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

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."

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