Corinne Jacqueline Bailey was born in Leeds, England on February 26, 1979, the eldest of three girls to bless the union of her British mother and Caribbean father from St. Kitts. As a child, she studied classical violin at school, and only sang in the church choir, until she formed an all-female rock band at the age of 15.
Corrine went on to major in English at the University of Leeds, and after graduating in 2000, took a job as a hat check girl at a local jazz club. It was there, while sitting in with various bands that she developed the sultry, soulful vocal style which would become her trademark. It was also at the pub that she met saxophonist Jason Rae, the love whose last name she would take when they married the very next year.
In 2006, she released her self-titled debut CD containing such hits as “Like a Star” and “Put Your Records On” to rave reviews, earning Grammy nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year (“Put Your Records On”) and Best New Artist. Sadly, tragedy struck a couple years later, when her husband passed away unexpectedly.
A period of withdrawal from the public eye to grieve ended when Corinne reemerged in 2010 upon the release of her second album, “The Sea,” a relatively-sober CD in comparison to the light and breezy collection of melodies on her initial offering. Recently, she reflected with me about her life and her career, in celebration of her PBS special, “Live from the Artists Den,” a concert recorded at the Hiro Ballroom in New York City.
Kam Williams: Thanks so much for the time, Corinne. I’m honored to be speaking with you.
Corinne Bailey Rae: Thank you.
KW: Did you have fun shooting the “Live from the Artists Den” concert in New York?
CBR: I really enjoyed recording it, yeah. I had great time in front of a really appreciative audience. The way that it was recorded was really unobtrusive, so we really kind of got lost in the moment. So, yeah, I loved it.
KW: Do you have a special affinity for New York?
CBR: Yes, New York was definitely one of the first gigs we did in America. And that was also my first chance to get to New York. So, the first time I ever saw it I was playing there. It’s all tied up for me, playing in America for the first time, being in New York, experiencing this different culture, and finding this cool place to hang out. So, I always love coming back to New York.
KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks, “Who were your musical influences?” Let me guess, Billie Holiday and Al Green. You remind me of a combination of them.
CBR: Wow! I definitely love Al Green’s singing, how vulnerable and delicate it is, and how there’s a lot of texture to his voice. And similarly, Billie Holiday has a great deal of texture in his voice. She was an amazing find for me at 11 or 12 when me mum started playing her records for me. I remember being a little annoyed that I hadn’t discovered her voice before, because I always had so much texture in my voice, and always loved singing, but never really considered myself a singer because of that croakiness which I’d never heard in another singer. So, I was always trying to get rid of that croakiness. Then, Billie Holiday arrived like a real lightning bolt letting me know that there was a place for me. In fact, there’d been a place for me all along. And later I appreciated singers like Bjork, who was really special to me, and Macy Gray and Erykah Badu. They were all influences in the sense that they give you more confidence in your abilities. I also love Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. Jimi singing’s so casual, and his phrases amaze me. And when I was a teenager, I loved Nirvana’s kind of homemade music, and Belly and the female indie scene. It was amazing to me how their songs could be dainty and small, yet still have value.
KW: When you say “homemade” music, it makes me think of your Grammy-nominated debut album, a masterpiece which you managed to make on a shoestring budget. How did you achieve that?
CBR: Wow! Thank you very much. I guess we worked on it a lot, did a lot of the playing ourselves, did a lot of layering, and we called in a lot of favors. For instance, we’d ask a friend to come over and play bass on a few songs. And we couldn’t afford drummers, so we began trolling for different drums sounds, and we kind of intricately pieced them together. So, it was really time consuming, but in a way it was good because you had a great deal of control over what was happening in all the different sections. Yeah, if you have the time to make a record like that, I think it’s a good way to work.
KW: By contrast, I found it interesting to hear you on stage say that you sort oof just found yourself singing the songs that you put on your new album, “The Sea,” that that’s how they came to you, rather than by composing them in a conventional manner.
CBR: Yeah, it was weird. I felt with this record I wanted to work on my own. I was sort of making it up, as I went along. I wasn’t trying so hard. When I was playing the chords, I was just kind of singing things out, sometimes recording it, but sometimes not, and just singing along. And it’s the stuff that stuck that I felt the song was meant to be. Other times, I’d be walking around the house singing something new, and say to myself, “Now, what was that?” And it eventually ended up on the album. I think because other people weren’t involved, it was a much less conscious process. It was just me in a room playing my guitar, and with all this stuff coming out… trying to sing words without thinking about what they meant or putting a filter on them. That was really an important part of the process.
KW: That’s funny, because the first album sounded so effortless, while the new one has so much emotional depth, I would have guessed that the second was the result of a more work-intensive process.
CBR: Yeah, when you write breezy melodies, you really have to think about it. I love melodic music, but it’s definitely more of an effort for me. It’s a skill I’d like to develop further, maybe for my next record.
KW: Larry Greenberg says, “I am completely mesmerized by the beauty of your new album. I know you studied the violin but you don’t play it anymore. Is there any chance I might get to hear you play the violin in the future?
CBR: It’s a hard instrument, especially to get the intonation right, if you haven’t played it in a long time. It’s a completely different discipline, but yeah, I would love one day to mess about, sit and write some string parts and sort of layer them up. And if my playing were good enough, I would be really happy to play violin on a record. But I haven’t played for so long, I don’t know how good I would be.
KW: What age were you when you studied violin?
CBR: I started when I was about 6, and I studied it until I was 16. I played in youth orchestras.
KW: Were you good at it?
CBR: Maybe the first 5 years or so I was