INTERVIEW: Corinne Bailey Rae

INTERVIEW: Corinne Bailey Rae
Posted on 9 Aug 2016

Midlands Zone chat to the Grammy Award-winning singer songwriter ahead of her 
performance at next month’s V Festival.

Your third and most recent album, The Heart Speaks In Whispers, is your first collection of new material for six years. Why have we had to wait so long?
It was a really long process because I was producing it myself. I really wanted to get the songs right, and I built a studio myself in Leeds too, and that took a long time. I really wanted to work somewhere where I could be independent and do it whenever I felt like it; that was really important. I was just making the right conditions. 

How does the album differ from your previous two?
It’s different because it’s quite an experimental record; it’s really joyous. I was using quite a lot of subconscious ideas - it all just came to me in a really natural way. I would sit and play my guitar and see what happened. I made a lot of it in my studio in Leeds, but then we went over to Capital Records in LA. It was really amazing to work with some of my heroes, like James Gadson - who used to play with Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye - and Pino Palladino, who played with D’Angelo. There were lots of musicians around that scene who I really wanted to hook up with, but I also wanted to meet new people like Moses Sumney and Thundercat. There’s a really amazing scene in LA; it’s kind of underground, electronic, soul, hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar and all his crew, Kamasi Washington, Flying Lotus - they’re all out of that particular part of LA, so it was really nice to be there. We went over there for seven weeks and ended up staying for seven months, just because it was so productive and creative and so much fun. I found myself writing loads of extra songs when I was out there, so that pushed some other songs off the record and put new ones onto the album. It was a long, evolutionary process because I was building the studio and working out what I wanted the record to sound like and be about, and then I met all these new people who gave it another life. 

Can you see yourself moving to LA permanently?
I really like moving around quite a lot. I feel like being a nomad, you know? I’ve recently found out what ‘nomad’ actually means, and it doesn’t mean just wandering from place to place aimlessly. It means you visit known homes. I feel like we have a few known places we can go to where we feel really at home. I love being at home in the UK, but I also loved spending time in LA, I love spending time in New York, I love being in Jamaica - and I’m very happy to keep on a circuit around those places. Thankfully, through touring, you end up doing exactly that. I think later on in the year we’re going to China, but we’ll be leaving from Texas and it doesn’t make any sense to go home. So for those 10 days or so, I’ll stay in LA. It’s really nice when you’re touring because you can find the nearest ‘home feeling’ place and spend a lot of time there. I can definitely see myself spending more time in all those places.

You’ve just finished supporting Lionel Richie on his All The Hits UK tour. How was that experience for you?
It was amazing. The main thing for me was playing in these huge venues that I’ve never played in before, like the O2 Arena and Birmingham’s Barclaycard Arena. We also played at the Eden Project down in Cornwall and lots of rugby stadiums. It was amazing to play outdoors and indoors in these huge places and really feel like you have to try and capture the room. It was a really good trial for me because everyone’s there to see Lionel Richie, but it was great because I think his audience were open to whatever was going to happen. I signed my record in the break and there would always be 100 people waiting to have their copy of the album signed - that was always really amazing and I really enjoyed that experience. Also, hanging out with Lionel - he’s a really fun person, a really fun character with a lot of great stories. It was really amazing to be around that and see how it worked. He was flying in and out of every show in a helicopter, which was always really funny. Even if we played Manchester two nights in a row, he’d go back to London in his helicopter every night. It was just funny. It was really great; I enjoyed it a lot.

Your first headline show for over five years sold out in less than 60 minutes. Were you expecting such a great response? 
No, I wasn’t actually. It was amazing. I think the New York show went in 10 minutes and everything else went really fast. We deliberately did an intimate tour of the US when the album first came out, and that was so rewarding for me. People would stay after the show to say hi. At one of the gigs, I think the entire audience stayed. There were a lot of really young people who’d liked me in 2006 when they were seven or something and their mum had got them into me. They used to listen to me on the way to school and stuff. I really loved that tour. I’m going back to the US to do another tour in a few weeks - I really love touring this record. 

If you could collaborate with anyone in the industry - dead or alive - who would it be?
The people who’ve gone before. I really like Prince and got to spend a good bit of time with him when we were touring. He was a really good supporter. We met up in Abu Dhabi and went back to his hotel room and hung out for hours, ending up having breakfast there the next morning. That was a really nice time with him. I love Marvin Gaye too; I think he’s got an incredible voice. I would’ve loved to have done some work with him. I’ve been really lucky, though. I got to perform with Al Green on a record, and I was on a Herbie Hancock record doing a Joni Mitchell song. I feel like I’ve been really lucky to have worked with some of my heroes. I performed with Paul McCartney at an event at the White House, did a tribute to him and it got recorded. And we did a tribute to Fats Domino when we were in New Orleans. So I feel really lucky that music has brought me face-to-face with so many of the people I’ve admired for a long time. 

You’re playing V Festival this month. Do you prefer playing to audiences of that size or doing smaller, more intimate shows?
I like them all, I really like them all. I love intimate shows, where it’s 500 people and you can see everyone. You feel like you’re all in it together. Someone can shout out a song and it can totally change the environment, change the feeling of the place. I also like playing at festivals. We played Glastonbury, and it’s amazing when it’s going well. You see more and more people arriving where the music is. Hopefully V Festival will be the same. I quite like playing a festival because you feel like you’ve got something to prove. People might be wandering past who don’t necessarily know who they’re listening to, and you get a chance to show those people what you’re about, which is always a really good thing.

Your chart-topping debut album was released in 2006. Has the music industry changed in the last 10 years? 
The most massive change is how people listen to music. My first album came out in 60 different countries, and I guess now it’s all over the world but via Spotify and iTunes and YouTube. I was really lucky because my record came out when people were still buying music. I think it’s definitely harder for artists to make a living through music now, which is definitely a big deal - especially if you’re a new artist. It’s an ongoing thing. I wish that people would pay for music. It’s such a special thing, and I think there are so many people who take it for granted and say, ‘Music is just free and it’s the wallpaper to our lives’. But you can’t download or stream a live performance; it’s always better to actually be there. I think touring is the best thing that musicians can do, and thankfully I really enjoy touring. I love being on the tour bus, I love going to different places and stuff. I’d say the music industry has been really kind to me. A lot of people think that it may be more difficult as a woman, but I haven’t found that. I’ve found that people have always listened. People know that I write, people know that I produce and they’ve been really supportive. So yeah, it’s worked out well.

You formed indie group Helen before you began working on solo material. Was there any reason why you decided to steer towards a soulful sound?
It’s funny because Helen was always an indie, noisy band but also had really soulful songs. I wrote Like A Star when I was in Helen and we used to play that song. I liked Radiohead and Portishead, and I liked dreamy, soulful music but also aggressive drums. So we always tried to match those two things. I guess I got more into soul music when I started working in a jazz club while I was at university. I loved hearing that kind of harmony and finding that subtlety. I guess to cut through loud electric guitars I’d always had this shouty, loud kind of style, but it was nice to be able to sing quietly and more conversationally. We were recording in a basement underneath an art shop, so I couldn’t have a whole band pile in there. So I guess that’s why it turned out more mellow, because a lot of the time it would be just me and my guitar. 

Has singing been a passion from a young age? 
I always loved singing but I never felt I could sing. I was brought up in a school where the music education was really quite conservative. It was all about singing Andrew Lloyd Webber songs. It had the type of choir where everyone has an angelic voice. I never felt my voice fitted into that. I’d always felt that I had more texture to my voice, and I felt like I couldn’t sing really high like that. Two things opened me up to the idea that there are lots of different types of voice. One was getting into Billy Holiday, the other was hearing Kurt Cobain sing. That’s what got me into believing in my own voice.

Who were your musical influences growing up?
I loved Nirvana, Radiohead, Bjork, Erykah Badu, Portishead - they were really big influences on me. I guess it was that early ’90s music which I felt was really independent - stuff like Tori Amos and PJ Harvey. The alternative became the mainstream. It was a really exciting time because it meant people who were kids who weren’t just cool and on cool blogs and whatever would be exposed to this unusual music. That was a really good time to grow up.

And finally, what does the future hold for Corinne Bailey Rae?
I really want to write some music for film, do more writing for TV, do more records and guest on people’s songs. I’ve been sent quite a few things since the record came out. It’s nice when people who have a completely different style like my voice or whatever. That’s been a good thing in the past few weeks - just thinking about which of those projects I’m going to do. I’d love to be in a film doing some singing - that would be amazing - and I’d like to write more stuff. I’m going to be touring for the next 12 months - South East Asia, Europe, Latin America. I’m really looking forward to that.

Corinne Bailey Rae plays V Festival at Weston Park, Staffordshire on Saturday 20 August and brings her headline tour to the O2 Institute, Birmingham on Friday 4 November.

By Lauren Foster


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