Maren Celest's beautiful, otherworldly sound is just ... her
"This is just how I sound," offers singer-songwriter Maren Celest by way of explanation for her otherworldly, witchy voice.
It undulates, coos, squeaks and moans — it sounds like it used to be feral and now it's just barely tamed. Celest, who moved to Chicago four years ago to make music, dived headlong into the scene, gaining entrance and introduction via the Archer Ballroom in Bridgeport, a hub for young artists. Having been in bands for a few years, she was ready to go it on her own.
"I really only started finding my voice a couple of years ago," Celest says. Writing "Feathers," a song she performs a cappella at the close of her sets, forced her to be open to the vulnerability of being in front of an audience, no accompaniment to cover her or power the song — it was all on her. It was through that song that she found confidence, and an ability to be in the moment while she was singing. "It takes tons of energy and it's really scary to do it in front of other people, but it's the ultimate storytelling. I try to bring people in with how I am singing and how genuine my expression is," Celest says. "I have seen pictures of myself when I am singing it, and I look grotesque; my face is contorted but you just really have to own what you are doing in that moment."
Celest got her start singing in a high school chorus, where she discovered and was inspired by discordant choral music. Around the same time, she started writing and making her own music and songs when she was 16, then drafted back into it later. "I became part of a band and became a musician rather than a songwriter. It was really beneficial," Celest says. "I am a much stronger songwriter now that I have the musicianship to back it up."
While she is happy playing with a small combo, Celest has a different dream. "I would love to bring a strong choral element into it. Have many voices in my band." For Celest's performance Sunday, she will also be projecting video as part of the performance. Using her background as a professional photographer (she's done music, editorial and advertising work), she made a stop-motion animated video for "Beloved," which recalls silent film with its high-contrast black-and-white scenes of Celest making dramatic faces; it also features a tiny ship sailing through the sea of her hair.
What is it exactly that Celest is soundtracking when she makes these curious, dark songs of hers? "I ask myself that a lot," she laughs. "I do a lot of different things — writing, photography and video — and music is the most satisfying and the most frustrating. It's less about the sound for me and more about the effect I want it to have on people."