Corinne Bailey Rae is back with a new album and returns to her home city this weekend for the Live at Leeds festival. She talks to Chris Bond about her new songs, love, loss and the power of music to bring people together.
If a week is a long time in politics then six years in the fickle, ever-changing music industry is akin to a lifetime. Careers have started, blossomed and disappeared into the ether in the time between Corinne Bailey Rae’s last full-length album and her new one – The Heart Speaks in Whispers, which comes out next month. It has, needless to say, been a long time coming. Back in 2010, the Leeds-born songstress had just released her acclaimed second album, The Sea, which was nominated for the coveted Mercury Music Prize and became a top 5 hit in the UK. She followed this up with an EP called The Love, which picked up a Grammy, before promptly retreating from public view.
But Bailey Rae hasn’t, she’s keen to point out, been sitting around twiddling her thumbs. To start with, she had a new studio built at her home in Leeds. “I wanted to have my own space where I could explore, create and experiment without the clock ticking,” she says. “Each song started very naturally with a musical phrase or an image, a fragment that I had to follow to see where it led.”
In the end it led to a journey that took her from her West Yorkshire home to Brazil, Indonesia and New York, followed by a seven-week stint in LA which then morphed into a seven-month sojourn in the city, where she immersed herself in its eclectic music scene.
The end result of this musical odyssey is The Heart Speaks in Whispers. Still there is the languid yet approachably beautiful voice capable of transporting you to another time and place. But as well as the doe-eyed jazzy allure there are layers of musical styles and textures that will no doubt widen Bailey Rae’s appeal.
The singer’s fans will be able to watch her perform in person this summer when she joins Lionel Richie on tour as his special guest. But before then she’s one of the star names at Live at Leeds, which tonight brings her to the HiFi Club, a city centre club where she once worked as a cloakroom attendant.
It’s a gig she’s looking forward to. “I love playing in Leeds and this will be like a homecoming for me. It’s important for me to do this show and to be able to say ‘thank you’ to all those people who’ve supported me, because it’s always great to have your home town on your side,” she says.
Bailey Rae first shot to fame when, at the start of 2006, her eponymous debut album, featuring the hit singles Put Your Records On and Like a Star, reached the Number One spot in the charts. She was part of a new wave of British female singer-songwriters that included the likes of Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse, her apparent overnight success actually the culmination of several years spent honing her talents.
Bailey Rae had been in an indie band since her school days at Allerton High School. The eldest of three sisters, she grew up in Leeds and stayed with her mother when her parents divorced when she was 12.
She sang in church choirs but admits it wasn’t her kind of music back then. “I really loved singing but at school the music was very much in that English choral tradition and didn’t really suit my voice. So when I heard people like Kurt Cobain and Billie Holiday for the first time I was like, ‘oh, there are all these different styles of singing.’”
By the time she was 15 she had set up her own indie band. “Everyone I knew seemed to be in a band and a lot of the pubs like Joseph’s Well, the Duchess [of York] and the Duck and Drake had band nights.”
She continued with her music while studying English Literature at Leeds University, and the songs that tumbled out of her led to a record deal with EMI in 2005.
The following year she was all over the airwaves, not that she has ever hankered after fame and adulation. “I want the music to be heard but I’m not interested in fame itself and I never wanted to be famous as a persona.
“When I’m in Leeds and people see me they’re like ‘oh, that’s just Corinne,’ and when I do get recognised in the street people are always very nice.”
In March 2008 tragedy struck when her husband of seven years, the respected jazz saxophonist Jason Rae, was found dead at a friend’s flat in Leeds. At the inquest the coroner delivered a verdict of death by misadventure, an accidental overdose of alcohol and drugs.
For Bailey Rae, who was halfway through completing her second album, the world went dark. For a year or so she struggled to even think of music, never mind miss it. Speaking to The Yorkshire Post in 2010, she said: “For ages I just sat. Everything that was important before [her husband’s death] was dwarfed by it. The days were so, so long. It takes a great deal of time to accept what has happened, and in the meantime I could think of very little else.”
Gradually, with the help of close friends and family she felt able to “pour” her feelings into her music and finish The Sea. “The first half of the record was a response to my first album and the other half was about coming to terms with the whole experience and reflecting that grief,” she says.
“When I lost Jason I had to go through that grieving process, you have to deal with it as a human being. You learn how to cope and you do that by talking to friends and family about it.”
Touring the album and playing the songs also helped. “People stopped me in the street to tell me how much the record meant to them and how they’d gone through something similar and I’m grateful that my music has been helpful for people.”
She’s pleased, too, that it has encouraged people to talk about what has almost become a taboo subject. “We don’t talk about death even though it’s a fundamental part of life. We seem to think if we don’t talk about it then maybe it won’t happen and then we’re traumatised when it does. So I’m glad to have been part of that conversation about living and dying.”
Since then the singer has slowly moved on with her life. She found love and happiness once more marrying Steve Brown, a long-term creative collaborator and co-producer of The Sea, three years ago.
Now she is back with a renewed appreciation of life, music and the world around her, something that’s reflected in her new album. For Bailey Rae, music remains very much at the heart of who she is. “I love it and I just hope that people want to connect and come and see me play.”
The 37-year-old’s journey has been painful at times but it has brought her to where she is today and that, she says, is a good place. “It has led to something else. You realise how important it is to enjoy the moment and how great it is to be alive,” she says.
“And that’s what I feel with this album, a sense of renewal and a new phase in my life.”
The Heart Speaks in Whispers is released on May 13. Corinne Bailey Rae plays at the HiFi Club, part of Live At Leeds, this evening. (April 30) The Lionel Richie All The Hits UK tour with special guest Corinne Bailey Rae starts in June.