Rae of sunshine

Corinne Bailey Rae’s new sound may be more joyous but the singer has some serious matters on her mind, discovers Richard Smirke

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Six years separate Corinne Bailey Rae’s second and third albums yet they are worlds and lifetimes apart.

“I always want to do something different with my music. Every album is a reaction to what I’ve done before,” explains the 37-year-old Leeds-born singer-songwriter about The Heart Speaks In Whispers, a light and frothy blend of confessional R&B, sun-kissed pop ballads and jazzy soul, released earlier this year.

“I was excited to come back with a new sound, using drum machines and synths – get more into experimental music and jazz. I knew I wanted the record to be quite joyous. The whole album came about in a really subconscious way. I didn’t sit down and think it’s going to be this or that. A lot of the time I was just opening my mouth and seeing what came out,” elaborates Bailey Rae, speaking to Big Issue North from a “boiling hot” Texas in the midst of a successful US tour.

The contrast between The Heart Speaks In Whispers and its predecessor, 2010’s Mercury Prize-nominated The Sea, couldn’t be more extreme. Recorded in the wake of her husband, saxophonist Jason Rae’s death from an accidental overdose of methadone and alcohol in 2008, The Sea was a raw and naked outpouring of grief, loss and steely resolve that won the singer many new fans. She toured the album worldwide for close to two years and although the experience, particularly interviews,tested her to her limits, she says it
helped her heal.

“All throughout that period we got a whole load of people coming to shows and stopping me in the street who had also experienced loss,” recalls the singer, who paid tribute to Rae as her “first and only true love” at the time of his passing. “I feel part of this international community that knows pain and knows suffering and that’s really important to me.

“Almost every time I do a meet and greet there will be someone who has a story of losing someone or going through a difficult time and the fact that the music has been helpful to them is truly great to hear. I recognised that in putting the record out [my grief] would become this public thing and that was fine because it was so much part of my world at that time.”

Bailey Rae is now in a far happier place. In 2013, she married producer Steve Brown, who performs as part of her touring band and has worked with her since her self-titled 2006 debut, which featured the hits Like A Star and Put Your Records On. Although much of their time is spent on the road, when they’re not touring the couple live in Leeds, where Bailey Rae has a home studio and recorded much of The Heart Speaks In Whispers. Recording sessions also took place in Los Angeles, where she recruited the cream of the city’s soul and jazz music scene, including Marcus Miller and Esperanza Spalding, to add some authentic Californian sunshine to her breezy tales of love, rebirth and reawakening.

“It was a natural reaction to The Sea in the sense that I wanted to do something that was reflective of the changes in my life. I did feel joyous and playful, which I hadn’t felt on the last album, so those elements naturally came through.”

It’s clear that Bailey Rae’s experiences over the past decade have informed her beliefs and music. There’s also more than a hint of West Coast flower power about her philosophy.

“Our instinct and intuition is very powerful, but it’s something that is educated out of us at a young age,” she elaborates in a warm Yorkshire accent. “Consumer capitalism is a powerful thing that’s telling us all the time how we should feel and how we should think. So much advertising works by trying to tap into our subconscious and our fears – buy this or else you’ll be irrelevant or unattractive. I really like the idea of tuning all that stuff out.

“Climate change is the biggest issue facing any of us. It’s bigger than the threat of terrorism. It’s bigger than wars. And if we turn down the noise around us and tune in then these messages will be able to get through. We need to be connected to the earth and we need to call corporations to account for what they are doing to the planet. The heart is speaking to us all the time, but it speaks so quietly and everything around us is so chaotic that it’s really important to have time to come away from that and hear what’s really going on.”

For Bailey Rae comfort and refuge can be found among friends and family in Leeds, where she was born in 1979, the eldest of three children to an English mother and father from St Kitts. Having grown up there, formed her first band (indie group Helen) and gone to university in the city (graduating in English literature), she is proud to call herself “a champion of the city” that she still calls home – and which affords her privacy she wouldn’t have living in London or LA.

“It’s an amazing place with a really great music scene. I definitely feel like a northerner in the sense that I feel like an outsider. I don’t necessarily feel at home in London,” says the singer, whose younger sister, Rhea, plays Caz Hammond in Coronation Street.

As 2016 draws to a close, Bailey Rae says that she has a “a big inbox” of things still to be done, including collaborating on projects that she was unable to commit to during the making of her latest record. In the meantime, there’s her first UK tour in five years to look forward to, beginning with a triumphant hometown date at Leeds Town Hall.

“I feel like I’m really getting fed by acclaim from the audiences. It reminds me that people do know about my music, which you do kind of forget when you’re locked away in the studio. When I walk onstage, I feel comfortable and excited. I feel like I have a strong sense of myself and what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. The whole thing feels good. It feels like the right path.”

Corinne Bailey Rae plays Leeds Town Hall on 28 October and Manchester Albert Hall, 5 November

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