Pilgrimage 2022: Celisse – “Singing The Blues is Honoring Black Musical Traditions”

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Videos by American Songwriter

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably heard Celisse a time or two. A true guitar slinger and a soulful vocalist to boot, Celisse has lent her prowess to a number of big names—Mariah Carey, Lizzo, Brandi Carlile, Jon Batiste, and Melissa Etheridge to name a few.

Having only released one official single, she has a way to go before becoming a household name, but she is nevertheless well on her way. The blues-rock maven took to the main stage at the Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival this past weekend (Sept. 24) and took the crowd by surprise with sprawling guitar solos and unmatched vocal riffs. From the nods of approval from the ever-growing crowd amid her set, it’s safe to assume she made some new fans during the fest.

Before she took the stage, Celisse sat down with American Songwriter to talk about her journey thus far and where she’s heading next.

Celisse added another icon to her list of colleagues this year, joining Carlile at the Newport Jazz Festival to play alongside Joni Mitchell—a rare appearance for the folk legend. Celisse took the stage to perform “Help Me,” a cut from Mitchell’s 1974 record Court and Spark.

“I met Brandi Carlile at Newport Folk last year,” Celisse tells American Songwriter. “She mentioned she had been doing these things called ‘Joni Jams,’ where a small group of people would go to Joni Mitchell’s house, no cameras, no phones allowed. The whole vibe was to sing and share music to lift up this woman that we all owe such a debt of gratitude.”

She continues, “When they decided to put a version of this on stage for Newport, Joni and Brandi invited me along and I got to be a part of what I think is one of the most incredible events of our time.”

When asked about Mitchell’s reaction to her performance she says, “I knew, notoriously, Joni Mitchell didn’t mince words. I knew if she didn’t like it, I’d know. ‘Help Me’ is one of my favorite songs of hers. I worked on the arrangement and presented it to her. She was incredibly lovely and effusive that day.”

Celisse released a single back in 2020 titled “Freedom.” The track was made in response to the murders of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling, who both lost their lives within 24 hours of one another in 2016. Not feeling the timing was perfect, Celisse waited until 2020 to release the song, which unfortunately found it becoming more relevant than ever.

“I wanted ‘Freedom’ to have the chance to be seen by as many people as possible,” she says. “It felt like at that particular time, there was this sort of crest that had happened collectively in our social conscious about police brutality that hadn’t waned. I thought, ‘there is going to be a time where it feels right to release this.’ With the killing of George Floyd and the uprising that created in the world, it felt like exactly the right time. Unfortunately, it was more timely than ever.”

Celisse often sticks close to the blues. She feels the style of music is an ode to her ancestors and the Black musicians that came before her.

“Blues is really kind of the basis of all of the music that we’re listening to,” she says. “We’re hearing it whether people realize it or not. Blues music really comes from spiritual music and spirituals that were sung by black people in the earliest of times are the bedrock of pop, soul, jazz, and R&B. Singing the blues is honoring black musical traditions, which feels incredibly therapeutic to me.”

Speaking of paying homage to the Black musicians that came before her, Celisse acts as the creative director for Gibson’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe collection. It’s not hard to draw comparisons between the two acts. Celisse is picking up the Les Paul where SRT left off.

If you’re unfamiliar, SRT was one of the first artists of note to play the iconic 1961 Les Paul Gibson SG. Though she is largely overlooked, she is a seminal figure in the creation of rock and roll—an oversight Celisse is trying to correct.

“If you’re reading this interview, you’re a fan of Sister Rosetta Tharpe whether you know it or not,” she says. “If you’re a fan of Led Zeppelin, if you’re a fan of the Beatles—you’re a fan of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”

She continues, “The men that are often attributed as the foundation of rock and roll – Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Little Richard—really come from Sister Rosetta. I am absolutely a continuation of her story, which deserves to be told.”

Celisse will continue the run she started with “Freedom” on her debut album that is slated to drop in 2023. Though she didn’t reveal too much about the record, she did tease that she feels deeply inspired by the events of her life over the past few years.

“A lot has grown and changed significantly in my career. I have also grown and changed significantly over the years like everybody,” she says. “For this record, I am looking at what feels really important to release from my material and what new things there are to say, whether melodically or lyrically.”

During her set at Pilgrimage, Celisse brought out some of the songs that will presumably, be on her record—all of which were filled with hypnotizing guitar lines and piercing vocals. From what we saw, the world is in for a stellar body of work from Celisse that will bring her out onto the world’s stage.

Photo Credited To American Songwriter/Harrison Haake

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