Interview: Corinne Bailey Rae | New music reviews, news & interviews
Interview: Corinne Bailey Rae
Popstar with hot new album discusses soul music, Wordsworth and the Death Of The Author
Her self-titled 2006 debut album sold nearly four million copies, went straight in to the top of the British pop charts, spent 71 weeks in the Billboard chart in the US and picked up a truckload of MOBOs, Grammy nominations and other prizes. She is one of a series of interesting, bright, British female singers who have exported well to the States and worldwide in the past few years, such as Adele, Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse (and then there’s Susan Boyle).
The follow-up, The Sea, is a confident step forward, adventurously mixing rock and soul influences and has more of a big-screen layered production (co-produced by Bailey Rae herself) than its predecessor. Robert Sandall, reviewing The Sea in theartsdesk, praised it as a “life-affirming” record with its “unpredictable complexity of her arrangements - loud and brassy one moment, cool and breezy next”. It is a fabulously assured pop record, with a powerful emotional punch and some highly memorable songs.
The gap between records is partly explained by a personal tragedy – her husband, Scottish saxophonist Jason Rae, whom she met when she was a hat-check girl in a club, died in March 2008 in Leeds, the city where she was born, formed her first band, studied English Literature at university and still lives. Next to his body were three empty bottles of Methadone. The coroner’s verdict was death by misadventure, an accidental overdose of alcohol and drugs. Bailey Rae withdrew from view, nursing her grief and trying to avoid the media firestorm, before starting to play live again in a small club in Leeds.
As she told one interviewer, "It's a massive shock in terms of the story of your life that you're imagining. You've got the first few pages and the rest has just been ripped away." For months "I did not think about my career at all. It was just not part of my thinking." She says she became an avid knitter, to pass the time.
More than half the album was written before the tragedy, but several songs seem to refer to her husband’s death, including the extraordinary opening track, “Are You Here”, with its poignant sense of loss and wonderfully psychedelic chorus, “He comes to lay me down in a garden of tube-roses". Her PR tells me she’s had a hard time with the “insensitive” questioning about Jason and asks that I steer clear of the subject as much as possible.
She comes over to my table – she is more graceful and animated than the photos have prepared me for. I ask her how she feels when the record company suits start discussing “consumer segmentation” and other marketing-speak in reference to what is a rather personal artistic statement. She says she doesn’t have to deal with all that - it will be discussed “and probably turned down." I tell her she must be pleased with the album and, as co-producer, with the sound she achieved. She says she wanted it to “be bigger, more layered, more aggressive and more organic". She recorded the album mainly on analogue tape rather than being digitally recorded. “For the first album, I found my vocals to be thinner than the tracks I loved from the past which are so full and rich."
The habit most modern producers have of putting down one track after another onto a computer click-track is also something she hates. “They put the drums down, and then the bass and the guitar and by the time you do your singing, it’s the icing on the cake and you haven’t been able to influence it. You’re a band who has been playing together for years and then you are supposed to record separately in the studio. Also it means that the tempo remains the same – listen to the great Motown tracks and they usually end up a bit faster as the energy increases – you can’t do that on a click track." Life is messy, so why shouldn’t music be? “I agree – I like it when things bleed into each other. There’s a fetish about instruments being recorded separately, but they aren’t heard separately live.”
Bailey Rae has a history of being a rock chick, loving Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix from an early age. She she tells me about the first club she used to go to in Leeds, called the Brighton Beach. “It was a Northern soul club, but they’d play indie music in one room and Stax and Motown in another. I’ve always thought it weird to think that some music is black and some white and to have separate clubs and radio stations." I point out that the most successful English pop, starting from the Beatles and the Stones, is mixed race to some degree. “And then you get Nina Simone doing a Bee Gees song, or Aretha Frankin covering a Beatles song so it goes full circle, it’s a constant conversation."
Her father comes from St Kitts, and her mother from Leeds. She says she had some racism directed towards her as child, with ignorant yobs taunting her for being a “Paki”. Her response was to say, “Actually my father is from St Kitts." She is a fan of the Who Do You Think You Are? , the television programme in which people trace their roots. “So many people turn out to have a mixed background. I’d love Nick Griffin [of the BNP] to go on it and he’d probably find he had some black ancestry somewhere." She hasn’t travelled to St Kitts yet, although she wants to. “Until I was 19 I’d never been on a plane." Now she adores the excitement of discovering new places and has Iceland and Brazil on the top of the list of places to visit. One track on the new album, “Paris Nights/New York Mornings”, has something of the rush of discovery which many of us had on our first visits. “I love the architecture of Paris, the food, the culture, the hipness and irreverence of New York, and it was a kick flying from one to the other."
She mentions the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who has become a feminist icon, an almost Christ-like symbol of redemption from suffering, as "a inspiration." Modern singers she rates include Erykah Badu and Bjork, although other names people keep dropping in relation to her include Minnie Ripperton from a previous generation, as though she's not anchored firmly to any particular decade.
While the mainstream media has been concentrating on asking her about her husband’s death, she confirms that about seven of the songs (of 11) had already been written. The title track, “The Sea”, was actually about her grandmother who died in a boating accident. Has the questioning been tough? “Yesterday, someone jumped right in and asked what the funeral was like. Things like that are pretty brutal."
Were there tracks that she worried were too confessional? “When I started 'Are You Here', I was surprised at what I was singing, it was so stark. But then I went into this flower shop and the florist said, 'Have you smelt these tube-roses?' And it was an incredible, intense, sexual smell. I wanted them in the song – so the verse is personal and the chorus is more universal, a mix I try and achieve in most songs." I suggest the roses moment reminded me of Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils". It turns out she loves The Prelude. “A lot of those childhood experiences sear themselves into your consciousness." Emotion recollected in tranquillity? “The line I loved was how he was 'fostered alike by beauty and by fear’- the sense of the sublime, those huge contrasts, the dynamic changes.” It is something she tries to incorporate into her songs - “How it can go from really shrunken down to a massive high in the course of a song: I like songs that pull you around like that.” We also mention Coleridge and his drug habits and how the Romantics were “pretty rock’n’roll".
Literature was important to her from childhood: “I loved reading when I was little. I read Alice Walker and got interested in culture and blackness – even though there wasn’t anyone I could speak about it to. But I’ve always found words fascinating, that just a bunch of sounds that can have such effect; it’s an incredible, magical thing." Recently she has been reading poetry by musicians, such as Patti Smith’s Blakean Auguries of Innocence and Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing.
“It’s a spiritual quest. He spent a lot of time as a monk. But he kept thinking about booze and sex." Another thing has stayed with her from her literature studies. “During the first week we did the idea of ‘the death of the author’, which I thought was mind-blowing. Take a song like 'Every Breath You Take' – Sting said he wrote it in five minutes and says it’s a paranoid song about controlling someone. But now it’s played a lot at weddings and funerals. It’s an amazing thing; you don’t know even really know what your songs are about. Like children, you let them out into the world and you don’t know what will happen to them.”Watch Corinne Bailey Rae singing Joni Mitchell's "The River", for which she won a Grammy:
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