Words by Oliver Berry
Smooth as silk and rich as chocolate, Corrine Bailey Rae’s dulcet tones are set to send her stratospheric.
“The world’s just gone completely mad,” reflects Corinne Bailey Rae with a bemused sigh. “A couple of months ago I didn’t even know anyone had heard of me. And now here I am talking to you about the release of my debut album. It’s exciting and weird and scary all at once. I really don’t know what to expect.”
You can hardly blame Corrine for feeling shell-shocked by the rollercoaster events of recent months. On the strength of a single EP (the limited-edition Like A Star, released back in November) and stellar performances on Later and Jools Holland’s annual Hootenanny, the 26-year-old Leeds born singer-songwriter has rocketed from near obscurity to being championed by the British music press as one of the year’s most exciting prospects.
With an eclectic, off-kilter sound which skips and trips through a catalogue of musical styles, from the dusky soul of Billie Holiday to the bass-heavy beats of Portishead, it’s not too hard to see the attraction. Critics have been falling over themselves to try and pigeonhole her music, (a Macy Gray comparison here, a nod to Norah Jones there), but Corinne has little time for radio-friendly categories.
“It’s really important to me to transcend what’s perceived to be black music and what’s perceived to be white music. My dad’s West Indian and my mum’s white, so I’ve never felt the need to belong to one particular musical group or another, and that’s something I’m really grateful for. Actually, it was always my dad who had the Dire Straits records and my mum who listened to Bob Marley.”
In fact, her early musical direction was a long way from the smoky, soulful, Mississippi-flecked sound that’s currently making the industry sit up and take notice. Her musical tastes were always eclectic, (apparently she was “just as keen on old Led Zep records as on the music of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye”), and while studying for a degree in English Literature at Leeds University, she formed and fronted Helen, a heavy-duty indie band styled after Riot-Grrrl acts like Belly, L7 and Veruca Salt. Somewhat unexpectedly, the group were snapped up by Slipknot’s label Roadrunner, only to find the deal shanghaied when the bassist fell pregnant. Back at university finishing off her degree and working part-time as a hatcheck girl at a club called The Underground, Corinne started singing old jazz and soul standards – mostly during the day when the club was quiet and the punters were few and far between.
“It was more of a musical journey than a massive change in direction,” she remembers. “I’d grown up listening to jazz and soul artists, but I’d never really considered the possibility that I could make that kind of music. While I was at university I was starting to write a lot more bringing in all the things that were influencing me at the time – the indie stuff that I’d already done, but also the more complex, soulful music that I was starting to sing. That’s really where this album came from – I’ve kind of drawn on everything that I grew up listening to.”
The voice of Corinne Bailey Rae is destined to be one of the defining sounds of the next twelve months. It’s a voice that somehow manages to be sultry, world-weary, intimate and uplifting all at the same time, perhaps because of what inspires music. “The way I write songs is really personal – but I would like my songs to have a meaning for other people too. It’s important for me to feel that my music is taking you on a real emotional journey. I think if you write songs, you write them as much for other people as for yourself. I really hope that comes across.”
Corinne Bailey Rae is out on tour now, and her debut album is out in March.