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

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."