As a bright-eyed teen girl in the midst of life changes and moving from the mid-west to the south, I put my headphones in and confided in my make-believe big sister. The sound of ‘The Sea’ surrounded by a sea of new bodies, a new schedule, and too many changes to all take in once slowed me to an even pace and made me appreciate the sun. I stood, humming, ready to take on anything and call it beauty.
Defining the young genre of neo-soul with the stroke of a guitar string is what Corinne Bailey Rae stepped into the spotlight doing. Almost immediately, she captivated an array of listeners with her heart-freeing sound, soft, yet unashamed. She took her place in the urban soul arena as a suburban girl from rural UK, acoustic guitar and hair-flower in tow, letting the world know the space for soul singers is more vast than where it originated.
This year marks 8 years since her last release, and Corinne is on her way back. Re-emerging with a little grit to her sweet sound and a new perspective, the 37 year-old singer-songwriter, who once captured our 2 a.m. thoughts of love and loss, is here to tell a new story we will all hear our name in. ‘The Heart Speaks in Whispers’ is a testament to life: experiencing viscerally and loving unconditionally, finding solace and finding your own voice in the midst of it all. Because the heart may speak in whispers, but when you get close enough to listen, the truth within yourself is a beautiful song.
Makeda Sandford: You’ve released a taste of your upcoming album The Heart Speaks in Whispers, set to drop May 13th, and I’m personally very excited. It has been nearly a decade since the release of your self titled debut album. Songs like “Put Your Records On,” and “Like a Star” were filled with so much rich, soulful depth and were monumental in crafting your career. How will this album be different as far as production? Can you take me through the journey of developing this record?
Corinne Bailey Rae: It’s a constantly evolving thing. I think we’re constantly evolving as people. We’re always growing, and there’s no limit to the things that we can learn and the knowledge that we can gain through our experiences. I feel like through this record, it’s really been teaching me about the inner-self and about how much power we have as individuals and how much we have a sort of inner wisdom when we have access to what’s going on in our hearts, what’s going on in our subconscious, and what’s happening with our bodies that we have to listen to and be in tuned with, and how nature is informing us. These became very important things for the record.
I’d say this album is different from the records because I feel like I wasn’t trying to write a record. After I finished touring with The Sea, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to always make music and always write songs, but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to make another album and be involved with a record company. There’s always a lot of pressure around that sort of thing, and I was moving out of this time of grief after losing Jason. I was just thinking, “What am I doing with my life? How do I want to rebuild my life? What is sort of left of me and what’s going to come?” I feel like there was this phase of searching, finding, and discovering. I found myself writing songs and getting fragments of ideas, and I really wanted to follow them and track them down and work out what they meant. The writing came in this organic way, and these themes kept presenting themselves in nature, the body, and dreams. Some of the songs came to me in dreams, and it’s a very visual album with lots of different imagery. When it came to the production of it, I just wanted to treat each song as it’s own thing and not really think of it as an entire record in terms of how they’re going to come together.
I really wanted to be able to play on this record and to experiment. I wanted it to be this playful thing where I’m really just developing as a producer. I’ve built my own studio and got all of these musical instruments in here, which I think is just a playground. We have a tape machine and all these different drum machines from the ’60s and ’70s that have been made and doctored by engineers. We’ve got drum kits and loads of percussion, soft guitars, and a grand piano. I just feel like that is much more my environment where I can create. I feel like when I walk into a professional studio with that kind of black couch and the mixing desks and computer screens, I just don’t feel like I can make anything in that space. I don’t feel like I’m a professional. I don’t feel like I can fit in that world, and it feels very focused on the commercial. Sometimes you walk into a session and its some big producer and they clap their hands together like, “Right! We’re gonna make a hit!” It feels like it’s not really me, and I feel like whatever inspires me in music, it tends to sort of vanish in those situations. It just goes away like the light shines and it kind of goes back into shadows. I’ve really enjoyed writing in my little studio with my art on the walls and just more homemade and DIY with my friends in and out. I like to make it in a way that I guess is maybe more feminine, or alternative, or non-commercial. I don’t know what you would really call it, but I really feel inspired in those kinds of environments.
Is that how you went about making your debut album and your second album The Sea? Are these reasons why you hold on to those organic feelings and organic ways to create music?
Absolutely! The first record was mostly made in the basement of an art studio, and I made it with a producer. We were in this really small village just outside of Bradford, which is near Leeds. It’s a small and kind of quiet Yorkshire village. Not a place where you’d expect me to launch from, but London always felt like this kind of place where I can release it in, and I wanted to do something that felt smaller and different. The first record was made in that art studio, and the second album we made in the ballroom of this grand house in Manchester that belonged to a friend. I just always want to be in different, inspiring places. I feel like all the art is connected to the space and the architecture. The velvet curtains, broken chandelier, and being able to see green; to be out, go walking, and be under a black sky. That’s really important for me to be connected to all those things and not feel like I’m in this cold commercial space.
Do you believe that your relationship with music has changed or do you still pull from the same kinds of feelings and energies that you did in the past?
I think my relationship with music has become deeper, and I feel like music has been a part of a thing that sort of saved me. Music is so much apart of the life source, and you think of life as being sort of electronic pulses and vibrations. To me, music is like a stem of that life source that has been part of what sustained me over really difficult times, and then it sort of brought me into joy. Sometimes I think of music as like a magic carpet. You get on it, and you just don’t know where you’re going to end up. You don’t know who you’re going to end up meeting, what country you’re going to end up being in, what your relations are going to be like, or what it’s going to sound like. It’s been a thrill ride over these past few years. Music has put me in situations I would have never expected to be in. For example, being in a dressing room with Patti Smith and seeing her run out after a performance or being on stage with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. I just feel like I’m going up in this spiral, and there’s no end to it. Even being in the studio with KING and getting to know them; I’ve been really amazed about how they are as producers.
I feel like music opens up these magical experiences. I’d say in my relationship, I feel like music was really important in finding my identity as a young person and finding out where I also fit in the world, my culture and in my city. I’ve used it to explore and express my feelings, but I really felt like music has become my survival now and has become this unpredictable adventure. So, it has grown a lot richer over the years.
You mention the ladies of KING, and we absolutely love your collaborative song “Green Aphrodisiac.” The musical chemistry between all of you is so evident. What does the idea of collaboration really mean to you, and how did the collaboration first come about?
I heard about KING through a friend, and I was really getting into their EP. I went to Los Angeles, and I was working with a really well known producer, and he was always very busy. He was working with me, and then he’d be like, “I’m just going down the corridor because I’m also working with this other person. When you’ve got something, call me and let me know and I’ll come in.” I really didn’t enjoy working with that person. Esperanza Spalding was in town, and she invited me for breakfast. I met up with her, and she asked, “How is it going?” and I told her not so well. She continued and said, “Don’t’ worry about that, I’ve got two things for you.” She had a little bag, and she pulled out these hair products that her mum makes to give to me as a gift. The other thing was the KING EP, and I told her how much I liked them and how I was getting into them. She shared how she went to school with Paris and how they lived in Los Angeles. Next thing, she starts handing me a phone that’s already ringing [laughs] I get on the phone and introduced myself, and Paris shared how she knew my work. I told her how I’d love to get together, so we just went in Esperanza’s zip car to their house and met Amber, Anita, and Paris. I just got on with them really well straight away. I played them a few of my songs on guitar, and we had a little jam with them also playing songs they were working on. I just loved them as people instantly. I love their manner and their collective peaceful nature, confidence, and obviously their talent.
The next time we met up, it was me with Paris and Amber. It was this beautiful spring evening, and we were talking about the sensuality of that time of year and how you feel really connected to your body. Everything’s green and Amber said “green aphrodisiac,” and I said, “that’s the title of the song!” Paris and I started writing the song straight away. What Paris played in the studio that night is what became the song. She was really encouraging and came up with this really lusty arrangement. Then I came home and wrote the lyrics in my garden over the course of May. The blossoms were falling from the trees, and I had my shoes off with my feet in the soil with the leaves. It was beautiful. It came together really naturally, but to me, it was an expression of like a female kind of nature-based sexuality. It’s not about you do this to me, I do this to you, but it’s more just about the feeling you get when you get woken up and your body is woken up. I worked on the production with Steve Brown, who I do most of my records with, and we were able to get vibraphone players, a harpist, and all the lush compositions. I’m really happy with how it turned out.
Your visuals have amazed us as well. They are vividly intentional and moving. When you go to conceptualize or record your videos, what are your main objectives?
The album itself to me is very visual when I trying to describe it to other people. I was thinking a lot about the quality of light in different places, and how if you’re really high on a mountain and you’ve got the sun in your eyes, it feels like it’s sort of burning right at the back of your brain. So, when I was coming to do the visuals, it felt like an easy transition into what the look of the sound of the album was. What does it feel like and how can we get an environment that feels otherworldly? I saw this black volcanic rock and thought, “I’d really want to be around that.” I find volcanoes to be incredible. You think about transformation and they’re at the bottom of the earth, sometimes underwater, and there’s this pressure that builds up, and the rock becomes plasticized and can move and this lava spills out. It’s very descriptive. That became a really strong image for me, after I lost my husband in 2008. This massively disruptive thing that tore through my life and sort of threatened to end my life and it’s weight. Just as a recovery of that, there’s been all this newness, fertility, growth, and joy. To me, the volcano is really important image in nature when the end is really the beginning. Being in some shots throughout the video for “Been To The Moon” where I’m just standing on this black rock, I felt really strong and empowered. I feel like music has really empowered me. Standing at the end of the video with this flag, and it’s this torn flag; to me, it really speaks about triumph and survival. I feel like in the video I’m there on this planet starting this new life with this tattered flag that survived over time but still has this rugged beating. I felt like the music was empowering.
Being in a desert that used to be at the bottom of the ocean, it was just so amazing and weird to me. I feel like the planet has got so much weird stuff going on that somehow its answers the questions but also leaves mystery while reassuring you about your life and the journey of your life from hurt, failure, and pain. Nature is kind of telling you that this is normal. I really like that about the planet.
We understand that you’ve been influenced by artists like Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye, and gospel artists, so we wanted to know who else has been an inspiration to your musical palette and how? Also, has church been one of the influential pieces of your sound over time?
Church has been a really important part of my sound. The church that I went to in the north of England was mostly a white, middle-class Baptist church with a lot of teachers, doctors, nurses and therapists. It was this interesting church to me because it was quite alternative and bohemian. The fair trade thing was still coming through, so there were a few people that got their cardigans from a developing country in Africa and it was all made out of rainbow patterns. It had a lot of cool people, but during the time I would’ve thought it was so uncool because they were so highly cultural. But when I look back, it seems like the looks could have come out of that ’60s and ’70s. It’s good church, and it’s very socially conscious. Some groups would feed the homeless while another would go to Romania to work with the orphans. It really was this radical church.
The youth lead was really into Radiohead and Nirvana, and we all wrote our own music and songs. We were really focused on a lot of Old Testament ideas, where the prophets are kind of asking God, “Where are you?” There’s descriptions of violence, injustice, and poverty and questions of where is this God? I felt like it was this church that encouraged you to question God and said, “Hey, it’s in this physical tradition, people have done it, it’s right here in this book.” It was quite a radical church, and the music was played really often. When I think of it, they were pretty sweet and indulgent to let a 15 year old girl lead the church in these kind of whiny, God-questioning songs. They really let all the young people do their own thing, and I just totally appreciate that now. It was a church, but it wasn’t gospel music necessarily. I feel like it pushed me out into the musical world. In some writing you can do whatever you want, and you can make your own world. Everything you think has been thought before; everything you felt is also felt by other people in the world, so it wasn’t this thing of like, “oh this isn’t very universal.” Everything that comes out of people connects with other people. That was a big shaping influence on me.
Just growing up in the north of England, the indie scene was really big here. I felt like that was really my background, playing indie and playing spacious guitar music. Again, you can write whatever you want, dress however you want, and I felt really free. A lot of people ask me, “Is it hard being a woman in the music industry?” I can only ever talk about my own experience of only ever being a woman. I can’t compare it to being a man, but I found that to be a lot of space for myself as a woman and a lot of encouragement. I feel like my musical origins are quite diverse coming out of indie music, hearing the music my parents listened to growing up, and learning classical violin. I did that for more than 10 years, so just being in orchestras and trying to find my place in that has been a big influence as well. Russian and German classical music and how moody that is, I really love all of that harmony.
With this new album, do you think that it’ll be more of a singular message you’re putting out or is it more of a personal re-introduction?
I think both. Hopefully people will be able to re-connect with me and fans sort of remember me. I feel like the record has a message. It’s really about our in-selves, how important we are, how unique and interesting we are, and how we have the tools in ourselves to find newness and healing. To me, it’s an empowered record that’s about transformation, and I hope people can sense that. I hope people enjoy it because it’s quite diverse. I feel like already different peoples’ favorite songs are quite broad. I just hope that people find it peaceful. A lot of the lyrics have come to me in dreams or subconsciously, and there’s a lot of things that I think I’m realizing that are true — that’s the truth about the heart speaking and you have to listen and quiet down. You have to stick around and deal with the chaos, slow it down and find out what our hearts and our bodies are trying to say to us. To me, that is a truth that I hope people get into. I‘m looking forward to getting out there and playing it for people. The record has already given me so much, and I hope that people can connect with it.
I have to ask, what else can we expect besides your tour for this year? Do you have any other little tidbits of exciting news?
Well, I’m writing this music for a film, which I’m really looking forward to doing. I can’t tell you what it is, but I really enjoy writing to picture and writing for particular moments. I’ve written a few side projects, so I don’t know when we’ll introduce those people, but that has been really fun to do as well.
Thank you for speaking with us, Corinne! Do you have anything else to add?
Oh yes! I’ve been doing some podcasts as well. I just finished one yesterday. I’ve been interviewing various people about music as therapy and the way we have to tune in to ourselves in our digital lives. That’s been fun to do. They’re going to come out with audio soon!