Corinne Bailey Rae: The Billboard Cover Story

Tierney Gearon
Corinne Bailey

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."

DEEP BLUE

The praise heaped upon Rae for her debut could have been intimidating. By summer 2007, though, she was done touring to promote that album and working on new material. The singer made an appearance on Herbie Hancock's "River: The Joni Letters" and was writing and recording songs like "The Blackest Lily," a collaboration with Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and keyboardist James Poyser that appears on "The Sea."

But personal tragedy brought Rae's career to a standstill about a month later. Jason, whom the singer married in 2001, was found dead at a friend's apartment in Leeds, England, from what a coroner's report later revealed was an accidental overdose of methadone and alcohol. In an instant, Rae's life drastically changed, and she subsequently went on a hiatus from music.

"There was a long period where I didn't really hear any songs," she says. "Normally in my everyday life, I'd be in the car and come up with a little line, or I'd look at something and try to describe it...I didn't really think in that way anymore. Nothing was coming in."


In addition, Rae suddenly became tabloid fodder in the United Kingdom. Paparazzi started to follow the singer around her hometown of Leeds, and there was constant speculation over how she was coping. "They had never had any interest in me before, because I don't get drunk and fall out of bars and do all of these reckless things," Rae says. "After losing Jason and the circumstances around that, there's been a sudden interest in me personally that I find to be quite disturbing."

With the intention of putting all the intrigue to rest before the full press campaign for "The Sea" got under way, Rae granted a "tell all" interview to the Guardian, which ran an extensive feature on Rae October 4.

"I feel like in America, people really get the music and get me, so I've been able to do more interviews," Rae says. "But in England, it's a bit more curious. It's all a question of what you say and what you don't say, and I'm still learning how to do that."

Rae slowly began to make music again, she says, and her songwriting instinct "just started to reappear. I don't know why, but I was glad to have it back."

The first song to make it onto "The Sea" from this period was "Are You Here," a haunting alt-rock piece that finds her painting an idyllic portrait of her lover ("He's a real live wire, he's the best of his kind/Wait till you see those eyes"), before plunging into a profound state of longing ("Are you here? Because my heart recalls that it all feels the same"), her voice welling up with emotion.

"I wasn't sure whether I wanted to put ["Are You Here"] into the world," Rae says. "During this time, I've written a lot of music that's just been for my personal expression, but when I got to the chorus of that song, I wanted it to be kind of heavy and intense and sensual and noisy and overwhelming."

None of those adjectives comes to mind when describing Rae's early material, and she says that a stylistic shift was under way even before her husband's death.

"I went from playing small gigs for 80 people to like 2,000 or 3,000 people, and they were arriving with all this expectation and excitement," she says. "The points in the gig that were meant to be really intimate and personal were good, but I wanted to take it over the edge and record something that was more aggressive and extreme.

"I didn't set out to write songs about grief," Rae says. "I feel like because I play my guitar and sing, and I do it in my house, those sort of things just turned up and came through."

Rae co-produced "The Sea" and chose to collaborate with familiar faces. Co-producer Steve Brown had also worked on her debut album, and Steve Chrisanthou co-wrote and produced "Put Your Records On." "I suppose it was a natural choice to work with someone she knew well and trusted rather than find new producers who may impose too strong a personal style on her work," says Chrisanthou, who worked on four new tracks with the singer. "There was no real pressure from the record company to make a particular type of album, as they trusted Corinne would come up with the goods...[it was] a great way to start a project."

"The Sea" was mostly recorded live in the studio to capture a more organic feel in the vein of Helen, the all-female rock band she formed and fronted as a teenager. Many of those musicians joined Rae on the road for her preview tour, which in addition to New York hit Los Angeles, Canada and England. "I knew I wanted to bring in the feeling of the live gigs," Rae says, "where everything could turn at the last minute."

"Corinne has definitely grown as a writer," Chrisanthou says. "She's more confident about subject matter and arrangement, and her voice seems to have more depth. The first album had more co-writing, and although it didn't suffer from the other writers' input, this is a more honest and real representation of who she is."

Chrisanthou describes "The Sea" as "a journey, not just a bunch of singles and fillers desperately stitched together and hopeful for profit. In today's competitive climate, that's a welcome rarity."

"Early on there were some thoughts of, 'Would you like to work with this songwriter or with that songwriter?' " Rae recalls of her conversations with EMI. "I said, 'Let me just do some on my own and see how it goes.' They never brought it up again, and I never brought it up again. I've been really surprised with the amount of freedom that I've had with this record. At the same time, if it all goes wrong, it's all my fault because it's all my decisions. It's a rather different experience from the first album, where I was just trying to get a record deal and wondering what other people in this small circle thought."

BACK TO BUSINESS

Rae's second album comes on the heels of Maxwell's return to the charts in 2009 and arrives about the same time as Sade's first studio album in a decade.

But unlike those performers, Rae, 30, wasn't yet an established veteran when she left the music scene, and her first album in four years admittedly lacks a broad-stroked, pop-leaning potential hit like "Put Your Records On." The challenges in marketing a less accessible project like "The Sea" to a still relatively young fan base are not lost on her label.

"We're planning a 12- to 18-month press strategy that covers a lot of breadth," Vidler says. "It's a record of substance and quality, and because of that, we want people to hear as much of the album as possible, as opposed to launching a single and assuming that will then trigger everything else." The late-fall showcases were key in this respect, Vidler explains, as concertgoers were able to hear at least half of "The Sea" during a set.

"It's a strange thing to go to a gig where you don't know any of the music, but I feel like the response has been good," Rae says. On her own expectations for the album, she says, "I honestly don't know what people will think of it. It's a different record than the first one, so I'm imagining that some of the people who liked that album will like this one, and some of them won't. But hopefully, some of the people that didn't like the first record will like this record. That's how I'm thinking how it will go."

She pauses, and gives the idea some more thought. "Do I feel nervous about it? I don't know. I really like it and believe in it, and there might be some people who are really into it. It might not be on the same scale as the people who were into the first record...I don't know. We're just going to see what happens."

In mid-December, Rae released the video for "I'd Do It All Again," a stunning ballad that she wrote in January 2008 after an argument with her husband. "I felt it would be a really great way to start things off," Rae says, "because it starts out with me just playing the guitar and singing, and as it goes on, it really develops and all the layers come out. It's a balance between the more acoustic sound of the first record and the bigger sound I tried to get on this one."

EMI's Thompson says that a second clip is in the works for the decidedly more lighthearted track "Paris Nights/New York Mornings," which the label will promote to different radio formats in the United States.

"The approach at radio is going to be multiformat," Thompson says. "We think her album is diverse enough that we can go to urban AC and smooth jazz and triple A. She also has great love at both BET and VH1. One may celebrate the first single, where the other might lean quite heavily on the second."

As it did with Rae's first album, Starbucks will carry copies of "The Sea" at its stores, which often provide a reliable sales boost for artists with similar profiles. Hulu has also signed on as a partner and will soon launch a channel dedicated to Rae. The channel will show music videos and behind-the-scenes clips as well as Rae's "Live From the Artists Den" public TV special, which she taped Dec. 7 during her showcase at Hiro Ballroom in New York.

Pre-orders of "The Sea" will be made available on iTunes Jan. 12, the same day the online music store exclusively releases "I'd Do It All Again" for download.

Finally, Rae should see large media impressions in the United States from her day-of-release performance on NBC's "Today" show, as well as upcoming features in the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. (U.K. TV appearances were still being lined up at press time, though Rae debuted "I'd Do It All Again" with an acoustic performance on BBC 2's "Later With Jools Holland" in November.)

Once "The Sea" is released, though, the real work will begin for Rae. She's lining up tour dates in the States and Europe to begin in April and the trek will include some key festival appearances, like the newly revived Lilith Fair and Coachella. The singer is more than happy to put in the work, though.

"The fact that I have that sort of escape into music is an amazing thing that I have always loved," Rae says. "The way you can delve down into music and get lost in it -- that's the thing that I need. I need to have it."