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Issue 1084

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Feature

CORINNE BAILEY RAE: PURE GOLD!

Corinne
Corinne Corinne 2 Corinne 3 Corinne 4

Itâs January 20, 2005, and the BBCâs Radio 1Xtra are staging an upcoming UK talent show at Central Londonâs Elysium club. In the midst of performances from such familiar faces as Terri Walker and Nate James, an unknown Leeds-born-and-based singer/songwriter takes the stage with just her acoustic guitar and voice for company. A hush descends on the hard-core urban crowd who, despite their R&B and grime inclinations, show total respect and admiration for the unique blend of sweet old-soul vocals and haunting melodies delivered by this very different-sounding talent standing before them.

2 years later - almost to the day - and said talent, 27-year-old Corinne Bailey Rae, once more stands before yours truly, but this time confidently extending a firm handshake in the considerably-more-plush surroundings of the Albert Embankmentâs swish new Riverbank Plaza complex. Fact is, since the release of her UK chart-topping self-titled debut LP last March, Corinne has become a bona fide music star of truly global proportions. The quirkily-organic soul/folk flavours of her finely-crafted songs having seen her scale the upper echelons of the charts on every continent, including the notoriously hard to crack USA, where her albumâs current Platinum Top Five status makes her far and away the most successful UK-black female solo artist since the now legendary Sadeâs initial breakthrough some 22 years ago. Add to that 3 Grammy and 3 Brit nominations, and the cliché, âthe world is her oysterâ has never seemed more apt.

âWhen I look back on the last 12 months I can hardly believe it!â, enthuses Corinne in mild-yet-instantly-recognisable Yorkshire tones. âI mean, we werenât even gonna go to America last year. We were like âletâs just concentrate on Europe.â But, you know, sometimes things kind of happen out of your hands. It only takes a few people to hear what youâre doing and then, if theyâre interested, thereâs a demand. So, before we knew it, suddenly it was all âYouâve gotta come over. Youâve gotta play New York! Youâve gotta play LA! Youâve gotta play Chicago!â Iâve travelled so much this last year that Iâve hardly been back home in England!â

Despite the 3 million (and counting) international sales of her album and the acclaim bestowed on her music, in person Corinne Bailey (her second surname being added 5 years ago upon her marrying saxophonist Jason Rae) still retains the down-to-earth, unpretentious charm reflective of her upbringing in Englandâs industrial north. The eldest of 3 daughters born to a black West Indian father and white Yorkshire mother, she was born and grew up in the Leeds suburb of Moortown, whose local neighbourhood vibe is apparent in both the rows of terraced houses depicted on her albumâs distinctive cover-shot and the nostalgic memories of âparties on the driveâ evoked on her funky new single 'Iâd Like To'. âMy parents first met at a Leeds soul club in the 70'sâ, recalls the songstress who has in turn interestingly become the first global star born out of Britainâs long-established Northern soul scene. âAnd because, when I was young, it was quite rare for there to be mixed-race families - there was only one other in our school - we did kinda feel different. But, because my parents made us spend time with both sides of the family, I always felt integrated and never felt I was straddling this huge cultural divide. Plus, it was good to have parents who were kind of unconventional and who didnât fall into any stereotypical groups. For example, my dad - whoâs originally from St.Kitts - actually hates reggae, while my mum - a local Yorkshire woman - loves it! Yet they both grew up on funk and soul. So for me it was a good way to be brought up, with the two cultures really complimenting each other through both families becoming really close.â

Despite the constant presence of Stevie/Marvin/The Jacksons on the home stereo, however, it was within the indie-rock field that Corinne made her first forays in to music, forming her own band, Helen, at age 15 following encouragement by a trendy youth leader at her local Baptist church. âIt was kind of the end of the grunge era - just after the death of Kurt Cobain - and suddenly everyone wanted to be in a bandâ, she recalls with a smile. âAnd, because I never saw myself as any sort of great singer at the time, to me the indie thing was ideal because you didnât feel you had to have a massive voice; instead, you could just kinda write the music around your own vocal style. And, though we never really got to do any great recordings, we did do some really great gigs. Weâd play well known local venues like The Duchess Of York, where Nirvana had performed. I mean, thereâs handful of people in Leeds and surrounding areas who do know of the band and remember it to this day. And to me the important thing about that phase was it gave me my first experience of writing and performing songs, and of getting to know what works in a live context.â

With Helen narrowly missing out on a deal with metal specialists Roadrunner Records due to their bass-player becoming pregnant, at 18 Corinne began studying English Literature at Leeds University while also working part-time at local jazz club, The Underground. Which is where her more soulful roots finally began to surface in her own music.
âAt night Iâd be behind the bar or checking coats. But, because the club also had jazz bands on in the afternoon, when it was quiet theyâd ask me to come up and sing a few songs. Then when, as the weeks went by, more people started coming in to watch me, they started letting me stay on for half the set. And it was nice to be performing that music that Iâd grown up with but had never really seen myself as part of. It felt different but good not to have my guitar with me and to just be concentrating fully on the singing. And in turn, as a musician and a writer, it also made me yearn for the warmer, soulful chords that that type of music communicates - and which I felt I wasnât communicating in my indie band. This situation eventually resulted in me going solo.â
Significantly, it was Corinneâs next step - sending her demo to a London-based publishing company - that landed her a publishing deal plus an immediate hook-up with various name writers which resulted in her co-penning several songs that would ultimately end up on her album. âYeah, I was really lucky to write with all those people when I first got a publishing deal. You know, Iâd just finished working part-time in Leeds and I was coming down on the train to London once every few weeks to pen songs with experienced writers like John Beck (Tasmin Archer), Paul Herman (Dido) and Pam Sheyne (Christina Aguilera). Basically my publishing company had sent my demo to those people and theyâd all responded saying they wanted to write with me. So, because I didnât have a record deal at the time, all the songs were written in a natural and less artificial environment than if a major label had been putting pressure on those writers to work with me.â

Having amassed enough material for an LP, Corinne next decided to hook-up with some local musicians/writers/producers and headed to the Yorkshire town of Idle, where she would record what was to become a world-wide best-seller in the basement of an art shop! âThrough my publishing deal a production company offered us enough money to record an albumâ, she relates. âWhich was brilliant, because we got to make the whole record independently and far away from London and from any major label pressure. Basically I wanted to have a finished product before signing with anyone. Then, once weâd finished recording, I played a gig in November 2004 which a few record labels came to. And, because EMI were happy to take the record as it was without re-recording it, I figured they would be the right label to go with. So - aside of some mixing - that album youâre hearing today thatâs gone all over the world is the same record my producer Steve Chrisanthou and I recorded under an art shop just outside Leeds around 30 months ago!â

The rest, as they say, has become history. Yet, while the simplistic honesty of intimate Bailey Rae ballads like âLike A Starâ and âChoux Pastry Heartâ matched with her sweetly soulful vocal tone (which has been favourably compared to both Billie Holiday and Erykah Badu) are certainly valid reasons for her albumâs multi-cultural/cross-generational appeal, the matter of her prestigiously succeeding in the worldâs biggest music market, America, when so many others have failed does raise questions. After all, when fellow EMI UK chart mainstays like Robbie Williams/Beverley Knight/Jamelia have constantly gone ignored Stateside for the best part of a decade, why should Corinneâs uniquely-quirky blend of her soul and indie roots (which in no way fits neatly into any US radio format or marketing niche) have seen her attain record-breaking accomplishments like the highest-ever US chart-entry for a British artistâs debut album? Ms. Bailey Rae herself has some interesting theories on the subject.

âBecause I didnât try to make my record sound âAmericanâ, I was initially worried that would mean The States wouldnât get it. But now I actually think itâs meant the oppositeâ, she smilingly retorts. âYou know, if you do music that sounds like whatâs being played on American radio stations - really beats-heavy with lots of production and sassânâstreet in your lyrics - then so what?! Theyâve got any amount of artists like that out there already, so why should they pay attention to anything or anyone imported? The one word thatâs kept coming up when talking about my music in America is âdifferent.â Because they donât really know about the whole guitar-based indie thing over there, the fact there is a hint of that on my album means it actually sounds more edgy to them than it does to people in England. You know, the fact that it hasnât got big heavy drums and doesnât sound like Iâm aspiring to make American contemporary R&B has become a really big thing to them. And what Iâm particularly happy about is that - though America is generally more segregated that the UK - the audiences at my gigs are really mixed. Which to me is a dream come true, because that really does reflect my own background.â

Indeed, it would seem Corinne has accumulated some pretty influential fans from Americaâs entertainment elite. âYeah, I got to meet Stevie Wonder,â she gushes. âI did a face-to-face interview with him at his radio station for an hour. He loves the album and has spent a lot of time promoting it by playing the songs on the air. He also invited me to play at his charity concert just before Christmas. It was a really big audience - like a 6,000-seater stadium - and everyone had to bring a toy so all the toys could be given to underprivileged children. I got to play with Stevieâs band while he was standing in the wings - which to me was really special. Also, Mary J. Blige came up to me at the Grammy nominations and told me how sheâd bought my album while she was in London. And the fact someone of her stature could be so humble as to come up to a relatively-unknown artist and encourage them in that way totally overwhelmed me. I saw her again when we performed on the Oprah Winfrey show the other week - which again was a pretty surreal experience. Not only because itâs the worldâs biggest TV show, but just being in the presence of someone like Oprah who - as a black woman - has had a massive impact all across the globe was totally amazing.â

While the offers will unquestionably be forthcoming, Corinne nevertheless remains decidedly underwhelmed at the possibility of working with big-name US producers for her next album. âI can see how you could really get flattered and distracted into doing that, but Iâm actually being really careful about it. Because, while on the one hand working with someone like Timbaland would be amazing, on the other hand it would be so not me. You know, I really feel I should try to keep it small and keep it focused on making songs, without really being bothered about the beats. Because the prospect of putting all the songs together at the end and thinking âthat may sound like a GREAT album but it doesnât sound like my albumâ really doesnât appeal to me. It would totally sink everything Iâm trying to do as an artist. Itâs really important for me to feel a big attachment to my own record. Iâd rather muddle through and learn more about production and drums myself than just be saying to someone âyou can do the beats and Iâll just sing on top of itâ.â

Having recently composed music for the soundtrack to the new Peter OâToole movie Venus (which she claims is the closest sheâll get to acting!) and with a European tour kicking off in Amsterdam later this month, Corinne is nevertheless starting to form ideas about that all-important sophomore album. âIâve been writing bits and pieces for it, though I donât like to do so much of that when Iâm touring, partly because there isnât time and partly because I donât really wanna write loads of songs about being on the road. So I am going to have a separate piece of time - once weâve finished all the touring - to just start thinking about the next record. One thing I do know is that I definitely want to make it in Leeds again so we can still keep that home-made feel without getting any external pressure. And, in addition to bringing on board some of the people from my live band, I do definitely want to use the same musicians as last time. As well as being my friends who live locally, I also feel theyâre talented, world-class guys.â
A Leeds homegirl to the last!

The single âIâd Like Toâ and album âCorinne Bailey Raeâ are both out now. The DVD âCorinne Bailey Rae: Live In London & New Yorkâ follows on March 12, all through EMI/Good Groove.
Words PETE LEWIS

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