After the massive, slow-burning success of Corinne Bailey Rae in 2006, there is no denying the singer’s influence on the current crop of British chanteuses. As the recipient of GRAMMY nominations for “Best New Artist,” “Song of the Year,” “Record of the Year” and “Album of the Year,” she blazed a musical trail in America that has been well-traveled by several of her contemporaries: Amy Winehouse (2008), Adele (2009) and Estelle (2009), in particular.
Four years later, with international sales hovering above four million, Corinne Bailey Rae has returned to the music scene with her sophomore project, The Sea. In support of the album, Corinne will begin her North American Tour in Los Angeles, California, on April 6, 2010. [The complete tour schedule has been appended at the end of this feature.]
Upon the release of The Sea, Corinne Bailey Rae managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on her recording experience at Limefield Studios, her classical music background and her love of “the blues.”
On your sophomore project, not only did you write all the songs, but you also co-produced all of the music. What compelled you to take complete ownership of the songwriting process?
For as long as I can remember, that had been my experience of writing music. My first experience of writing songs with other people was writing for the debut album. But before that, I had always written songs on my own for my band, and just sort of around the house and for my own enjoyment.
So, with this record, I really wanted to sort of get back to that. I learned a lot from working with other people and developed through that experience. So, this time, I really wanted to write on my own, because I wanted this music to be about self-expression. And I think no one can express what you’re trying to say better than yourself.
When you compare the songs from your first album against your second, is there a certain facet of your songwriting style that you think you have really improved?
I think the songs on this record are more honest and I think they’re freer. I think I’ve been less conscious of what other people are going to think of them. So that is one of the important things, I think, in being an artist. It just remains what you want to say and how you want to say it, rather than thinking of how other people will respond to it. I think that’s definitely something that I feel I have learned. I feel like that’s brought me a lot of freedom, and helped me to do this project in a way that was sort of looser, more open.
As I flipped through your liner notes, I took note of all the various instruments that you played. I know, for example, that you studied classical violin, so I would like to start there. How do you think your classical training molded your vocal style and performance?
Learning an instrument from an early age was a really great thing to do, because I think that it was a way of sort of expressing yourself. But there was something between you and the rest of the world, which was this instrument. So I think it made me less self-conscious – especially playing classical music. The music itself is already written and the focus is on the execution; while at the same time, you can put something of yourself into it. So, that was a really good experience for me.
And also, you know, playing in orchestras, when you have your piece of music, with its fourteen bars of rest, here and there, you have your own version of the melody. And it’s an amazing thing of getting in the room with everyone else, and finding out what’s happening in all those gaps, and finding out how your small part fits in with the rest of the instruments, and how it goes together to create this amazing whole. The harmony is so different than you expected it to be.
I used to look up, playing the violin, and just be in awe of the melody. It’s only when you place your part in context that you realize what the melody actually means. I used to find that so fascinating. I used to learn pieces for my violin exams and then play them with a pianist. And suddenly this melody, that I thought had a certain feel to it, would feel completely different because of the chords. So that really affected me, the experience of being part of a whole, and discovering how harmony can really affect a melody. Those two things, I learned from playing my violin. And I definitely brought them into my work – especially when I was singing for the first time.
When I was young, I never really thought of myself as a singer. I have this unusual voice with all this texture to it; and all the sort of desired sounds that children can make is this really sort of pure, angelic tone I could never make. So, you know, I never really thought of myself as a singer.
Oh, wow! Really?
Yeah, it was great to have the violin and be able to express myself through that, instead.
Later in your musical journey, I know that you eventually gravitated towards the guitar — listening to Jimi Hendrix and becoming obsessed with Lenny Kravitz. On “The Blackest Lilly,” Mike Feingold has an amazing solo towards the end on the electric guitar. Were you channeling the spirit of you childhood?
Yeah, I definitely wanted to do a song with rock’s style and energy, with a kind of flashy, Stonesy sort of thing going on. I had a really good idea of what I wanted to do with the song, and just, sort of, sang it to him. And since he’s a really great guitarist, he picked it up. I really like what he did on the solo. He just really tears it up. The songs on my first album were sweet. But I also missed doing something that was more aggressive. I really wanted to have some songs on this album where I felt like, “Oh, we could have a really good time on stage and the audience could have a good time,” and let a lot of energy out, too. So, I’m really glad to have that song in the set.
With this particular recording experience, you shifted gears a little bit and incorporated live instrumentation. Looking back, what special memories do you have of your time at Limefield Studio?
The experience was great, because it reminded me so much of actually playing and doing gigs. When the atmosphere is right, everything comes together quite naturally. But what happens often, when you get in the studio, and you’re working with people you don’t know, you’re in this space you’ve never been to. There’s this big, glass wall between you and the person who’s capturing the music. And in a way you’re, sort of, performing to that person.
Normally, they’re quite professional and don’t give you much feedback. The red light goes on. And you’re in this big studio and it’s costing loads of money. And to me, in my past experience, I didn’t get the results in that kind of environment that I actually wanted. So, with this record, I was really lucky to work at Limefield with a producer that I knew really well, that was a musician. So, I felt the most important thing, really, was for us all to sort of be there and just play music, instead of thinking of it as recording.
So, we’d go over there, and we would have the arrangement worked out beforehand, but I might be still teaching the drummer the song for the first time and playing it through and just trying different ways of making it work. And then, `toward the end of that rehearsal, the tape’s still rolling; and very often, the version that you’ve got on the album is like our first take of actually getting it right, of actually, sort of, pulling it off. Or looking at each other and thinking: “Yeah, you know, I think that was it.” So, I really enjoy that way of recording more than thinking of it as like: “Ooh, this is the recording. If I do really well, it’s got be this polished thing. Don’t take any risks.” Since we were playing live, and because there was no one involved on the outside of it, everyone who was playing the music was on the inside. There was no sort of synthetic music-making.
I just felt like it made much more of a natural process. And to me it was great for all of us to be recording at the same time. And with the drummer being able to speed up a chorus, or pull back on a verse, just by how you performed the song. You know, that made so much difference to me, rather than recording all the music and then trying to put the vocal on top — like some kind of cherry on the top of the cake. The vocal informed the music, so that was good.
Is there a particular song that has a memorable “free jazz” kind of creation?
“I Would Like to Call It Beauty.” I felt so amazed, because I’ve written a lot of songs on my own before, where it’s just me and my guitar. And you don’t realize how much you thought of directing and contracting the time when you’re just playing on your own. And then it was very strange for me to have my first experience of recording where you go into a studio and someone would say: “Okay, what tempo is this?” So, you’d be sort of sitting down with a metronome and trying to work out how fast the whole song was.
And with this album, I really thought the songs didn’t have a fixed tempo; so, I really wanted to work with a drummer who could move with me and follow and play what felt right for particular songs. That’s why it was really good to work with Luke Flowers, because he is a really experienced jazz drummer and he’s really responsive and really sensitive. So I felt amazed, in that song, that we were just pulling the time around so much. And I felt like I had so much lead. I’ve never had that experience of playing with a drummer and having that much freedom. I always thought: “Oh, I’ve got to keep it very straight so that people will know what to do with it.” The experience was really amazing, because I felt like I could just be really fluid.
Before this album, you released a live double-disc, on which you covered Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” What attachment do you have to that particular song? I thought it was an interesting choice.
I was really, really attached to that song because I spent so much time with the first album being submerged with questions from journalists – especially European journalists – who would say: “Oh, you used to play in this, like, Indie rock band called Helen, and now you’re doing this music that’s more like jazz and soul.” And “Why the sudden change?” To me, I just didn’t feel like it was this massive change.
I had grown up going to this club called Brighton Beach, where they had Indie and rock in the first room: everything from like The Kinks, the Small Faces, Rolling Stones, the Beatles all the way through to Oasis. And then they had a little room that played Stax and Motown. And you’d be in one room, and go from one room to another. And you’d hear Aretha Franklin covering Beatles songs. And you’d go in and hear the Stones or blues music from America. And to me, I just didn’t see that there was this massive covering between these two styles of music.
And that’s when I — at first, actually, I didn’t want to cover that Led Zeppelin song in the set, because I wanted to start it off like it was a jazz standard. And I wanted to end it like it was this massive rock song. And to me, their commonality was the blues. And I just thought like, to me, it was like a big point to prove. Like, can’t everybody see that this is just the same music? You know, it’s the same type of music. It has its origin in the blues, which is about unfettered expression of emotion; not trying to be cool and not trying to be sophisticated. Just trying to be open, the performance of losing it, the performance of giving it up.
So, to me, that song was really important because it starts off as just, you know, the way we did it was just like, oh, it hit the right bases. Imagine. You could be in this, sort of, smoky jazz club or whatever. But then, once the drums start to crack in, you suddenly realize: “Oh, this blues is the origin of what all rock music, pop or heavy metal is!” So to me, I really feel like uncomfortable with being so pushed into one box or another. Like people say: “Oh, you know, are you a jazz and soul singer?” Or, “Do you like guitars and rock and do you feel like you’ve had to turn your back on one to do the other, and vice versa?” And I always struggled with that thing of being put in a box.
And I don’t know if that comes from having a black parent and a white parent, or, I don’t know where it exactly comes from. But I feel really that like, I hate to be so pushed into one corner. I know that certainly that song was important because it represented this, sort of, cross point; you know, the crossroads between these supposed different styles.
That’s really deep! Sean O'Hagan, in his review of The Sea, noted that “[your] voice has changed, deepened and become a more expressive, more expansive instrument.” What other less-noticeable changes do you think you have made over the years?
I feel like I’ve just been more myself. I think partly the way I wrote the songs was different. On the first album I was collaborating with people. And, you know, you’re both in a room together and I guess you must, sort of, fend yourself. You know, you think: “Oh, I’ve got this idea. Is it good? Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know what they’ll all think about it. Maybe I won’t say it.” And I’m sure the other person is thinking that, as well. So you come out with things that maybe are a bit safer or maybe are more familiar, or maybe you think more acceptable or accessible.
Whereas, when I was writing this album, there was no one else, sort of, in the room. There was no one else to run it by. And I felt like I was just, kind of, singing out. So I wasn’t thinking: “Right. What’s a good melody for this? Oh, okay, what words would work?” I was just more playing my guitar and just kind of improvising and moving around. You know, to me, it’s made some quite weird songs that some people will like. I guess some people won’t like them, you know. But, to me, I just felt a lot of freedom in actually being able to sit there with my guitar and with a tape recorder, you know. And play, and sing, and not really think about what was doing and not even think, like, trying to remember it, because it was going to get recorded.
And then, sort of, get on something and think: “Oh really? Well, like what I just did? Oh, I’ve forgotten what it was.” And then, sort of, revisit it. I can’t really play the guitar well. I’m not a technical guitarist. I just feel like I find chords by accident. But, to me, I loved making this record because I just felt like there was so many, sort of, happy accidents happened. And finding the way around the guitar, and, sort of singing out things. And certain tensions I really liked. So, I feel like I’ve just been given a lot of freedom. I feel really lucky that I was able to just, sort of, do it. And the label wasn’t saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t work with this person. You should work with this person.” I just feel really privileged that I’ve been able to, sort of, get out that bunch of songs into the world.
Historically speaking, when a lot of people look at the music charts, you are well-known for being one of the first British female singers – in recent memory –to really break out here in America. When you look at your legacy and all the other women that have come after you, what do you think has been your biggest contribution? What do you hope for other future British female singers who are coming over here to the U.S.?
I just think that America’s a really amazing country to tour in, and especially if you love blues music or jazz or soul. It’s an amazing place to be because it’s, sort of, the birthplace of the music that you really love. And to me, the fact that once I was eight or nine, like, listening to “The Secret Life of Plants,” like, tracing my fingers over that Braille, wondering about Stevie Wonder. And having that music influence me. And then just getting into, of course, music. And having that be successful somewhere. And having that music actually end up making an introduction to Stevie Wonder and other artists that I’ve really admired.
To me, it’s just a really incredible, incredible thing that someone can influence you, and in the work that you make, you end up, sort of, meeting them. It’s like this weird, sort of, magic carpet. And so, to me, I just think, you know, music’s so exciting in terms of the possibilities that it opens up for you.
So, I think, yeah, I just feel excited for anyone else coming over here from Britain. I really like living in England. And I think it’s a really diverse place and a really interesting place. And I like all of its political and philosophical hang-ups. But I really like being over here, as well. America’s really open-minded in terms of music. And there’s so many radio stations. You can kind of find a space, which is great, to take your place. Yeah, I think it’s great for a British artist to be here as long as you guys don’t get sick of us! [laughing]
For more information on Corinne Bailey Rae, visit her official website.
North American Tour
Date — City — Venue
04/06 — Los Angeles, CA — Vibiana
04/09 — Vancouver, BC — Commodore Ballroom
04/11 — Portland, OR — Roseland Theatre
04/12 — Seattle, WA — Moore Theatre
04/15 — San Francisco, CA — Regency Ballroom
04/17 — Indio, CA — Coachella Music and Arts Festival
04/22 — Chicago, IL — Vic Theatre
04/24 — Detroit, MI — St. Andrews Hall
04/26 — Toronto, ON — Queen Elizabeth Theatre
04/28 — Montreal, QC — Club Soda
04/30 — Boston, MA — House of Blues
05/01 — Philadelphia, PA — Theatre of Living Arts
05/03 — New York, NY — Webster Hall
05/04 — Brooklyn, NY — Music Hall of Williamsburg
05/08 — St. Lucia — St. Lucia Jazz Festival
05/11 — Atlanta, GA — Center Stage
05/13 — Washington, DC — 9:30 Club
05/14 — Baltimore, MD — Rams Head Live