Corinne Bailey Rae’s self-titled debut turned her into a global superstar in 2006 – earning her two GRAMMYS, a BMI Pop Award and sales upward of four million albums. Her knack for warm, lush grooves may belie the fact that the U.K. native started out in an all-female band, Helen, playing indie, grunge-style rock – trace elements of which appeared in her second album, The Sea. Now touring in support of her third album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, she’s continuing her evolution – a journey that’s had her literally reaching for the stars. Considered her most “pop” outing yet, Whispers led her to Los Angeles to record with vanguard R&B artists including KING and also see her music featured in a NASA film inspired by the space probe Juno’s trip to Jupiter. A big fan of star-gazing, Bailey Rae also takes seriously the act of getting centered and present – a theme that permeates the album and something she does when performing, as she’ll soon do when she plays Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London. BMI caught up with the songwriter and musician in between tour stops.
In 2006, you became the fourth female British artist in history to have your first album debut at No. 1. How did that honor, as well as the many others you’ve racked up, affect your work going forward?
I think it just made me really happy. It made me feel like I was on the right path. It was a big surprise. I didn’t know how any of it would work. Being from the U.K., you see artists doing shows, who have videos in the media and then you see them disappear. I’d imaged they went home – I never imagined they were doing the same in Italy and Germany and the U.S. I just didn’t know how it worked. At EMI, in the international department, they said ‘If everything works out you’re going to hate us at the end of the year. You’re not going to see home.’ I feel lucky to travel and tour see places I haven’t been before. It really worked out.
Can you talk about how your writing and/or creative process has evolved from album to album? Do you have any rituals you swear by when creating?
I’ve certainly got more confidence, trusting my instincts and inner voice. I’ve done a lot of co-writing; the person you’re writing with has an effect. You can catch up, go for food, it can be relaxed. If you don’t know them, you’re getting to know them through the music. Every song is completely different. It may start with a melody, a rhythm or playing my guitar, seeing what comes out. Or jamming with someone, and they’ve got a chord…it’s different every time. It’s evolved, but I’m more rigorous with the ideas.
Your latest album amplifies soul and even pop influences while retaining some signature Corinne elements. What do you think makes a Corinne album distinctly yours and how do you retain your stamp while pursuing new directions?
I think with any artist, you have to have a lot of freedom. Whatever song comes to you, it’s yours to make. You don’t have to be confined to something you’ve done before. It’s great when [artists] don’t see themselves as making a particular product. That’s important. I can be continually expanding, pursuing different forms, whatever melodies and styles I’m drawn to at that particular time. I think my records are broad in their styles. I feel lucky people are interested in my music and let me explore those different ideas – that they don’t expect one style or genre. Now is a good time for musicians in terms of freedom. I think artists now have lots of freedom to move in different directions and can trust people to come with them on that journey.
You’ve known many of the musicians you work with for a long time. How does having those longtime relationships benefit you both personally and your creative process? How is the process different when working with someone you haven’t before, such as Esperanza Spalding [who appears on Whispers].
I think long-standing relationships are great. They reassure you. There’s a lot of voices and conflicting opinions [in music], so it’s great to feel like your team is strong. They’re supportive of me, they give me more confidence in the work. They’re encouraging and the first people that hear the music…when I play and see their reaction, I feel stronger about the song. When you work with musicians over a long time you’re building on foundations, building a common language to refer to – like, ‘Remember what you did on this song? Remember that Prince record, how aggressive and tight that was?’ So much of working with musicians is developing a language. When you work with someone a long time you can say ‘I want it to be more dreamy or abstract,’ and they’ll understand. That’s a real benefit to the musician.
Even though I haven’t worked with someone, I know their music. I feel a connection to them. The first time I met Esparanza was on a photo shot in New York, with different women. I remember she didn’t want to wear diamonds. We just kind of talked, and she said we should work together. She’s a great talent, a fast mind. You sort of feel this attraction, a magnetic bond. That magnetic attraction is exciting; you have to be present because you’re making this amazing new musical relationship and a new friend and your brain is racing forward thinking of all the projects and performances.
The first song on your new album “The Skies Will Break,” has a bit of an EDM feel, and of course, you’ve played everything from classical violin to rock to indie. What musical influences or favorites do you have that people might find surprising?
I think being from England, it’s different. Radio isn’t divided into genre – you can’t tune in and get all country. I was brought up on radio, a collection of what the most popular was, from KISS to Phil Collins to Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson. It was just a real mixture of styles… Whitesnake and hair metal bands and 90s grunge. I got into music playing in a band, playing electric guitar. Hearing Kurt Cobain for the first time was a total revelation. Billie Holiday too. It showed me there was a place for voices that had texture and imperfection. Led Zeppelin…hearing bands play with guitars, writing about everyday things, mystical things. It meant music was really open; that you could sing and write about anything. I’ve always loved pop culture. It’s a reflection and barometer of what’s the philosophy of particular generation. It’s always interesting to me. I loved the Kanye [West] record [The Life of Pablo] how sort of collage-y it is. St. Vincent, Little Dragon…I love to hear all styles of music. I love hearing classical music from Portugal, how dramatic and classic it is. I’m open to anything brilliant.
Many of your songs have been used in film and TV – which seems right since your songs and videos are so narrative rich and cinematic. Is your creative process influenced by visual forms? Do you see songs playing out as you’re creating them?
I definitely see songs in terms of impressions. I get an image and it gives me a feeling. Sometimes I’m trying to look for a feeling and mood a set of emotions and sensations, and I’m thinking of a way to put it into language. I’ll get images when sleeping or traveling – see something out of the window and want to make it into three or four words and make my mind hear the image. I’m fascinated by the relationship between language and the mind, how we’ve made language and sounds to say out loud what is trying to bridge the gap between my brain and your brain. Language is a form of music. It’s a weird thing humans have done. Language is really interesting to me, how it captures emotions.
Do you think music should have a message?
I think all music has a message, even if it’s not deliberate, even if the message is, ‘Let’s forget everything, get drunk and have a good time.’ That’s a message. You can’t avoid having a philosophy, even if it’s not trying to be responsible or political. I don’t think it has to step out with an agency but at the same time I don’t think you can avoid everything that comes from your framework.
You’ve been sent to space, so to speak, with NASA including your music in the film Visions of Harmony, about travel to Jupiter’s orbit. How did that placement happen? Have you always been interested in space? How is the idea of exploration resonant in your approach to making music?
I’ve gotten more interested as I got older, looking at the night sky. Traveling to places where there’s less light pollution, you see infinite layers of stars and constellations. In the last years I’ve come across lots of literature about imagery, stars and constellations. My recent obsession in the moon came out of using a metaphor for putting yourself out there. I went to see Apple to talk about the launch, and played the video for Been to the Moon. One of the people there said, ‘I know you’re using the moon as a metaphor,’ and they told me about the project – sending space probes to Jupiter, that it would take months to get there. They were looking at sonic vibrations…they were going record that and send back to us. I was really looking to hear what a storm sounds like on like on Jupiter. I was really interested in using space sounds to make music.
A consistent message for this album is about being aligned with the physical body, paying attention to the present. Do you actually experience physical sensations when writing that let you know you’ve arrived at the right note or chord or line? What about when performing?
Yeah, I think so. The main thing I’m feeling when performing is, I’m not thinking anymore. That’s the biggest one. I’m not thinking what the next song is, or ‘Am I playing the chords right?’ No technical stuff. I’m just sort of connected to the musicians and the audience. It becomes automatic. Obviously singing and playing is physical. You move your fingers – sometimes people are waving at me and will want me to wave back, but I have to have my hands on the guitar! Definitely my body will tell me [when on to something good.] Your heart flutters, your pulse is racing, that excitement, joyous thing. I feel like it’s a physical thing. Similarly if you’re working and tired and uncomfortable, you need to get up and move around. To be in the moment and aware of your body is really important.
What’s next on your horizon?
Toward the end of the year, continuing playing across the U.S. I have dates with Alabama Shakes, Audra Day, events around the holidays. I love I being in New York around the holidays. I’m a proper tourist in New York – doing the horse and carriage in Central Park. I’m headlining at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and playing one of my favorite venues, Town Hall in Leeds where I played as a child. I’m writing songs for TV and a British film Funny Cow about a female comedian working men’s clubs in England. It’s my first film.
You’ve worked alongside so many musical icons – from Stevie Wonder to Herbie Hancock and many more. What you have learned and adopted from those greats? Do you think about creating your own legacy too and if so, what would you like it to be?
I guess I just think of making more work. I never think of what it looks like when it’s all done. I’d love to do a lot of things. Hopefully I’ll have time to work on different projects, do things for film. I’m looking forward to making more records.
Can you talk about your relationship with BMI? How has the relationship benefited you and/or impacted your work?
It was great to get recognition from BMI, especially for songwriting. I believe in it a lot. I love writing songs. It’s really magical recognition. It makes me want to create more.
Be sure to watch Corinne’s captivating new video “Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart”!