In the land of calypso and soca, where does a jazz singer dwell? Singer and actress, Bri Celestin chats with our contributor Nikeisha Joseph, about vocal drills, her loving inner circle and being true to her creative self.
Cover photo by Steve Hernandez.
How do you define creativity and what does it mean to you?
For me creativity is an expression of self; it’s sharing and giving of oneself. Creative people are able to look at a project or the world in a new, different way. When I think of creativity with my own work, I think about putting myself in the music. I ask, “How can I express this song in a way only Bri can?” “How is the music driving me?” “What is it making me feel?”
How much of your creative ability do you think is innate? Or is your creativity a skill that you have developed?
A greater part of my creativity is definitely innate. I believe my spirit, something greater inside, drives most of my creativity. However, I am also certain the ability to effectively share that creativity can only come through skill which is carefully trained and developed. For me this means daily vocal exercises, listening to various types of music, watching others perform, taking time to be still, to listen to my heart, trust my spirit. This also means taking care of my body and eating and drinking well.
So you do vocal exercises daily?
Yeah… a necessary evil, unless I’m sick. Sometimes they're short exercises, I really have to be disciplined but even if it is lip and throat trills, I'll do it.
When did you realize that you wanted to express your creativity? Was it encouraged by others (e.g., parents)?
As long as I can remember myself I have always loved singing and performing, and I have been very fortunate to have people in my life who helped feed that passion on small levels. Throughout high school, at Bishop Anstey, I had the opportunity to sing and perform with the choir. It was there, thanks to the encouragement of the choirmaster, Lorraine Granderson, that I was given my first solo performance. It was a scary but exhilarating experience, but it was also validation that she really believed in my talent and ability. I think that was probably the start of vocal opportunities, and blessings.
In Trinidad, I had the opportunity to be vocal singing talent on various radio commercials and I’ve had several opportunities to do live solo and group performances in Trinidad and London. None of this would have happened without the support and encouragement of my family – my brother and moms (note, I have 5 mothers… one biological and 4 adopted… I’m very blessed, lol) – best friends and other close friends, who at many times seem to believe in my talent and ability more than I do. Also for me, the encouragement and support from other professionals in the industry have motivated me to keep pressing forward.
What is your standard for evaluating your creative work and the works of other people? Do you think that monetary rewards can be compatible with creativity in general? Are financial rewards relevant to your projects?
Creativity is subjective, what I may deem as creative may not be to someone else, and vice versa. My evaluation of creative work is all about connection, the emotion that comes as a result of it. Does it evoke joy, sadness, confusion or awe? In evaluating my own work I tend to reflect on if the audience received the story I wanted to convey, and if I fully surrendered to the music and the song during the performance.
Monetary rewards can definitely be compatible with creativity, more than that they can help to encourage creativity, meaning if an artist does not have the ‘burden’ of thinking of lack of money, it leaves them free to completely surrender to the craft. Financial ‘rewards’ as you call them, are essential for my creativity. A lot of what I do as a performer is not done in isolation. There is a team that helps to make my vision a reality. It is essential that I am “rewarded” so I can continue to “reward” them.
The conflict can come if monetary rewards are the sole reason for the creative expression. If money is the only driving factor, I think an audience will feel that… and really you’re not only cheating the audience but more so yourself as an artist.
Do you think your perception and evaluation of your creative endeavours are influenced by the views of other people? What role do you believe the culture that you live in plays in your creative efforts?
Not really. It’s a lovely feeling to get positive reviews from an audience, but I still tend to hear all the flaws in my voice. I am always aware of how much more work and training I need to do to get my craft to a place where I feel happy. There are times I listen to recordings of myself and cringe… yet, some people may love the same recording, which leaves me wondering if we are hearing the same thing…lol. If someone gives me constructive criticism, as in they identify and tell me about something they think I can improve on, I greatly appreciate it, as it often validates my own feelings for needing to work harder.
Our culture definitely plays a role in my creativity, and for some time kept me from sharing my creative side with others. I have always connected with and loved singing jazz and songs from musicals. However, I am aware it’s not the most ‘popular’ or appreciated music in our culture, so at times I felt like my creative contribution didn’t quite ‘fit in’. Yet, I’ve been blessed to have people around me who encouraged me to be true to myself and the music. It’s okay if everyone doesn’t like or connect with what I’m doing, it’s unlikely that will ever happen. What I can control is being true to who I am.
When did you start sharing your authentic creative self?
Many years ago a friend introduced me to Ken Holder, at the time he was a producer with Xtatik. When he heard me sing he was like, “I love your voice and want to work with you, but it's really not soca,” and I said, “I know! I don't want to sing soca!” It felt great to know that, while he didn’t quite know what to do with my voice, he was willing to help me develop a voice.
I started doing recordings with him and that helped me to start learning and playing with my voice and exploring various genres of music.
What are you listening to right now?
It's quite varied, but right now I'm listening to a lot of Roberta Flack because of an upcoming show. I love how she makes you feel each lyric; it feels like she means every single word. That’s what I hope to make people feel too, I only sing songs if they mean something to me.
If you were to have a conversation with one great vocalist right now, who would it be?
One is not fair! Ok, I would go with Sade, because I know she sings about love a lot, plus she has a calmness and stillness about her that I greatly admire. I would talk to her about love, life, being a beauty icon, being timeless, seemingly ageless and how she manages it all without getting caught up in celebrity.
What do you do when you experience a creative block?
I generally do one of two things, I either disconnect from people, spend a lot of time by myself, listening to music, watching videos of others I admire or I hang out with some of the creative people I am blessed to call my friends. Being around them when they are creating helps to inspire me.
How do you make the leap from a "Spark" in your head to the action you produce?
I have ideas that come to me sometimes mid-sleep, and I have to wake up and record it in a voice note. Generally, the thoughts come almost like poetry and in one full sweep. Then I would listen to them and write them down. I try to incorporate them in my songs as a kind of way of sharing what is going on in my own life at the time.
Do you have any special rituals that you do to achieve your creative goals?
Generally about 3 weeks to a month before a big show, that is, one that demands a lot from me vocally, I cut out all dairy and alcohol from my diet. Not too long ago I switched to a vegan diet, so the dairy has been cut out altogether. I still drink alcohol though (it’s plant-based… lol). Seriously though, I put those restrictions on myself because I do believe they affect my voice in a negative way. It’s so humbling that people take their valuable time and money to come to hear me sing, so I feel obligated to give them the ‘best’ me.
Stylistically, has your creativity changed as you have matured? If it has changed, please explain how?
Definitely, as far as live performances go I am more confident on stage and in a strange way I am more comfortable with being vulnerable on stage, so I’m able to be more authentic with my creative expression. I think that is what people identify with, maybe even more than my voice, it is the feeling in it.
What has been the greatest sacrifice that you have made for your craft?
The greatest sacrifice has been not being able to spend time I would like to with loved ones. I can’t tell you how many birthday celebrations, limes with friends and family I have missed because I’ve had rehearsal or a show. The thing is I understand why I make those sacrifices, and while it is not necessarily easy, I wouldn’t change it.
There’s a lot of work involved in your craft. What are the things that your family, friends or a partner would have to get used to?
I think one of the most difficult things a partner would need to understand about me is the fact that I need a lot of time alone… just being still and quiet by myself. I'm generally very sociable and present when I’m around loved ones, but that time for me to sort of recharge is very important. It’s like, “I love you; I’m not upset with you – I just need to be by myself.” So apart from my not being around because I have rehearsals, I also need alone time.
Also, vocal exercises can be very annoying. They’re not always the most pleasing sound on the ear. This is probably why I’m single… lol.
You are also an actress. What do you love about acting?
I love the idea of becoming a character; I think it helps me understand people a little bit more; that they can never really be processed as simply black or white, because there is so much grey in between. This process helps me to be more forgiving to people’s imperfections, and sometimes even my own.
Is there any character that you played that allowed you to see things differently?
I played Mary, Mother of Jesus, in JCS’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. It ran for 2 weeks and I had to cry for every performance, when he was crucified. It made me think about the sacrifices that parents have to make for the ‘greatness’ of their child. People don't think about what parents have to go through, the pain they may also feel when their child is in pain and how strong they would have to be to allow that greatness to come through.
A super talented young man, Kyle Richardson, played Jesus, and every performance we had to dig deep. It was physically and emotionally draining, but we connected… Jesus and I… we had a moment!
Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?
As cliché as it may sound, there is a feeling deep in my heart that this is what I am meant to be doing. Even though it is a scary thing, I feel at home on stage. It is only doing this, even in the preparation for it that there is no concern for sleep or hunger. There is something, almost magical, that drives me. I wish I could explain it in some other way, but at times; there really are no words.
I also have the privilege of having other performers as friends, who understand the trials, stresses and weird quirks that creatives sometimes experience. They are often able to lend a shoulder, an ear, offer a kind word to help keep me inspired. There is so much power in having someone genuinely understand, even if they can’t do anything to change the situation. It helps me to keep keeping on.
Do you believe that it is important to be accepted by others as being creative or is just doing what you love to do enough to justify your work? Explain.
I imagine every creative would want their contribution to be accepted by others. When you leave your heart on the stage, bare your soul to an audience, you definitely don’t want them to stamp all over it. After weeks, months or sometimes years of toiling over a project, when you finally expose yourself, it is the dream that everyone will not only accept, but also love it. The heart is a gentle, fragile thing… yet, the heart is also strong and very resilient, so the reality of sometimes you being the only one loving and accepting what you are doing, knowing that you have given your all, has to be enough.
A lot of people dislike jazz. If or when they share this with you, what do say? Do you feel the need to defend it because you love it so much?
I don’t feel the need to defend what I love. I know that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. There's this stereotype of jazz being boring and elitist and it's so not that. If we look at the history of jazz and its birth it is the actually the opposite. People who have come to my shows to support me, usually come back because they loved what they experienced. They forget titles and genres – it’s about what they felt in the space. That makes me happy!
Has rejection ever affected your creative process? Explain.
No I can’t say that it has directly. What has affected me is my own rejection of myself; as mentioned before I sometimes find myself hating the sound of my voice and cringing at my recordings. That has slowed me down a bit at times, but I’ve come to realise (even if it is awful lol), some people will like it and some may not, and it’s really about me continuing to produce work and fulfill my passion.
Looking at what you have created in the past, would you change anything today? Why or why not?
I don’t think I’d change any of my contributions from the past. They have all contributed towards the performer I am today and to some of the most invaluable relationships I have to this day. Any ‘mistakes’ are seen as lessons and it’s nice to see how much I have grown. This gives me hope for how much more I will grow.
Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?
Definitely, I doubt my talent quite often. I think I have a pretty decent ear and eye for talent, and I often find myself surrounded by very talented people, and while, I know it makes no sense to compare oneself to anyone else, there are times I feel very small and very much lacking.
How do I work through it? A friend recently told me, ‘a pinch of salt may not know its value to a pot of rice’. I hope I remembered his quote correctly… but he basically beautifully articulated the thought that helps me move past my doubts.
What piece of work are you most proud? Why?
The piece I am most proud of is a song that my brother Theodore wrote. It's called, “We'll Fly”.
The reason I am so proud of it, is because I understand as an artist when you create something it is often your heart that you are sharing. The fact that he trusted me with his creation, to effectively share it with the world, is very humbling. The fact that he thinks that I’ve done a good job is the cherry on the cake.
What is the best advice you've received that helped you move forward on your creative journey?
Where performance is concerned, the best I ever received and keep with me was from Raf Robertson. He told me to leave my soul on the stage; give it all to the audience. He shared this with me many years before he passed away, and it has stayed with me and helps to stay true to myself to this day.
To a young Creative emerging in your field, what advice would you impart unto them?
I don’t know how good I am at giving at advice, but I’d recommend to always try to be true to yourself and your work, and echoing the Raf’s advice to me, whatever your stage may be, leave your soul on it.
You talk about your circle a lot. If you could tell that support system one thing right now, what would that be?
Really just how immensely grateful I am for them. I know that when I walk on stage whether they are there in person or not, how loved I am – and I know how loved I will be when I get off the stage.
I have friends who do what I do, that have told me that some of their family and friends have never been to any of their shows. I have no idea what that feels like because I have so much support in the room – it makes me realise how privileged and blessed I am.
I have a lot of acquaintances and cool friends, but my inner circle, they have been there forever, and I know they will be continue to be with me.
For what would you like to be most remembered?
I sing a lot of love songs… I don’t think it’s an accident that this is what comes out of me. I hope to be remembered as someone who brought a bit more love and light to this world.
If you were a crayon, what would be the name of your colour?
I’d be Black Rose. I’d be a magic crayon, a combination of my two favourite colours, black and rose, and also the perfect representation of my favourite poem, “Black Rose” by Abiodun Oyewole. This crayon would have the ability to “change night into day” and would be a “creator of nations”.
Here's a taste of Bri's live performance.