After a six-year hiatus and a journey of self-discovery after devastating heartbreak, Corinne Bailey Rae is back with an inspiring new album and a fresh new optimism and zest for life
The last ten years have been nothing short of a rollercoaster for Corinne Bailey Rae. In 2006, the Leeds-based singer-songwriter was riding the wave of success with a string of Grammy and Brit award nominations and a number one debut album which sold over four millions copies worldwide. But soon after, Corinne’s world was turned upside down when her husband of eight years, saxophonist Jason Rae, died of an accidental methadone and alcohol overdose. Yet, she speaks with such warmth and sincerity, her voice with just a hint of a Leeds twang, you’d have never guessed that she’d experienced such sorrow. ‘I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to make another record at all, but I knew I just loved writing.’ Time is a healer and now, six years on since her grief-stricken Mercury Prize nominated album The Sea, she back with an uplifting new sound, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, inspired by inner strength and transformation. It’s a vibrant mix, encompassing rock, pop, soul and jazz and sounds both euphoric and assertive — not something you might associate with the 37-year-old ‘Go Put Your Records On’ singer. On the day of her album release, Elle Sixsmith caught up with Corinne Bailey Rae to discuss self-discovery, Prince and her new found sense of freedom.
Your new album is quite a transformation from the last. What was your inspiration behind it?
I think it was really influenced by my own experiences. I’ve been listening to my dreams and I’ve been listening to my body and how it responds and how it teaches me a lot about what’s going on inside. The album is about listening to that inner voice, and when I was writing the songs these themes kept reoccurring so they were the real influences of the record. I was also inspired by being in nature, reading poetry and listening to my instincts and just seeing what happened when I sat at an instrument and opened my mouth. Most of the songs were written in that sort of free, improvised way and that was a real pleasure for me.
Were there any particular dreams that influenced any of the songs?
‘The Skies Will Break’ came from a dream that I had where this person came into my mind, and then when I woke up I wrote down lots of lyrics. I wrote down the lyric from the bridge which is, ‘the skies will break for you, the seas will rend, the waves will part, it won’t be long until it ends’. It’s the idea of transformation and hope that came through in my dream and then there were other songs that were almost in a dream-state. With ‘Walk on’ I just pressed record on my phone and sang and then I had to learn it to perform it.
You’ve built your own studio at home — what made you decideto do that?
I really wanted to have my own space. I feel like I can be there any time of the day, I can be there for a long as I want, I feel like I can be playful and can experiment. I can do hours and hours of vocals, or I can do things really spontaneously. I don’t like the idea of saying, ‘It’s 11 o’clock on a Wednesday: you’ve got to go in and do the vocal for this song’. Sometimes you don’t feel like doing it or sometimes you really want to sing and in those moments you want to just be able to go and do it with no pressure. I feel that I really believe in all the songs because I haven’t sat down with a fashionable songwriter and been like, ‘ok, what’s everyone else talking about?’ or ‘let’s get this beat up that this producer is using’ or whatever. It’s really been more natural and organic than that.
You’re based in Leeds. Do get artistic inspiration or comfort from being there?
I’m in Leeds because a lot of my family and friends are here. So when I’m relaxing and not particularly working, I love to hang out with my friends and be here. But I guess a lot of my work is touring so I felt like I need that. I love the energy of Brazil, I love being in Paris, I love Los Angeles, I really love New York. So it’s really important for me to be able to get out of Leeds and get inspiration from being in those places. But I don’t think I’ll ever just stay in just one place. In the last ten years, I’ve been away from Leeds a lot. We moved to LA towards the end of the album which meant that we could really let the sunshine in. And a lot of my friends are musicians so we could get them involved with the record. They were all doing their own projects so it just really underlined the importance of doing your own thing and being free and in control of what you want. And also that you don’t need to listen to that pressure — just follow your own dreams. It felt like a real boost, like it was a just the right time after me and Steve (producer, musician and Corinne’s husband of three years) had been working on it so long together; this team of people around us felt really empowering. I want to continue going to lots of places and being a nomad.
Prince sadly died a few months ago. He had been a fan of yours since the beginning — were you influenced by him at all?
I met Prince a lot of times. He came to my first ever show in New York and then he invited me to a London gig, so I went to a lot of his shows and then he played in Abu Dhabi and he invited us to watch. We went to the show and then to his hotel suite, and we were up with the band until the next day — it was really special being around him. I always felt that he was a massive encourager of my music. He tweeted about my music just a few weeks ago and that as really incredible. He always said, ‘I look out for new stuff that you do’.
Did you get a sense of how he was as a person as opposed to his on stage persona?
Absolutely. When I think of Prince, I think of generosity — the way he’d go and play a show and then do an after-show and play for even longer. He’d play for five or six hours a night. He was a very hard-worker and I think he was humble and kind. I never felt intimated being around him or that he was being anything other than genuine. It’s great when people can build a sort of persona around themselves, it’s a really sensible thing to do and it’s a really good way to protect yourself, but it was amazing to meet the person and find out just how kind and good they were.
For some people, grief is something that can last forever. What would you say has helped you heal?
Time is the biggest thing in terms of healing. I think it takes a long time to process loss but it’s great to have good friends and family that you can talk to. The feeling of loss of a person definitely lasts your whole life but it’s amazing how your life grows around it and you learn to live with that pain. The joyful things in life seem even more joyful in contrast.
You’ve been friends with your husband Steve Brown since the 90s — did love sneak up on you or did it come very naturally?
It felt like a really gradual thing. All my experiences with love have been very gradual, it’s almost like you don’t notice it happening. The main thing I feel is a massive desire to spend time with him. I’d known him for such a long time and it’s amazing when your feelings for someone just develop into something completely different and new.
What are the most important life lessons that you’ve learnt in the past few years?
I’ve learnt that listening to yourself is really important. I think that we as individuals are really powerful. We have a lot of wisdom and intuition and it’s important to tap into that and to quieten down the noises around you. Spending time just with yourself and doing something that’s away from screens and phones and being outside, even if you’re just walking around the streets, it’s really good for your mind. I’ve learnt about transformation and how there’s so richness in life. The more you do, the braver you become.