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11 September 2023

Corinne Bailey Rae’s radical return

The industry feared her new album, Black Rainbows, would alienate white audiences. She made it anyway.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Corinne Bailey Rae first visited the Stony Island Arts Bank early one morning in 2017. The former bank building, which the American artist Theaster Gates saved from demolition in 2015 and restored as a gallery and archive space, sits on a noisy road on the South Side of Chicago.

It was once a middle-class white area, said Bailey Rae, and then it became a middle-class black area. Now it is “what they call an under-served community – there’s poverty, there’s crime, there’s gun violence, there’s a lot of mental health problems”. Later, when Bailey Rae returned for a residency at the Arts Bank, she passed a bus-stop advert for safe places a parent could give up their child within the first 30 days of its life.

The contents of the Arts Bank sharply contrast with its impoverished surroundings. Inside lies a black cultural archive so rich that it consumed Bailey Rae’s thoughts and inspired the songs on her fourth record, Black Rainbows. When we met for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Leeds in August, six years after her first visit to the Arts Bank, she still excitedly spoke about her experiences there, rattling off lists of what she saw at rapid speed. “You go inside this bank, and it’s a gothic building, 100 years old, thick walls. You close the doors behind you – and boof! The outside noise stops. There’s just a vast space, huge ceiling.”

Inside the building is a library of black literature – 15,000 books and magazines once owned by John H Johnson, the influential African American businessman who published Negro Digest, Jet and Ebony magazines. On another floor lies a collection of racist ephemera, 4,000 objects from the collection of Edward J Williams, who began buying these items in the 1970s to remove them from circulation. She described an ashtray shaped like a boy on a potty; a 1950s newspaper advert for a Servel fridge; a postcard showing children being fed to alligators. “He [Williams] would go to yard sales and flea markets and see cookie jars that are shaped as black women, or photographs with derogatory images of black people, or postcards of lynchings, adverts, anything that was crackling with that uncomfortable presentation,” Bailey Rae said.

She went down to the former bank’s vaults, now rusted from the time they spent underwater, when the building was derelict. “There’s something very poignant about that, that this used to be a place of safety, locked away, and it fell to wrack and ruin. That thing of it all turns to dust: what is wealth? What can wealth do?”

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Bailey Rae returned to the Arts Bank several times. Each time she was a student again, scribbling down notes that quickly became songs. The experience of writing Black Rainbows was “liberating”, but so different that at first she didn’t conceive of it as a Corinne Bailey Rae album – she thought it would just be a side project. “I thought it was gonna be niche and weird,” she said. Her management team at the time were “fearful” of the reception, thinking it might alienate white audiences. Now, working with a new team and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, that isn’t a concern. In just a few years, pop culture has shifted to welcome assertions and celebrations of black identity. “That’s been a really big cultural change.”

Bailey Rae, who is 44, was born in Leeds, where she still lives, to a mother from Yorkshire and a father from Saint Kitts. When we met, she wore a dark-blue floral jumpsuit with black brogues, a multicoloured, checked coat, and a bumbag that she kept on throughout our lunch. The restaurant’s staff knew her well: the owner used to DJ in a club in which the 18-year-old Bailey Rae worked as a waitress. Another waiter offered to join a second table to ours to make room for the number of dishes – grilled prawns, arancini, courgette fries, a rocket salad – that she had ordered.

At school Bailey Rae played violin before turning her attention to singing. She performed at her local church, where she was encouraged by a youth leader both to write her own worship songs and to play covers by rock groups such as Primal Scream. During her teenage years she also played in an indie grunge band named Helen. When the group disbanded, she started working on solo material, a pop sound with soul and R&B influences, her honeyed voice the focus. She released her first single, “Like a Star”, in November 2005 and was named the number-one predicted breakthrough act of 2006 in the BBC’s annual poll. The critics were right: in February of that year she released her self-titled debut album and became the fourth female British act in history to have her first record debut at number one. Her second single, “Put Your Records On”, reached number two in the singles chart. It remains her biggest hit. These songs still make regular appearances on nostalgic, feel-good Spotify playlists with names like “Easy 00s” and “Summer Indie”.

Black Rainbows is sonically very different. The songs, all inspired by artefacts at the Arts Bank, are impressively wide-ranging: on the pared-back “He Will Follow You with His Eyes”, she sings lines from mid-20th century beauty-product adverts, her voice breathy and sensual. Meanwhile “Erasure”, which explores how racism robs black children of their childhoods – prompted by that ashtray, and a photograph of the Civil War-era General Custer with his black slave boy – is a scream-filled rock song.

The record seems like her most political to date. But Bailey Rae has always felt like she has made statements, even if the mainstream didn’t notice. She recently appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, where “Put Your Records On” was described as “a lovely breezy pop hymn to looking on the bright side”. She laughed at the memory. “I thought: that’s not how I see it!” In the US, the song’s lyrics – “Gotta love that Afro hairdo”; “Girl, let your hair down” – and the fact that she has natural hair in the music video were “a really big thing. In a black space, that’s someone saying: I have an amount of self-love, which means that, before I made this music video, I didn’t think, ‘Oh wait, I have to have my hair braided to my head, and then have someone else’s hair sewn on top, just to exist in that space.’” Released years before artists such as Lizzo broke into the mainstream singing about black pride and self-care, it can be considered “a radical song”.

Bailey Rae was in the middle of describing a Theaster Gates sculpture when she suddenly paused, gesturing to the music playing in the restaurant. “Sorry, I’m really distracted because it’s Amy Winehouse. I always feel so sad about Amy that I can’t listen to it. Oh my god, she was a baby…”

Bailey Rae knew Winehouse, who died in 2011 aged 27. Her first husband Jason Rae, a saxophonist with the Haggis Horns, often played with Mark Ronson, Winehouse’s collaborator. The tabloid culture at the time was febrile: before her death Winehouse often appeared on newspaper front pages, alongside other such targets – Peaches Geldof, Pete Doherty – whose personal lives and substance addictions were made public. Despite being a household name, Bailey Rae was never hounded like her peers. “I’d always been held up as ‘you’re not like Lily Allen or Amy Winehouse, therefore you’re boring – you’re not spilling out of clubs’.” She preferred it that way. “I was like: that’s fine, because [the newspapers] have no interest in me.”

[See also: The book Pete Doherty didn’t write]

That all changed when Jason died from an accidental drug overdose in 2008. He was 32; she was 29. Suddenly she had journalists camped outside her house, putting notes through her door. Today, “I think there’s much more understanding about mental health. Then, it was a bit like people were silly, or people were self-indulgent, or people were somehow ‘bad’, ‘wrong’uns’.”

After Jason’s death, Bailey Rae felt like her “life had ended. I remember thinking, I’ve had a really good life: I had a happy childhood, and I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do, all this music stuff.” It felt almost cartoonishly poignant that while she spoke, “Put Your Records On” – on which Jason plays saxophone – played in the restaurant. Later, the staff insisted they hadn’t put it on to embarrass her; it is a regular fixture of their playlist.

“This song,” she said slowly, “came out in 2006. [Jason died] only two years after. But that two years in my head is five years long. A lot of things got crammed into that time, from being able to buy our first house, meeting Stevie Wonder, flying to see Oprah on a private jet, Prince coming to my show… I thought: I’ve had this life and now my life is finished.”

Their marriage was “really difficult: Jason had these drinking things, bouts, and then all this regret afterwards. It was a real emotional rollercoaster.” Bailey Rae explored these feelings on The Sea (2010), her second record, which was nominated for the Mercury Prize. She still feels angry about the circumstances of his death – “it didn’t need to happen” – and has experienced frustration alongside grief. “I often think of him and wonder: would he have arrived at a state of balance? I hope he would have.”

Bailey Rae is now remarried, to the musician and producer Steve Brown, who has worked with her since the beginning. The couple have two daughters, aged three and five, who will travel with them when they tour the US this month. “It feels very much like having it all,” she said, though occasionally she catches herself: recently she was talking to another parent at her daughter’s school who was complaining about the noise in their village thanks to late-night motorbikes. “And I was saying: ‘Yeah, that’s like when we played in Dubai and the Grand Prix was going through our hotel!’ And I thought: Actually, that’s not really the same. I was trying to be relatable.”

In the mid-Noughties, it would have been unthinkable for a chart-topping pop artist to make an album steeped in historical research and archival material. Until recently it wouldn’t have occurred to Bailey Rae either. She paraphrased a quote, from the fashion designer Miuccia Prada, by which she now lives: “When I allowed my interests to affect my work, that’s when everything changed.” Corinne Bailey Rae has embraced making music that is “niche and weird”.

“Black Rainbows” is released on Thirty Tigers on 15 September.

[See also: Muna’s anti-capitalist pop]

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