Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Corinne Bailey Rae: Still waters run deep

Corrine Bailey Rae
Corrine Bailey Rae Corrine Bailey Rae Corrine Bailey Rae Corrine Bailey Rae

With her 2006 UK-chart-topping debut album âCorinne Bailey Raeâ having sold over four million worldwide, Leeds-born-and-raised singer/songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae has unquestionably become Britainâs 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 Corinneâs 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 ânameâ 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 sheâd 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 Corinneâs aforementioned, long-awaited sophomore set âThe Seaâ. 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 âa career-defining albumâ and âan early contender for album of the yearâ.

Indeed, with its honest and intimate lyrical potency reflecting her own personal journey, Corinne herself has described the deeply evocative âThe Seaâ as being âabout loss but also about hope; about keeping going and trying to find that beauty that exists in the lossâ. Which in turn is reflected in the albumâs sad-yet-uplifting music diversity. Where tracks range from the defiantly intense, surging lead-off single âIâd Do It All Againâ and equally emotive, slowly shuffling âI Would Like To Call It Beautyâ; to the sassy funk and rock guitar of âThe Blackest Lilyâ (recorded in California with members of US hip hop band The Roots) and breezy upbeat pop of forthcoming single âParis Nights/New York Morningsâ. All of which climaxes with the albumâs sombre and majestic title-track. An achingly sad farewell written about a family tragedy, which decades ago saw Corinneâs 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 Sohoâs world-famous jazz club Ronnie Scotts. Where (having been understandably requested to avoid any mention of Corinneâs sad loss) he quizzes her in detail about her latest, internationally-successful musical opus.

Titling her new album âThe Seaâ

âI 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 âThe Seaâ itself, I also wrote about the sea on âDiving For Heartsâ; while on âI Would Like To Call It Beautyâ 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 weâd 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 âThe Seaâ.â

What Corinne wanted to achieve musically this time round

âI 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 âliveâ; 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 Iâm really pleased with how this record has turned out.â

Some of the songs that stand out to her lyrically

ââDiving For Heartsâ is a song that I really enjoy, because I feel itâs thinking about the spiritual experiences Iâve 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 âLoveâs On The Wayâ is more of a POLITICAL song. Basically there I wanted write a song that was kind of aware, but not in a âletâs-all-join-hands-and-make-the-world-a-better-placeâ way. You know, I didnât want to write a NAÃVE 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 theyâve DONE something, and that they have made a positive change.â

Why Corinne co-produced almost the entire album in Englandâs north-west with local long-time musical acquaintances Steve Brown (six tracks) and Steve Chrisanthou (four tracks)

âI chose to work with those people because I knew I wanted to co-produce and I felt - if I was working with somebody I didnât already know - that theyâd try and sort of take it OFF me and make the record into something it WASNâT. 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 didnât 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 youâre not really thinking about what youâre doing, and anything can happen.â

The importance to her of âkeeping it localâ, recording-wise

âI didnât 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 Iâve known in or around Leeds for the past 10 years and who Iâve had past musical relationships with. Also, I didnât wanna work in a studio with a huge desk and a clock on the wall. You know, I didnât 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 werenât getting charged a daily rate or anything of that sort. We were just there to do what we had to do.â

How Corinne nevertheless came to co-produce the track âThe Blackest Lilyâ in California with two members of super-credible US hip hop band The Roots - drummer Ahmir â?uestloveâ Thompson and keyboardist James Poyser

âAll three of us had written some songs together for Al Greenâs last album (2008âs âLay It Downâ). But then it turned out that Al didnât really relate to one of them weâd started writing that Iâd 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 âHavenât you written anything ELSE we can record?â... And because I felt really bad - I mean, was sitting there with one of the worldâs best drummers and one of the worldâs best keyboard players, just editing guitars - I was like âWell, I have got this one kinda trashy Rolling Stones- type song that I havenât finished writing all the words toâ⦠And, because straightaway Ahmir was like âYeah, letâs work on that one!â, we ended up just putting the song together and playing it there and then in the studio⦠And that song became âThe Blackest Lilyâ! 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!â

Her views on the albumâs first two singles - the intense, emotional ballad âIâd Do It All Againâ and the upbeat, joyful âParis Nights/New York Morningsâ

âI really wanted âIâd Do It All Againâ 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 âParis Nights/New York Morningsâ is more upbeat and fun. Itâs 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 youâre with. So, while I felt âIâd Do It All Againâ was a really good first single, I also felt âParis Nights/New York Morningsâ was a good way of showing ANOTHER side to the album thatâs not so heavy; to let people know that there is a lot of happy and playful stuff on there too.â

Corinneâs early mixed-race upbringing in Englandâs industrial north-west

âMy 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 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

Making her first forays into music by forming her own band - the all-female indie-rock outfit Helen - at age 15

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 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 didnât 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. Weâd play well-known local venues like The Duchess Of York, where Nirvana had performed. I mean, thereâs 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.â

How Corinneâs soulful roots finally began to surface in her own music while she was working part-time at local jazz club The Underground

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 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 hadnât been communicating in my indie band. And that was how I eventually ended up becoming a solo artist.â

The story behind her finally signing a solo deal with UK major EMI Records in late 2004

âFirst 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 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 - the âCorinne Bailey Raeâ 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!â

How Corinne feels about the explosion of British female soul singer/songwriters (Amy Winehouse/Duffy/Adele, etc) thatâs surfaced since the release of her own self-titled debut LP in 2006

âI feel really happy to see so many female artists happening in the mainstream, and itâs also good to hear so many people making quality, emotional music. Certainly for me, out of them all Amyâs 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 itâs 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 âOh, you canât do Saturday âcause thereâs another female singer/songwriter performing on the same dayâ... Which is something no-one ever says about male artists!â

How the musical climate in general has changed and become more diverse since Corinneâs last album was released

âI feel itâs 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 donât actually see themselves being there to advertise âthe brand that is R&Bâ or âthe brand that is rock musicâ or whatever. So itâs great today to see people who make hip hop - like Jay-Z, whoâs 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 âThe Seaâ 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 youâd 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.â

What we can expect from Corinneâs forthcoming concert at Londonâs Shepherds Bush Empire

âWell, the live show is hopefully gonna be a really good adventure. Iâm 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 thereâs gonna be a lot of movement, to where I almost donât know WHAT to expect from it! You know, while we will be playing a few songs from our first album, weâll obviously be doing much more from this new one - plus some unexpected covers. So weâll be mixing it up and just seeing what happens on the actual night. You know, so much depends on the audience... So yeah, Iâm definitely looking forward to playing live at Shepherds Bush. Plus Iâll 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 weâre also gonna be doing a lot of festivals this year - Coachella, Glastonbury... So yeah, weâre definitely getting back on the tour bus!â

Corinne plays Shepherds Bush Empire, London on February 24. Tickets available on or on 0844 477 2000/0871 2200 260

Corinneâs album âThe Seaâ and single âIâd Do It All Againâ are both out now. The single âParis Nights/New York Morningsâ follows on March 29, all through Virgin Records/Good Groove

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