Corinne Bailey Rae: Still waters run deep
With her 2006 UK-chart-topping debut album ‘Corinne Bailey Rae’ having sold over four million worldwide, Leeds-born-and-raised singer/songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae has unquestionably become Britain’s biggest black female musical export since the Eighties breakthrough of the now-legendary Sade.
The eldest of three daughters born to a black West Indian father and white Yorkshire mother, Corinne grew up in the Leeds suburb of Moortown to the constant soundtrack of soul legends like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Jacksons on the home stereo. Nevertheless, following encouragement by a trendy youth leader at her local Baptist church, it was surprisingly within the indie-rock field that she made her first foray into music - forming her own all-female band, Helen, at age 15. Nevertheless, with Helen narrowly missing out on a deal with metal specialists Roadrunner Records due to the bass-player becoming pregnant and subsequently splitting, at 18 Corinne began studying English Literature at Leeds University while also working part-time at local jazz club The Underground. During which time her soulful roots began to surface more within her own music, with her frequently spending quiet afternoons at the club singing onstage with the local jazz bands.
However, it was Corinne’s next step - sending her solo demo to a London-based publishing company - that eventually landed her a publishing deal plus an immediate hook-up with various “name” writers. With said hook-up ultimately seeing her amass enough material for an album, in 2004 Corinne meanwhile decided to get together with some local musicians/writers/producers and head to the Yorkshire town of Idle - where she would go on to record what would become a worldwide best-selling album in the basement of an art shop! Indeed, with her aforementioned, 2006-released self-titled debut LP going on to sell over four million worldwide and prestigiously garner numerous BRIT and Grammy nominations along the way, the rest - as they say - soon became history!
Nevertheless, with Corinne going on to start work on the songs for her second album at the end of 2007, in March 2008 fate would deal a cruel blow with the sudden and unexpected death of her husband, saxophonist Jason Rae. Which in turn resulted in a devastated Corinne taking a complete break from music, before eventually revisiting the songs she’d already written - in addition to subsequently penning new ones - over a year later.
All of which has ultimately led to the highly-anticipated worldwide release this month of 30-year-old Corinne’s aforementioned, long-awaited sophomore set ‘The Sea’. Which - recorded mainly in Leeds and Manchester and co-produced by Bailey Rae herself with two separate local producers, Steve Brown and Steve Chrisanthou - has already been acclaimed as “a career-defining album” and “an early contender for album of the year”.
Indeed, with its honest and intimate lyrical potency reflecting her own personal journey, Corinne herself has described the deeply evocative ‘The Sea’ as being “about loss but also about hope; about keeping going and trying to find that beauty that exists in the loss”. Which in turn is reflected in the album’s sad-yet-uplifting music diversity. Where tracks range from the defiantly intense, surging lead-off single ‘I’d Do It All Again’ and equally emotive, slowly shuffling ‘I Would Like To Call It Beauty’; to the sassy funk and rock guitar of ‘The Blackest Lily’ (recorded in California with members of US hip hop band The Roots) and breezy upbeat pop of forthcoming single ‘Paris Nights/New York Mornings’. All of which climaxes with the album’s sombre and majestic title-track. An achingly sad farewell written about a family tragedy, which decades ago saw Corinne’s maternal grandfather tragically dying in a boating accident.
Which in turn inevitably finds Pete Lewis reacquainting himself with a softly-spoken and articulate Corinne over afternoon drinks at Soho’s world-famous jazz club Ronnie Scotts. Where (having been understandably requested to avoid any mention of Corinne’s sad loss) he quizzes her in detail about her latest, internationally-successful musical opus.
Titling her new album ‘The Sea’
“I just felt that lyrically, throughout the course of the album, there seemed to be a lot of water coming into play. You know, in addition to the song ‘The Sea’ itself, I also wrote about the sea on ‘Diving For Hearts’; while on ‘I Would Like To Call It Beauty’ there was reference to water… Plus I also felt the actual SOUND of the record had a kind of tidal movement to it too, in the way that we recorded the songs. You know, sometimes it would just be me and my guitar. Then we’d really sort of swell up into these big arrangements, only to then retreat back to it just being me and my guitar again… Also the fact that the sea is this huge body of water that has all this beauty - but is at the same time something to be terrified about - I thought created a really good image for the album overall and for the different THEMES on it. So, as we got towards the end of the record and all of these things just started to tie up, to me it just kinda made sense to call it ‘The Sea’.”
What Corinne wanted to achieve musically this time round
“I felt like I wanted to make it a heavier record than my first. I felt like I wanted it to be more dynamic; I wanted there to be more contrast; I wanted it to sound more ‘live’; I wanted the songs to be about a broad range of things; I wanted to write the songs myself; I wanted to work somewhere that was familiar to me; I wanted to work with musicians I really admired; I wanted us to all be in the same room at the same time while we were recording... And, because I feel all these things have happened, overall I’m really pleased with how this record has turned out.”
Some of the songs that stand out to her lyrically
“’Diving For Hearts’ is a song that I really enjoy, because I feel it’s thinking about the spiritual experiences I’ve had, what they meant, how to get back to them, and whether you SHOULD try to get back to them. You know, just as I like thinking of the sea as this place that overwhelms you but shelters you, I tend to think of MUSIC in that way as well. In the sense that music helps you to sort of get outside of yourself, and to be connected with other people and to whatever force it is that binds everything to God. Whereas a track like ‘Love’s On The Way’ is more of a POLITICAL song. Basically there I wanted write a song that was kind of aware, but not in a ‘let’s-all-join-hands-and-make-the-world-a-better-place’ way. You know, I didn’t want to write a NAÏVE political song. I basically wanted to look at why you should feel HOPEFUL… Because, though I feel a lot of my generation feel sort of powerless to change anything, at the same time they do still have all this hope and all these intentions. People still want to say they’ve DONE something, and that they have made a positive change.”
Why Corinne co-produced almost the entire album in England’s north-west with local long-time musical acquaintances Steve Brown (six tracks) and Steve Chrisanthou (four tracks)
“I chose to work with those people because I knew I wanted to co-produce and I felt - if I was working with somebody I didn’t already know - that they’d try and sort of take it OFF me and make the record into something it WASN’T. You know, I think that when you work with big-name producers, sometimes you just end up getting THEIR sound stamped all over your record - and I didn’t WANT that! I wanted this album to really reflect ME, and I also wanted it to draw on the recording techniques of the late Sixties and early Seventies - where everyone sang and played in a room together. I mean, a lot of this album was actually recorded to tape - because I felt that was a better way of recording my voice, of recording the drums, and generally bringing in that sort of compression, saturation and warmth to the music that I think a lot of digital recording today seems to cut out. Plus I also wanted to capture the excitement and that energy that only happens when you play live - when you’re not really thinking about what you’re doing, and anything can happen.”
The importance to her of “keeping it local”, recording-wise
“I didn’t decide to keep the recording local in order to be separate from the rest of the music industry in ANY WAY. It just so happened that the people I really admire, and am into as musicians, were people that I’ve known in or around Leeds for the past 10 years and who I’ve had past musical relationships with. Also, I didn’t wanna work in a studio with a huge desk and a clock on the wall. You know, I didn’t wanna have the pressure of thinking that, every minute that goes by, a certain amount of money is being spent. And I ended up being lucky enough to work in a studio where we weren’t getting charged a daily rate or anything of that sort. We were just there to do what we had to do.”
How Corinne nevertheless came to co-produce the track ‘The Blackest Lily’ in California with two members of super-credible US hip hop band The Roots - drummer Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson and keyboardist James Poyser
“All three of us had written some songs together for Al Green’s last album (2008’s ‘Lay It Down’). But then it turned out that Al didn’t really relate to one of them we’d started writing that I’d really liked… So I took it home and finished it, and then arranged to actually record it myself with Ahmir and James while I was back out in LA for the 2007 Grammies. So we recorded the song, it went fine... But, because it had taken a lot less time than we thought, we found ourselves with a spare day in the studio! So Ahmir was like ‘Haven’t you written anything ELSE we can record?’... And because I felt really bad - I mean, was sitting there with one of the world’s best drummers and one of the world’s best keyboard players, just editing guitars - I was like ‘Well, I have got this one kinda trashy Rolling Stones- type song that I haven’t finished writing all the words to’… And, because straightaway Ahmir was like ‘Yeah, let’s work on that one!’, we ended up just putting the song together and playing it there and then in the studio… And that song became ‘The Blackest Lily’! So, though we never ended up using the song I actually WENT there to record, we have used this other song that we did together in down-time!”
Her views on the album’s first two singles - the intense, emotional ballad ‘I’d Do It All Again’ and the upbeat, joyful ‘Paris Nights/New York Mornings’
“I really wanted ‘I’d Do It All Again’ to be the first single, because I felt it was a good way to re-introduce myself to people. Because it just starts with me playing my guitar and singing, but then all the different layers come in. And I really like the fact that it grows and swells to just one chorus, and then it retreats again. You know, it follows an unusual song form, and I felt it was an honest and raw song about love when things are difficult. Then ‘Paris Nights/New York Mornings’ is more upbeat and fun. It’s about two lovers meeting up in Paris and New York - two of my favourite cities - and just the way a city can inspire you, and how you can feel at home in a different space depending on the person you’re with. So, while I felt ‘I’d Do It All Again’ was a really good first single, I also felt ‘Paris Nights/New York Mornings’ was a good way of showing ANOTHER side to the album that’s not so heavy; to let people know that there is a lot of happy and playful stuff on there too.”
Corinne’s early mixed-race upbringing in England’s industrial north-west
“My parents first met at a Leeds soul club in the Seventies. And 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 didn’t fall into any stereotypical groups. For example, my dad - who’s 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.”
Making her first forays into music by forming her own band - the all-female indie-rock outfit Helen - at age 15
“It was kind of the end of the grunge era - just after the death of Kurt Cobain - and suddenly everyone wanted to be in a band. And, because I never saw myself as any sort of great singer at the time, to me the indie thing was ideal because you didn’t feel you had to have a massive voice; instead, you could just kind 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. We’d play well-known local venues like The Duchess Of York, where Nirvana had performed. I mean, there’s a 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.”
How Corinne’s soulful roots finally began to surface in her own music while she was working part-time at local jazz club The Underground
“At night I’d be behind the bar or checking coats. But, because the club also had jazz bands on in the afternoon, when it was quiet they’d 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 I’d grown up with at home 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 hadn’t been communicating in my indie band. And that was how I eventually ended up becoming a solo artist.”
The story behind her finally signing a solo deal with UK major EMI Records in late 2004
“First I got a publishing deal, and it was actually through that that a production company offered us enough money to record an album. Which was brilliant, because we got to make the whole record independently up in Yorkshire, far away from London and from any major label pressure. Basically I wanted to have a finished product before signing with anyone. Then, once we’d 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 - the ‘Corinne Bailey Rae’ album that sold four million copies across the world was literally the same record my producer Steve Chrisanthou and I had recorded under an art shop just outside Leeds!”
How Corinne feels about the explosion of British female soul singer/songwriters (Amy Winehouse/Duffy/Adele, etc) that’s surfaced since the release of her own self-titled debut LP in 2006
“I feel really happy to see so many female artists happening in the mainstream, and it’s also good to hear so many people making quality, emotional music. Certainly for me, out of them all Amy’s record was the one that really stood out as just being an amazing achievement - in terms of great singing, great playing, really good songwriting... I mean, sometimes other people get compared to her, which is something I find myself scratching my HEAD about! Because I feel she is just exceptional in that field… But yeah, overall I definitely think it’s a good time to be a female artist, and I just hope it continues. Because I feel sometimes people still do see female artists as a novelty. You know, I play at events and sometimes people will say stuff like ‘Oh, you can’t do Saturday ‘cause there’s another female singer/songwriter performing on the same day’... Which is something no-one ever says about male artists!”
How the musical climate in general has changed and become more diverse since Corinne’s last album was released
“I feel it’s always really positive for the scene overall when music becomes more diverse and broad. And, since I released my last album in 2006, I do feel music has become less solidified around genres. Which I think is a good thing, because I think a lot of artists don’t actually see themselves being there to advertise ‘the brand that is R&B’ or ‘the brand that is rock music’ or whatever. So it’s great today to see people who make hip hop - like Jay-Z, who’s really broad in his tastes - working with rock musicians like Chris Martin. I mean, you do genuinely feel there is a mutual respect between people from different styles, and so that was one thing I definitely wanted to be a part of. And with ‘The Sea’ I feel like I have made a record that is hard to place into one particular genre. Because, while it is a record of soulful music that is jazz-influenced, it also has more unusual sounds to it - like choirs, auto-harps, harmoniums… Which are more the kind of things you’d associate with an indie band. You know, I did want to express myself across the full range. And I feel with this album I have created a mixture that hopefully hangs together really well.”
What we can expect from Corinne’s forthcoming concert at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire
“Well, the live show is hopefully gonna be a really good adventure. I’m working with a band that I love, which is the same band I recorded the album with; I have an amazing, explosive drummer… And so I just feel there’s gonna be a lot of movement, to where I almost don’t know WHAT to expect from it! You know, while we will be playing a few songs from our first album, we’ll obviously be doing much more from this new one - plus some unexpected covers. So we’ll be mixing it up and just seeing what happens on the actual night. You know, so much depends on the audience... So yeah, I’m definitely looking forward to playing live at Shepherds Bush. Plus I’ll also be doing some more gigs in the UK in March, before I go to America for about seven weeks to play live… Then after that we’re also gonna be doing a lot of festivals this year - Coachella, Glastonbury... So yeah, we’re definitely getting back on the tour bus!”
Corinne plays Shepherds Bush Empire, London on February 24. Tickets available on www.corinnebaileyrae.net or on 0844 477 2000/0871 2200 260
Corinne’s album ‘The Sea’ and single ‘I’d Do It All Again’ are both out now. The single ‘Paris Nights/New York Mornings’ follows on March 29, all through Virgin Records/Good Groove
Words PETE LEWIS