Interview: We were lucky, in a sense, to find each other – Céline & The Blue present their debut EP, ‘Within & Without’

Guildford-based soul-jazz band Céline & The Blue had just hit a huge milestone in their nascent career when things came to an abrupt halt. Hot on the heels of a gig at Ronnie Scott’s in London, the young musicians were feeling energized and optimistic. Then, the Covid pandemic hit sending the live music scene into its year-long hibernation.

With vocalist Céline Xueref quarantined in her native Italy, the band was unable to continue playing. Instead of giving way to frustration and despair, the five “best mates” chose to focus on launching their debut EP, Within & Without, a collection of songs documenting the “first chapter” of their story.

I quickly fell in love with the band’s upbeat sound, clever lyrics and instantly noticeable chemistry. Two weeks ago, I talked to Céline, guitarist Jarreau Wetzels and keys player Enea Lleshi about their debut EP, their creative process, dealing with the setbacks brought about by the pandemic and preparing for what’s next.

How long have you guys been playing together and how did you meet?

Céline: We met at university, at The Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford. We all took the same course. Enea and I wrote two songs for an assessment and we thought it would be nice to have a band back us up. Enea knew Jay and Elliot quite well. (To Enea) How well did you guys know each other?

Enea: I slept at their house all the time. (laughs) I was crashing on their couch every time we went out. I knew them as musicians too. They had another band which sounded amazing and I wanted to work with Jay so badly. He was one of my best mates in England, if not the best. Let’s say the best. (laughs)

Céline: (laughs) THE best mate. Not just one of the best, THE best!

Enea: I really wanted to play with him and the songs with Céline were the perfect excuse. We played together for this assessment and ended up staying together as a group. There were four of us: myself, Céline, Jay and Elliot (Yarnall), the drummer. We only needed to find a bassist. Once the summer was over, we started our search and found Horatio, who was our first bassist. He was incredible!

Céline: He still is!

Enea: Yeah, he still is. He’s still alive. (laughs)

Céline: He had to leave for Romania, so now Myles (Maylon) plays for us. We love our team. Actually, Jay, do you want to talk about the funny stories of that assessment — the first time we played together? You know what I’m talking about!

Jay: The first time we played together, I didn’t even play guitar, because they were still lacking a bassist. They had someone else on guitar and I just jumped in on the bass, randomly.

Céline: (laughs) Playing the bass like a guitar.

Jay: Well, I’m not a bass player by any means. They just needed someone to, you know, hit the low notes. So I did that. Elliot and I were in a different band — a whole different genre. It was more like pop-funk. But then we played with you guys and we loved it. It was much closer to the music that we actually listen to ourselves. I think you guys were kind of shy even asking us to join, because you knew that the other band was taking up a lot of our time. Elliot and I were super excited to be joining you permanently.

Céline: I remember you telling me, “I’ll be in the band if you put me on guitar and not bass.” (laughs)

Enea: The reason we were shy about asking them is that, back at uni, their band was top-notch. They had all the clout. Everybody loved them.

Céline: Everyone talked about their band. They were like the celebrities of our university.

Jay: No, no, no… (laughs)

Enea: Always showing up late, never going to lecture…

Céline: …being the cool kids.

Enea: Most importantly, they had the coolest hair styles. (laughs)

Céline: That’s pretty much how it was born and then we never stopped. With Covid, we had to stop playing, because I was in Italy and they were here, but even so, we kept things going.     

The pandemic hit you right as you were really starting out as a band. How did that impact your plans and the development of the EP?

Jay: To be honest, I feel like almost all the songs that are on the EP were already more than half developed before Covid even hit. It was just a matter of actually getting them done and finishing all the recording. We got caught by Covid just on the last half of the last track we had to record. It was part of “Crave Love” and most of “Papaya.” I also played a part in stalling that one, because I injured myself and so I wasn’t able to play guitar.

Céline: Why don’t you explain what happened exactly? Because when you say, “I injured myself…”

Jay: (laughs) I sliced my finger with a knife. It wasn’t sharp at all. I still don’t know what happened.

Céline: And what were you opening?

Jay: I was opening a pack of cheese. There were no scissors around, I grabbed a butter knife…

Céline: Your cheese pushed back our songs for, like, six months. I hope that was the best cheese you ever had.

Jay: (laughs) I can’t remember. It was just cheese.

Céline: (shaking her head) Aaaahhhh…

Jay: But anyway, Covid kind of slowed everything down after that, after I was done slowing it down. It was unfortunate, but we spent most of our time getting everything together for the release, really thinking about what we wanted the EP to look like, visually. To me, it was actually kind of nice taking it easy like this, even though we could have done it a lot sooner. But in a way it was good.

Céline: It just pushed things back. In January of 2020 we played at Ronnie Scott’s in London, which had always been something we wanted to do. That lit a fire under our bums. It was very special. I mean, it was a really sad way to end things, because Covid came so quickly after that, but even though we didn’t get to do anything much afterwards, that fire got lit. It really helped to keep things going, especially at the beginning of lockdown, when everything was looking very tragic. We definitely stopped things for a few months, just because we wanted to adapt. It was a bit of a shock. But then we were able to start back where we left off.

Enea: I also think this time was helpful because I believe we matured a bit more as musicians. Jay has had the time to practice more, I’ve had the time to take lessons, so did Céline. So we’re prepared for what’s coming next. And that’s thanks to the quarantine.

Why did you decide to release an EP and not a full-length album?

Céline: The EP contains all the songs we’ve released so far. We started releasing in May of 2019. It’s almost been two years. In two years, we’ve done a lot of growing — musically and as people too. We analyzed the music we’d recorded so far and the music that we are writing now. We figured that the music we’re writing now is very much a new chapter. We thought it would make sense to wrap things up with this EP and create that little selection so we can say, “That’s the first chapter of our band.” The release of the EP is just something to represent that first chapter, to kind of tie a bow around what we’ve done so far. It came about very organically for that reason. When we started releasing the songs, we had no intentions of putting out an EP. That’s a decision that came about relatively recently.

Photos by Laura Manners

What struck me the most about you guys is that, even though you’re a young band, you come across as a very tight unit. That is very much reflected in your interactions, but also in the songs. The music is very consistent. It has a strong identity. I’m assuming there are a lot of musical influences. How did you guys decide on the sound you wanted to achieve for the band?

Enea: The first disclaimer is that, even though we all have different influences, because we’re such good mates, we’re constantly exposed to what the other person is listening to. We come from the same university as well, which means we’ve been brought up musically in kind of the same way. That helps amalgamate all of the different ideas. Then, when it comes to studio time, we talk a lot about what we want to do. There’s five of us, which is lucky, because it’s an odd number. When it comes to a difficult decision, we take a vote and it usually works out for the best. But we’re very lucky to have the team that we have, because everyone has such a great ear. Think of Jay — the best feature of my friend here, my guitarist, is his taste in music. Because of the music he likes, he comes up with such good  ideas that then fit perfectly into what Céline and I come up with beforehand. We were lucky, in a sense, to find  each other. It’s difficult to explain why it’s so unified, but that’s just what happened.

Tell me a bit about your creative process.

Céline : The songwriting process is changing quite a bit, currently. The way we went about the songwriting process for this EP is that Enea would come up with chords — mostly on guitar, though he’s a keys player — and we would sit together, him and I, and just come up with a melody and some lyrics. That’s how the backbone of a song was born. We’d make sure we have all the parts and we would go through several songwriting sessions. Then, we’d finish the song, take it to the band and just sit there at rehearsal and work things out. It’s very organic. We recorded all the songs in the same place, so the mixing, the sound palette, those types of choices are all cohesive in that sense. I think that’s something that really helps with having a compilation of songs flow with each other: making sure it’s been mixed and mastered by the same people.

Enea: Going back to what you said about the music, I think another reason why it all sounds so cohesive is my limitations on guitar, right? (laughs) I learned these three chords that I really like and that can be another thing to hang onto. The chord shapes and the specific sounds that I chose might have been a factor in making everything cohesive. Another very important thing, that I think Céline missed, is that, when we write together, once the chordal structure is there, Céline is incredibly quick in committing to a melody.

Céline: He’s saying that but he hates my melodies and I won’t change my mind about them. (laughs)

Enea: Sometimes perfection is bad, right? It’s better to commit to the first instinct. And Céline has got a very good instinct. Even though I can be a little doubtful at the beginning, I always end up liking them by the end of it.

You mentioned that the songwriting process is currently changing. Tell me a bit about the songs you’re working on now.

Céline: We’re working on this music that’s sounding different. It’s still very much emblematic of our identity, but it’s richer. I think we’re identifying with it even more. Our focus right now is to work on the new sound and make sure that we are able to achieve that sound palette that we want.

Enea: We’re trying to add a little bit more production value. Everything we recorded in the first EP was kind of raw. It was bare-bones instruments and the idea that we had. Now, since we have more time in the studio, we decided to obviously keep what we had but add more nuances to the arrangements and the production. Hopefully, that’s going to come out and bring our sound further, to a wider audience.

What are some of the creative differences in the actual songwriting process?

Céline: With the music we’re doing now, Jay’s becoming a greater part in the writing process. I think having his footprint as well will make things more faceted.

Jay: (rubs hands together) Some of my lyrics, haha!

Céline: Here’s the thing: at the beginning, I really struggled with lyrics, because I would be shy opening up. “Safe,” for example, was the third song we wrote. I wrote it about anxiety. I think that’s the most elusive song. When you read the lyrics, they’re a bit hard to grasp. I think that was just something I used to do as a protective mechanism, where I would make my lyrics super elusive because I’d be shy to open up and put it in a song. For example, “Learn to be Alone” was a song I wrote a little bit later than “Safe,” when I had gotten a little bit more accustomed to opening up. I think I’m getting better and better at this. Especially in the most recent song we wrote, I poured out my emotions and made no allusive references to anything . I put it there on the table.

I think that lyrics are extremely important. It’s so good when people can grasp the concept right away. Obviously, it’s beautiful when you sit down and analyze lyrics and just discover so many more shades. But when it comes to the craft of lyric writing, my aspiration is to get to that point where if someone listens to the lyrics, they can immediately relate to them. Then, they sit down and analyze them with a highlighter in their hand and make notes. And they’re like, “Oh my god! The textures! The layers! The shades of meaning!” (laughs) A lot of people don’t do that but, for example, when I do the singing lessons, in the first half I do all of my exercises and in the second half I analyze lyrics as if it were an English Literature class. I know that most people don’t do it, but the fact that someone could do it if they wanted to… that’s what I aspire to!

“Crave Love” was one that was very vulnerable as well. I think it was one of the ones were there were real feelings. I feel like “Hide in your World” and “Just You” were more of an imagination thing, if you will. Obviously they were based on real-life events, but “Crave Love” was more of a “documentary” of what actually happened. That was definitely us venturing into opening up more and making the lyrics more raw.

Did you guys have any similar challenges when it comes to your instruments?

Enea: When I started up with Céline & The Blue, I hadn’t played keys for around two years. My main instrument in uni was guitar. And I was singing. Now, all of a sudden, I went from playing on my own in my room to having to play with four other people. The biggest challenge was toning down what I could do in order to make my playing fit into a wider landscape, to give more importance to the music than to my needs and my desire to play. The guys know I am incredibly passionate about playing. That’s all I want to do all the time. I want to play, play, play…

Céline: Play, play play… Do you want to go play now?

Enea: Yeah! (laughs) Musically, the challenge was learning to cut down all the excess and be more generous.

Jay: It’s the same for me. I think guitar playing for me isn’t as deep as the lyrical writing for Céline, but every time we get a song, Enea would give me the chords and all I’m trying to do is make sure that, when I play, it serves the song before myself. Which is exactly what Enea is saying. It’s pretty tricky to get into that mindset sometimes, because, as a young guitarist, all you want to do is go, “Look at all these skills! Look at all of them! Listen, listen, listen!” (laughs) But I like to think this is quite sophisticated music. You want to really serve the music and not the shredding solos that you’re actually thinking about.

Enea: You can imagine that, coming from a university where there is a little bit of competitiveness between all of the musicians, letting go of that can be difficult.

Jay: It’s part of the maturing, absolutely.

What is the situation right now in England regarding live music? Do you have any information on that?

Céline: I have a direct source — my brother is a live sound engineer.

Jay: We got lucky.

Céline: Obviously, with this quarantine, he wasn’t able to do that, so he started working in the studio. But his main job is live sound and I’m telling you, he’s still got no gigs. Yesterday, I was walking around the Piccadilly area and I walked by the Hard Rock Café. There was a guy actually playing guitar and singing but there was no one inside so he was kind of playing to no one. He was really good too. As of now, I know a lot of things are starting to get organized and there are a lot of gigs booked up. But for now, I feel like we’re going to hold back just to ease into things Covid-wise. We’re so focused on the next recording and everything that we don’t want to get out of that head space for now. But it is looking up in terms of music here in England.

Lots of musicians have been doing livestream gigs and all sorts of online events during this lockdown period. Have you done any of that?

Jay: We have a podcast. We talk a little bit more in-depth about our lives, our songwriting process, about everything we’ve been through and what we’ve experienced.

Céline: It’s called “Out of The Blue” by Céline & The Blue.

What is the progress on your next recording? Do you already have a date in mind for when you want to put it out?

Céline: Hmmm… We definitely don’t have a date. We’re very much focused on going with the creative flow, not putting too much rush on what people are going to see. We’re putting more emphasis on what we are behind the scenes. We’d love to build a team and work with management to get a strong foundation going so that we can stand up strong in front of everyone.

Listen to Within & Without.

Listen to Out of The Blue.

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