Corinne Bailey Rae: The Billboard Cover Story
Corinne Bailey Tierney Gearon

Almost as quickly as she showed up, Corinne Bailey Rae has disappeared.

The U.K. singer/songwriter just finished a highly abbreviated set at the 150-capacity Joe's Pub -- one of two New York gigs in early December, and her first live dates here since 2007 -- and the standing-room-only crowd that eagerly awaited her arrival is now protesting her early exit.

"One more song!" a few rowdy fans yell. Rae, clad in a lavender metallic jumpsuit that slinks over her petite frame and simple, black flats, is apologetic. It's not her call, she explains; another band is about to go onstage. Finally, folks reluctantly start to file out of the venue, still absorbing what they heard.

The performance was almost exclusively of new music from "The Sea," Rae's sophomore album, which is due Jan. 26 in the United States on Capitol Records and Feb. 1 in the United Kingdom on Virgin, and which also strays heavily from her debut. "I really didn't want to make the same record twice," Rae says of "The Sea," which, unlike the rather uncomplicated acoustic-pop-leaning sound of her debut, has more lush production and bleaker lyrics. "Even the label didn't want me to make the same record twice. I felt like I had developed a lot from the first one in terms of how I wanted it to sound."

Released in 2006, Rae's self-titled debut sold 1.9 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It spent 71 weeks on the Billboard 200, peaking at No. 4 in February 2007.

The album spawned two hit singles: the resolutely cheerful "Put Your Records On," which sold 945,000 downloads, according to SoundScan, and appeared on several charts (No. 11 on Adult Top 40, No. 8 on Triple A, No. 6 on Adult Contemporary and No. 64 on the Billboard Hot 100); and the ballad "Like a Star" reached No. 56 on the Hot 100 and No. 33 on Adult Top 40 and sold 327,000 downloads.

Rae received a slew of critical accolades, including three Grammy Award nominations in 2007 -- for record and song of the year for "Put Your Records On" and best new artist -- and another song of the year nod in 2008 for "Like a Star." In 2006 she received two MOBO Awards for best U.K. newcomer and best U.K. female.

"It was a massive shock to me," Rae says as she nurses a cup of tea at the Bowery Hotel two days after her Joe's Pub show. "I thought it was going to be much more of an underground record because it was underproduced, and it was going up against all of these massive productions at the time. I wasn't expecting that reaction at all."

Few artists would want to tamper with a sound that led to so much acclaim. But it only takes one listen to "The Sea," or a seat at one of the few gigs Rae is playing to introduce it to fans, to realize that it's much denser than the material that thrust Rae into the spotlight. From the multilayered instrumentation and production to the deeply personal lyrics -- many of which address the death of Rae's husband, saxophonist Jason Rae, in early 2008 -- it shows growth in all respects.

The singer's label, however, doesn't seem daunted by the idea of selling a darker, less pop-oriented Corinne Bailey Rae to fans. "Yes, we are looking to capitalize on the first album," EMI U.K. & Ireland president Andria Vidler says. "But this is also about bringing Corinne to a new level, as an artist with new depth and more sophistication. It's a different type of album."

"Corinne has made a really, really special piece of music that will resonate with artists and also with consumers," says Greg Thompson, executive VP of marketing and promotion for EMI Music in North America. "There are plenty of people who have already bought into the Corinne Bailey Rae experience, and I think you're going to find a lot more stepping in to join the club."