Celeste Lear is sitting in a small cafe nursing a dark pint of Moose Drool. Reddish-blonde, craftily curled ringlets cup her face as she leans down for a sip. It’s 11 a.m. the day after she flew into Reno from her home in Topanga Canyon, Calif., to talk about her new CD, The Echo Inside, and to plug its May 7 release party.
Just across the seat is a handsome white building with a pointed white roof, the Lear Theater, closed for renovation. It was named after her grandmother, local philanthropist Moya Lear of Lear Jet fame.
Celeste is proud of her family’s history in this town. Her childhood was split between living with her dad in Verdi and with her mom in Topanga Canyon. But the 27-year-old is quick to point out that, while growing up in a wealthy family, she’s done the waitress gig, too, and she doesn’t expect anything to be handed to her.
The Echo Inside shows talent money can’t buy. It also has a dose of that Lear entrepreneurial spirit. Lear formed her own indie label, Boutique Electronic Records, on which to release her CD. She wrote and programmed all of Echo‘s songs, except for two she co-wrote. She produced several of the tracks, and she also plays guitar and piano on the album.
“I take great pride in the fact that I do it myself,” she says.
Lear’s music, like her, is a mixture of the pagan and the gothic; it’s California nature-lover and Reno edgy rocker. In fact, Reno’s mark is all over this album—several of the songs were recorded at local producer David Hauser’s Tiny Forest Studios; the cover art was by Reno artist Andrew Waage; and many lyrics were drawn from her experiences in Northern Nevada.
The result is pretty great. Breathy, sultry, downtempo sound reigns on The Echo Inside—Lear terms it “alt-tronica” music. The sitar, erhu and strings create a dreamy otherworldliness in “Kamila” and “In the Face in the Crowd,” while influences of Portishead and Morcheeba are strongly apparent in Lear’s voice in nearly every song. Traces of newer, dance-hall Madonna ("Similar Creatures"), Moby ("Letter from a Train") and quirky Tori Amos ("Mrs. Knievel") also come out to play.
Lear adds layer upon layer of sound to create these songs—a process she loves. In her younger years, she prided herself on making the perfect mix tape. Everything had to flow in the right order. “The mixed tape is a sacred thing,” she says, only half-joking.
She honed those skills at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz, where she studied jazz programming, arranging and theory. Then it was on to San Francisco State University for sound engineering.
All of this, by the way, she did with one functional ear. A car accident when she was 16 left her temporarily in a coma and permanently deaf in her right ear. She keeps her humor about it—her friends call her “One Ear Lear.” But it’s frustrating, too, and she’ll often cup her left ear to better filter the sound. “It’s definitely a struggle,” she says. “But it also helps me focus pretty intently on the sound.”
Lear says that while many of her lyrics may be melancholy, they also contain a great deal of hope and elation. “I just want people to feel the passion that I feel in my life,” she says. “It’s that spark I love to share.”