already knew. 

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But as Celisse told American Songwriter in a lengthy interview, it’s natural for her as a Black woman to take to the electric guitar, regardless of the stereotypical image of it as an instrument played primarily by white men. That’s because her introduction to the guitar happened almost in conjunction with her finding out about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a Black woman whose influence on guitar players can match any “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll” you might care to name.

Celisse has experienced many moments in her burgeoning career—including stints on stage with luminaries like Trey Anastasio, Melissa Etheridge, and Jon Batiste while also playing lead to support a performance by Lizzo on Saturday Night Live—when people didn’t expect her virtuosity because of her race and gender. But as she dives into a year that will be spent both touring with others and preparing original music for release, she can’t help but look back on Tharpe’s example for inspiration on how to upend expectations.

[RELATED: Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock n’ Roll]

“There are so many things about Sister Rosetta, ways even beyond her music that she has shaped modern music,” Celisse explains, citing the book Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe by Gayle Wald as a great source on the subject. “One thing that people don’t know is that Sister Rosetta is the first person to ever have tour buses the way we have them now, with beds and kitchen and a lounge area. And she did this because at the time, she was touring as a Decca recording artist. She had The Rosettes as her backup singers and the Jordanaires as her support band. When they were touring the segregated South, very often the Jordanaires were offered food and lodging, and privileges that she and the other background singers were not.

“So she created this bus and had dressing quarters and mirrors in the front and, in the back, had all these beds built in, literally out of safety and necessity. Now it’s the way that we all tour on these buses with beds and these things. It’s one of a million examples I could give of how she really set the stage for us.”

As busy as her schedule may be, Celisse has carved out a big part of it for promoting the exploits of her heroine. She has partnered with Gibson on the Sister Rosetta Tharpe Collection, which features Tharpe-branded items and includes videos and information about her on the Gibson site. Celisse’s collaboration with Gibson also includes an app where she gives her advice to novices on songwriting from the perspective of an electric guitarist.

It’s all pretty heady stuff, but Celisse feels like she belongs, even if the journey to an in-demand guitarist has been a bit quicker than expected. “The confidence boost is amazing,” she says of her recent success. “It’s been an unexpected ride. I had a vision of being in most of the places and spaces I’ve been in, but not necessarily in this position with an electric guitar in my hands. Who knows, you’d have to ask other people what they really think, but my sense has always been that in a lot of these environments, I’m fine at guitar, but I’m really good at music. You can look at any instrument: singers, guitarists, piano players, and bassists. There are a lot of unbelievable technicians who have incredible facility, and can call upon any sort of mode or meter at any time. It’s jaw-dropping. 

“But the truth is that nine times out of 10, the average person walking down the street does not care at all about your technique. They care about how you make them feel, how that music is infused with something. I’m always just trying to approach everything from a real place of truth. I think people respond less to all of my skill, which isn’t to downplay myself, but more to my authentic joy. It’s very true that I sort of fell in love with this thing out of nowhere and I really enjoy finding a new thing with it every day.”

Singing Sister Rosetta’s Praises

Celisse can remember the moment that she first encountered the legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. “I was just on YouTube going from video to video, and somehow I stumbled across a clip of her playing ‘Up Above My Head’ in front of a gospel choir,” she says. “I initially stopped because she looked so much like my grandmother, Bertha Lee Henderson. I was so thrown even at the visual. And then watching this woman play this incredible electric guitar and sing, marrying gospel and rock ‘n’ roll, was so powerful and such an incredibly important moment in my life as an artist, as a woman, and a Black woman.”

Celisse Henderson (Courtesy Gibson)

As fate would have it, the discovery of Tharpe dovetailed with her decision to try out a new instrument. “My finding Sister Rosetta happened right around this time when I had decided to pick up an electric guitar,” Celisse remembers. “That’s why that relationship is so deep for me. There was something about seeing her that gave me the license to feel like not only can I do this, but it’s a part of my birthright, a part of my lineage when I look at a woman like this. I come from a classical training background with classical piano and voice, all this from two incredibly learned musician-teacher parents who are instrumentalists. My dad plays classical piano and plays gospel and jazz by ear. My mom plays violin. They’re both choral conductors, major music people. Up until guitar, so much of my learning and my musical experience was in this structured, classical way. 

“When I picked up the guitar, I didn’t have these visions of where I am now. I was just like, it seems cool and I just want another way to express myself. I found that putting a guitar in my hands, not only excited me in a different way than anything else had before, but it completely changed and shaped and focused my own music. Up until that point, I would head to the piano, I’d play the ukulele, I’d play all these different instruments. I wasn’t super-focused. When I put the guitar in my hand, there was something about it that became a guiding light. It gave me a way to be as expressive as I felt like I was able to be with my voice. It just felt like something I would have never been allowed to do growing up in my parents’ house. There were so many things about it that felt left-of-center in the best kind of way. I just fell in love really quickly.”

The move to the new instrument also lit a fire under Celisse to embrace music in a much more substantial way. “I come from a theatrical background, a lot of years on Broadway and TV,” she says. “I was doing that work full-time and it would be the kind of thing where once or twice a year, I would play an open mic or play a teeny, tiny show in New York City with a couple of songs. I was dabbling with the idea of maybe calling myself a songwriter but didn’t really feel well-versed in it enough to claim that for myself.

“When the electric guitar came into play, it shifted from this thing that I’m doing casually on the side to me deciding to leave the acting work behind for the time being and focus on developing my own music and my skills as a songwriter and as a multi-instrumentalist, with the guitar being the guiding force. The biggest change that I can specifically point to is before the electric guitar, I was definitely coming from a theatrical background and a lot of my performances of songs felt presentational, almost over-rehearsed because that’s how I knew how to do it. With the electric guitar, because I’m self-taught and I’m coming at it from such a raw place, it brought the music and the performance into such a space of immediacy. It changed everything. Beyond my hands on the fretboard, it has grown me exponentially as an artist because it forces me to be in the moment in a way that I had never really experienced before then.”

Stepping into the Limelight

With newfound confidence in her songwriting, Celisse felt like the Gibson app to help others learn the craft was a natural progression. There are specific steps that she highlights on the app, but she explains that the one facet that has to be in place at all times is authenticity. 

“The most important thing is being connected to who you are and what it is you’re trying to say,” she says. “There are a million ways to approach writing music. Anywhere from the ethereal, spiritual way to the incredibly mathematical way. Everybody has a different approach. For me, I tend to believe that art is a powerful thing. Music, songs are things that can change people’s lives. When I think about the music and songs that have affected me most deeply, it’s when you hear something and it feels so unbelievably true. What you’re listening to is so real and honest. That’s the kind of stuff that resonates for me.

“From that vantage point, there are a million things that anybody can talk about on the technical side. You and I both know that [Bob] Dylan isn’t the most technical person, but those are songs that will stand the test of time because we’re hearing something so honest. My encouragement is that the most important thing is to be connected to what is true for you, what is honest for you, and can you communicate that honestly and authentically in what you’re trying to write.”

Expect Celisse’s own songwriting prowess to be on display throughout 2023, as she’s been feverishly writing in preparation for time in the studio. The hope is that new music will be released before the year is over. In the meantime, she has some massive live performances ahead of her, where she’ll likely continue to surprise people who might have a narrow-minded idea of how a guitar shredder should look. She views these occasions as opportunities to teach.

“I feel like I’ve kind of arrived at a place where it actually feels really exciting to me to often be so many people’s first interaction with someone that looks like me doing what I’m doing,” she muses. “And then that is always the launchpad to the conversation of, ‘Wow, I’m so glad you responded to me. Have you heard of a woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe? And actually, you’re looking at me and thinking that this is such a wild, crazy thing; when you go back and look at this woman, you’ll actually see that this is the most natural thing that someone who looks like me can be doing. But we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking something else.’ I try to use it more as a point of education.

“Also, I’m a performer at heart,” she slyly concludes. “I like the shock value that comes with people seeing me, expecting one thing, and getting another.”

Photos Courtesy Gibson

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