Life On Planets
Photo: Courtesy of artist
Life On Planets Talks Astrology, Inclusivity On The Dancefloor & Why We Have To Be Like Martin Luther King Jr.
Baltimore-bred singer, guitarist and producer Phill Celeste, a.k.a. Life on Planets, is an Aries—the fire sign represented by the ram. Aries is known for taking charge and getting things done, and that's exactly his MO. "I'm always trying to keep it flowing, keep going, keep pushing ahead. I guess that's gotten us here," he told GRAMMY.com from Miami, where he is living for the next few months with his girlfriend.
Celeste's music—a sweet blend of house, funk, R&B, and soul, bolstered by his rich, deep vocals—embodies movement. His catalog easily shifts between sunny daytime vibes and sweaty dancefloors. Yet, his joyful music is made not just with the intention of getting people grooving, but—in the vein of soul greats like Al Green, Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye—with thought and feeling in his lyrics that celebrate love, friendship and the possibility of a brighter future.
"Everybody always comes together to unite under the music. So, I feel like [the dancefloor's] always been a powerful place to spread messages," he said. "I've always felt comfortable [speaking] on the mic and [raising] people up and [building] that energy and [trying] to transmute it into something that can go beyond just that moment."
The inspiring artist recently spoke to GRAMMY.com about his love of astrology and using music as a catalyst for social change. He also talks the inspiration and creative journey behind his latest single "Grateful," how he covered Afro disco classic "Only You," and more.
I really want to know where the name Life on Planets came from.
Back when I first started this project, I was working for a producer who goes by Discoogie. I guess he doesn't make music anymore, but I was busking and making these house tracks with him. I would ask him, "What's your astrology? When were you born? What's your moon sign?" All that stuff and eventually he was like, "Yo, we should call this project Life on Planets because you're so into astrology."
He would always give people names and I was like, "All right, I'll take it. Life on Planets." I guess people think it's all about aliens and space, and it is. That's half of it, but I'm really into astrology, and I like to think of ideas and places and things as planets that we orbit around.
What sign are you and how do you feel it affects your art?
I'm an Aries. I am very, how do I say? I want to say the good things because when you say Aries, people are always [look sideways at you], like, "Ohhh. Okay." And I'm a Leo moon and Leo ascendant. They say these placements can lead to performer, exhibitionist, outgoing personalities.
I feel like, as the [Aires] ram, an embodiment of this energy of pushing through things and moving forward. I tend to be very, "How can I get this done as fast as possible, as easy as possible?" Whether it's working on an idea and bringing a collaborator in, I'm always trying to keep it flowing, keep going, keep pushing ahead. I guess that's gotten us here.
This would be cool if it was an interview just about astrology, but we should also talk about music. You have a few tracks coming out on Studio 54 Records and I would love if you could take us through the creative process and the inspiration for one of them: "Grateful."
"Grateful" I wrote when I was living in New York. To give some background, I moved to New York from Baltimore in August 2019 and was trying to figure things out and get into the scene there, start meeting people. I wrote "Grateful" shortly after I went to a show at Elsewhere [in Brooklyn] and the big headliner was The Knocks. We were walking around and hanging out and getting squished. I was just feeling really ugh [about the packed crowd] and then The Knocks started playing all this throwback stuff, like Foster the People and MGMT. It was super high school. I was like, "Oh snap," and everybody was blissed out. I was thinking, "Ah, man. I want to make something that can give that old school vibe."
I used to listen to Daft Punk and MGMT and all this cool electronic pop and I was like, "Give me some of that vibe." Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I started recording "Grateful" and trying to do some more weird effected stuff and some electronic pop-influenced stuff. The lyrics are about my girlfriend. Over the course of our relationship, I would always think, "What if that one moment never happened? Would things still have turned out the same if I hadn't offered to help her with her bags? Would we have still connected?" Because it just feels so important and this one moment led to this and then now my life is completely different.
The song is basically half about peering into the alternate dimension, looking at those moments as if I was Marty McFly or something, and the other half is appreciating how special the relationship is.
I love that backstory. I'm also curious about the technical side of the different beats and approaches you used to make "Grateful."
Sometimes I feel self-conscious about this influence, but I'm a big fan of Justin Timberlake and what he did with Timbaland and Pharrell. All of that stuff, you throw it on, I just start singing and dancing. I did a lot of vocal percussion on both this track and "Everyday." I was doing a lot of prrr chhh prrr, in the beginning, you can hear it, and then I threw that through a bunch of effects and delay and phasers and stuff to try to make it sound like this texture or this groove that you just can't always capture in a sample.
And then I've got my guitar going, just trying to hold down a little steady thing. It was always my idea to combine psychedelic guitar with house sounds and R&B influences for the vocals. For the guitar stuff, sometimes I like to run it through an effects chain where I almost make it sound like a synth. I did it on this one a little bit in the pre-chorus, where it slowly ramps up. And I'm trying to take a little bit of CHIC, Nile Rodgers, always a little bit of that chicken pickin' going throughout.
So, there's that and then the drums. I feel like I always try to take a really soft kick. I love those hip-hop kicks that KAYTRANADA likes to throw around. On this track, I was trying to take a soft kick, but then boost it. There's some side-chaining going on, especially with the guitars so that that kick really stands out and punches. I took some trap drums and some 909s and 808s and layered them.
And there's that bass. That's also along that KAYTRA hip-hop, trap sound. I love to take 808s and put them into this dance music world. In the chorus, there's a really heavy piano sample that I found through Arturia, like the Mini V, and so I layered that and it just sounds like bam, baa, baaa. It's like "Alright, here we go!" When I wanted to take it to the next level with textures and the vibe, I went to Splice because everybody's on there. I was like, "Okay. Let me finally join the hive." I got some weird little loops. There was a clock ticking and I pitched it down and tucked it in.
One of the other songs I want to talk about is "Only You," one of your many 2020 releases. It's so dope how you flip the Steve Monite Afro disco classic. Can you talk about your approach to that track and, again, some of the different elements that you brought into it?
I was cleaning the house or something, and had Spotify radio going and I heard [Steve Monite's] "Only You" and I was like, "Holy f***. What record is this from? Who is this?" I started listening to that boogie and Lagos [compilation album the track is on] all the time. I started hearing it out. I would hear it at every afterparty, like Sunrise Vibes, and I was like, "Okay. This is so hot."
Then I got inspired by dvsn. I was watching the highlights from Coachella, and I was like, "Holy sh*t." [Daniel Daley] starts singing Usher, riffing, and then they go into this Usher song. I was like, "Oh, it is so cool. I need to do more covers. I need to do more singalongs." Usually, I play for an hour and it's all my stuff and it's fun, but people can't always sing along.
I was like, "'Only You' will be perfect because ... everybody vibes with this song," and I hadn't heard a 1:00 a.m. version—not that you can only play my version then. But I wanted to have one for 1:00 a.m. at my set at the club because the original is more for sunrise or sunset. It's chilled out.
I was in Barcelona [for a show], trying to figure out what I wanted to do with this "Only You" thing because I had a couple hours and I didn't have my flash drive. I was like, "Alright. Let me just see what I can make with what I have here." I started throwing together some 808s and trying to make just some really cool little beats with that tap, tap, tap [rhythm in the original]. I was really trying everything in the box because I didn't even have my interface or a way to really record anything.
So, I arranged it all and then sung over it through my computer microphone and mimicked the guitar. Then I sent it to my homeboy Mateyo, who DJs for me when we play bigger shows, so I can be out front, jumping around. He also does sound engineering and mixing and mastering. I'm like, "Bro, what do you think of this? Can we work with it? Let's get in the studio and record this proper."
I don't think we even really did anything to it from that initial session. He just mixed it really well and we came to the studio. I recorded my vocals and an actual guitar, but for the most part it stayed the same. That was before I had Splice, so on YouTube or Freesound.com I found a couple of [samples of] fire alarms, horses galloping and sprinklers. There are some sounds like that for the transitions at the beginning. And then of course, there's the worst alarm [sound], your alarm clock when you wake up. I was like "How can I take these elements and then make them percussive?"
With a lot of the music that you put out this year, you've donated part of the proceeds to Black Lives Matter, ACLU and other organizations. How you see dance music and more generally being an artist as part of the catalyst for social change and racial justice?
Every time I go [to a house music party,] there are always so many different people from different backgrounds. You've got people like the OGs who have been in the scene watching it grow and do it for years and then you've got young kids, you've got DJs, you got dancers. It's like everybody always comes together to unite under the music. So, I feel like it's always been a powerful place to spread messages and somewhere that I've always felt comfortable [speaking] on the mic and [raising] people up and [building] that energy and [trying] to transmute it into something that can go beyond just that moment.
I feel like a lot of the DJs and producers I've worked with are super woke and always staying up on the issues and trying to make way and to work for change. I see plenty of other guys trying to make a stand and do what they can. This whole [donation] thing happened organically from a couple of conversations with Soul Clap. We started saying, "Yo, what can we do to still put this music out there, but to make it something, make it help?"
Since that conversation, [there's] just been more conversations with Kitsune where we're like, "We're donating X amount to Black Lives Matter. What can we do?" We picked Campaign Zero because that's a little more targeted with Kitsune ... I think we've always paid respects to those who have come before and the dance floor has always been a safer space—with P.L.U.R. [or, peace, love unity respect]—for trans folks and for gay people, for everybody just to come together and give it up to the ether.
What do you see as an essential part of bringing the dance music industry back to its inclusive and radical roots?
It's an interesting question because there's only so much I can do as an artist of color and people like me can do. I feel like it's really on the gatekeepers in every avenue to wake up, and it's my job to help them wake up and pass me the key. I was talking to Seth Troxler about this on this "Schmoozing and the Soul Clap" weekly talk show. We were saying it comes down to more promoters waking up and trying to add more artists of color, and of every background to their roster, to fill in the paint by numbers. It comes down to PR companies trying to get more press, writers wanting to write about and to get to know artists of color.
I think it's definitely on us to keep making our voices heard, to keep making art and to keep expressing ourselves, and to keep fighting for change, but I think the music scene, as we know, is dominated by white people that are just booking their friends or hooking up homies or whatever. And so, they have to turn around and say, "Oh, I need to make some new homies," and really try to do their part. Hopefully.
I mean, I've seen it happen. Our interaction here. Working with Infamous PR, they reached out to me and said, "Hey, we want to help and do our part and make more Black artists and more artists of color visible. That's what we've done for other artists." And so, they want to really take the time to support. A guy like me, that's just been making music and touring and trying to scrape by as an artist, doesn't necessarily have the funds to pay these crazy premiums for marketing. I've been fortunate enough to have all that come into my circle because more and more people are waking up to it. I hope it keeps happening. We'll keep waking up and we can all get to a level where things are a little more equal.
In 2020, we experienced a much-needed reckoning with systemic racism in America and there's been a lot of really important conversations that have come out from it. How do you think we can keep the conversations and activism going, especially when things seem to get better, back to "normal," or how so often the cycles go?
I think we've seen it happen already. I don't hear anybody talking about Breonna Taylor. Obviously, life is going to return to some normal and we've all been cooped up, and people need to have their mimosas or their dance parties. I've been seeing all these crazy pictures of people going out here in Miami and they don't care at all, but I just think for those of us that haven't forgotten and that have to keep playing this game, I've had to keep posting stuff on social media and to just keep checking in, keep making sure that our message is there. I do think that there has to also be some sort of shift a little bit in the way we approach these things.
I was actually talking to some homies the other night. We just got really deep on all of this and I forget who said it, but you have to lead with love, right? And there are so many people that are just like, "Ah, I don't want to be a downer," or, "All lives matter," or, "You can't defund the police," and I feel we can't just isolate them. The more we let them be in their vacuum chamber, the more toxic that community is going to become. So, we have to be bigger. We have to be like Gandhi, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and not worry about the blows we might receive and approach the other side with love and try to educate them.
There's got to be a way to talk their language and get them to open their eyes and so, I think we need to almost study the psychology of the naysayer and try to meet them on their ground or something. Otherwise, there's going to be this division forever, and we need to come together in order to tackle these bigger problems.
I did phone banking with voters in Georgia and the organizers talk a lot about meeting people where they're at and how you don't have to have the same views as someone to be able to relate to them as a human. And it's not about proving them wrong, but offering a different perspective or offering some realness to the lies that they've been consuming.
It's not a sprint, right? It's a marathon and so, we don't have to immediately change or transform anybody in one conversation. That's impossible. You just have to keep having those little conversations and try to just make those little steps forward.
With music it's an easy way to capture someone. They hear that beat, they hear that bang, and then you slide in a little message. They might be affected on some level and take that message and take it to heart and impart that onto someone else. That's the hope at least.