Sing Jazz 2017: An interview with Corinne Bailey Rae
Corinne Bailey Rae has come a long way since her eponymous debut album dropped (and soared in the charts) back in 2006. As Bailey Rae matured, her music, too, underwent changes of its own, with shifts in emotional range and gearing towards more experimental grooves and sounds of R&B, but she does so without forgoing her soulful roots. Her second album, The Sea, was tinged with emotions of loss and despair—a reflection of what the singer-songwriter went through after the passing of her first husband, Jason in 2008.
Last year, Bailey Rae released her third album—The Heart Speaks in Whispers, a diverse compilation with a lush new sound. Here, Buro 24/7 caught up with her to talk about her new work, inspirations and musical heroes, before she heads to Sing Jazz 2017 to charm festival-goers with her distinctive brand of music:
It has been 10 years since your debut album. How do you feel your music has changed or evolved from then till today?
"It's funny—I don't think about it, and I think it's because I'm so keen to make more music. You know, for the time that I was away between The Sea and The Heart Speaks In Whispers, I feel like I learned so much. I learned loads as a producer, I wrote lots of songs. A lot of different projects were started. So I feel like, because I was in the studio writing all that time, I really now just want to make loads of things, and do loads of projects and play with loads of people. I haven't really had that much time to look back.
It's been nice in the last few weeks where I've been at home and tidying up, and finding all these tickets and awards, and photos and thank you letters from people, and just thinking like, "Gosh, I'd almost forgotten that I'd done this." I forgot that 'Like a Star' was nominated for Song of the Year in 2007, and I'm just finding the certificate and I'm like "Oh yeah!" You know, all of these things have happened. So I think at some point I would like to look back on what I've done, but at the moment I'm so keen to work and do more, and to make my mark. I just feel like I'm just starting, so I haven't really thought about the end of it yet. I feel like I'm sort of at the beginning of that."
Some of the sessions for The Heart Speaks in Whispers took place at the Capitol Studios. Did that influence the record in any way?
"Working at Capital Records—that studio which is the beautiful room where the Beach Boys recorded, and Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra, that just has this amazing sound to it—I really wanted to kind of explore that life; I really wanted to have a sense of the air moving around in that space and to be able to use the echo chambers that were designed by Les Paul. I think the sound of the record was influenced by new musicians that I was meeting like Moses Sumney from LA and as well as working with new musicians like James Gadson, who is a brilliant drummer. Also just being in a new physical place where I could record in this historic building, but then go out driving with the top down and go out swimming and be by the ocean, engaging with nature. It was a more sensual experience which, I guess, affected the music as well.
Tell us about The Heart Speaks in Whispers and how it reflects where you're at in your life right now.
"The inspiration behind this record was really instinct, as well as nature, and the body—how we can learn from our hearts. I think that we all have a core sense of self, and the heart that tells us what we're feeling, and what we're thinking. I think that it's really important to follow our instinct and our intuition, and to learn from nature. To listen to our bodies, and pay attention to our dreams and our subconscious. So that's what this record is all about; the heart speaks in whispers, and the fact that we have to tune in to that and drown out all this chaos and noise around us.
So that was a really big inspiration for the record, and I wanted the album to be subtle, and sort of influenced by nature and impressions from nature. I wanted it to be acoustic, and also I wanted it to be noisy and electronic. I wanted to be experimental, and really wanted to grow as I was doing it—grow as a writer and a producer. I've tried to do something different to what I've done before, and the next thing will be different to this, again. I just feel like I want to keep growing as a performer, and as a writer and a producer."
Which is your favourite song off the album?
"I really enjoyed writing 'Green Aphrodisiac', just because of the various stages that were involved so the song came out of a jam and the title came from a conversation that Amber [Strother], who is from King, and I were having about the nature of LA. I was there in Spring and I'm from a very cold country—I'm from England, the north of England which is miles away from Edinburgh and Scotland, so you know it's cold here a lot. I feel really at home in warm countries, so that's why I'm looking forward to come to Singapore. They're much closer to the environment that my father grew up in the Caribbean, so I said to the guys that I love being out in nature and the green and the warm—you don't need a jacket and everything feels very sensual and engaged. And then came up with 'Green Aphrodisiac', that's the title of the song!
I liked the way that melody came; I really improvised the melody, just listing it up in pitch. And then when I got home it was Spring here (in England), so the blossom was falling from the trees. I get to sit in my garden—sometimes in England you do get a really warm May and the shoots come out somedays—and I was just sitting out and writing about these shoots that were coming out again, and greenness and newness. It was that particular time in my life where I felt like all this beauty was returning and I see nice things around me. I think that just became important to me, so I really liked writing the song cos it was a reflection of all the newness happening in my life."
Take us through your songwriting process.
"The main thing I felt when I wrote The Heart Speaks in Whispers is that I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't know what I wanted to say. It was really a case of kind of playing the guitar and seeing what came out; sitting at the piano or seeing what came out. Sometimes I'll be riding in the car and I get an idea; sometimes I'll be sitting on holiday and tapping out rhythm on my knees and getting an idea. It happens in a really sort of natural organic way. I didn't sit in studios with people and try and write songs, I really let the songs come to me. I thought, you know, if I was going to do another record, that I wanted it to come out of my intuition and my experience. And I felt that.
I look at these themes of these songs and they seem to be all influenced by that inner voice and inner world, not so much about external events and interactions with people, but what was going on internally in terms of processing your dreams, have lots of dreams, and working out what they meant. Or I'll be in nature and learning lessons from the natural world. Or I'll be paying attention to my intuition. All of these themes just kind of came about over the years, so I think partly the experience of writing the record was tuning in to what was going on inside. It was also experimenting with what was happening in the studio, working with new musicians or programming drums, or learning to be a producer and using my voice as an instrument. All of those things that are new for this record have been skills that I've learnt and taken on into the situation."
Who is your musical hero?
"The two people that really got me into music and making it with my own voice are Billie Holiday and Kurt Cobain. I guess when I was around 12 to 14, Nirvana was at the height of their fame, and they'd done that MTV, which is really amazing—Kurt being there in that cardigan, playing that acoustic guitar, sitting down, and my friend was recording on VHS—and we watched that a lot. I was really blown away by the sparseness of the song, the directness of the performance, and how troubled, sensitive, and beautiful he seemed; how effectively he communicated the messages of those songs that really inspired me. He had a really unconventional voice, and I felt at that time that I had an unconventional voice.
I loved singing as a child but, I didn't have a voice like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, or a shiny pop voice like Madonna. I felt like my voice was unusual. I felt like it had a lot of texture, and I liked to bend the notes, but I didn't really know anyone doing that, so hearing Kurt Cobain just opened my mind to different type of voices. It was the same as hearing Billie Holiday and her almost conversational style, so those two people are, in a way, the most influential because they've made me believe that I could actually sing these songs that I was writing, and that it was acceptable."
You work pretty closely with your husband Steve. What is that like? Is it hard to balance your working and personal lives?
"It's good to work together, actually. I've worked with him for a really long time, and I trust his opinions. We often disagree, but I feel like we arrive at something stronger. The music wins when you've got two people sort of challenging each other. I really enjoy working together. It's definitely fun when you get a few days off and you're in Paris, or in the Caribbean, or New Orleans. It's really fun to be able to have all these adventures with your partner, it's great.
What are you most looking forward to in your upcoming trip to Singapore?
"I'm most excited about seeing the audience in Singapore again. I felt like our first trip there was really special, I really enjoyed being in the environment; I can't remember what time of the year it was but it was really hot and steamy and I felt really at home! That's really my favourite kind of weather, I feel very much myself in that weather because, you know, my dad's from the Caribbean and that's what it feels like to be on his island, so, it was really great being in the environment. I'm looking forward to being there, to reconnecting with the audience, and just seeing some of the artists as well. Chaka Khan playing, Esperanza is a friend of mine, and Gilles Peterson I get on with very well, so it's going to be a really fun trip."
What can fans expect from your set at Sing Jazz?
"What we're doing really is a combination. So people there that only know my first album will be happy cos there's quite a lot of songs from that record, but I have a few songs from The Sea that people might not know, and then there may be a few songs from my new album as well. I think the new album is quite sort of experimental, quite joyous. It's all about inspiration and listening to that inner voice; about intuition and listening to your dreams and paying attention to your feeling in your body and responding to nature. I like playing them alongside the more familiar love songs because I think it's a really good balance between external, more obvious things, and internal processing and things that might be normally hidden from someone about how they feel—I think the songs work well together."
The Singapore International Jazz Festival & The Late Show 2017 will be held from 31 March to 2 April at Marina Bay Sands, Sands Expo and Convention Centre. To book tickets, click here. Tickets start from SGD108 and are available at www.marinabaysands.com/ticketing and www.apactix.com. For more information, please visit www.sing-jazz.com.