“I’m not shy!” says Corinne Bailey Rae, loudly while laughing — and only a fool would argue with her. The 37-year-old English singer-songwriter, sitting in a Manhattan restaurant on a blustery day, is petite, just 5 feet 3 inches tall, but her luxuriant hair adds inches to her height. It has been a full decade since she broke out with her platinum-selling self-titled debut album and the single “Like a Star,” a hushed love ballad that staked out a middle ground among soul, folk and indie rock and established her musical reputation: meditative, meticulous and, well, a bit shy. “People make assumptions about me based on my music,” she says. “I’ve literally had people stop me in the street: ‘You are so sweet. I bet you haven’t had a bad thought in your whole life!’ I’m like, ‘Really? I hate to disappoint you!'”
Rae has just flown in from the United Kingdom for some meetings in advance of her third album, which has been a long time coming. Her second set, The Sea, was an at-times-wrenching reckoning with the death of her husband, saxophonist Jason Rae, who died of an accidental overdose of methadone and alcohol in 2008. It came out nearly six-and-a-half years ago — a millennium in pop-culture time. “I don’t respond well to time pressure — when you’re in the studio, with the clock ticking, and the record company’s waiting for you to lay a golden egg,” she says. “Wherever it is my music comes from, it just doesn’t show up when the pressure is on.”
Not that she hasn’t been busy: Since 2010, Rae has scooped up two Grammys, performed at the White House, remarried and logged endless hours in recording studios on both sides of the Atlantic. The result is The Heart Speaks in Whispers (out May 13 on Virgin) — a title that sounds, yep, like a shy person’s record. And there are indeed a handful of the thoughtful, dulcet ballads (“Do You Ever Think of Me?,” album closer “Night”) that Rae’s fans have come to expect. But there are also buoyant funk-soul grooves, splashes of Latin rhythm, and an overall beatific mood — songs about love, sex and self-discovery. The tone is set by first single “Been to the Moon,” a slinky song about budding romance hidden behind lyrics about space travel. In the video, Rae, dressed like some kind of future-funk astronaut, is shown striding across the sun-strafed, desolate landscape of Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands, where the album’s artwork was also shot. “I wanted an elemental place — rocks, desert and the sea — and Fuerteventura has all this black lava because it’s a volcanic island,” says Rae. “It has the look of a strange planet.”
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A strange planet suits Rae: The feeling of being in exile, of looking at society from the outside in, is a familiar one. The eldest of three sisters (one, Rhea Bailey, is a successful TV actress in the United Kingdom), Rae grew up and still lives in Leeds, a proudly gritty city beyond the orbit of English cultural meccas London and Manchester. Her father is black, from Caribbean island St. Kitts; her mother is a white Englishwoman. “I felt like an outsider,” says Rae. “Being mixed race in Britain in the ’80s and ’90s, there just weren’t loads of people who looked like me. We didn’t have a lot of money. I was really skinny, and always felt self-conscious about that — I used to wear, like, three pairs of tights!”
Some of the sessions for The Heart Speaks in Whispers took place at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood — another faraway planet for a Northern Englishwoman. But Rae soon found herself at home with some of the leading lights of Los Angeles’ soul/jazz/electro underground. “All these musicians know each other and hang out: Thundercat, J Davey, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington — all the people who circle around Kendrick Lamar. That black bohemian alternative scene. I felt like I was in heaven.”
Los Angeles bohemia may have rubbed off on her: You can detect its influence in the psychedelic textures of “Green Aphrodisiac” and “Horse Print Dress,” which is awash in images of ecstatic newfound love. “This isn’t my first romance/But it hit me like an avalanche,” sings Rae.
Dedicated Corinne Bailey Rae watchers will be quick to connect such songs to the singer’s life. In 2013, five years after the death of her first husband, she married longtime friend Steve Brown, a producer and instrumentalist who also has worked with RZA. “The songs come out of my own personal experience of feeling joy again,” says Rae. “There are lots of images of spring and green and new things coming through.”
Rae’s partnership with Brown is musical as well as romantic. The pair worked together both on her debut and The Sea, and his fingerprints are all over the new release. “I feel really lucky, because he’s my favorite musician,” says Rae. “He insists on musical truth — that a recording should be a captured moment, not overworked in the studio.”
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The temptation to fuss over her music is ever-present for Rae and Brown: They built a studio in their home in Leeds, and much of the writing and recording for The Heart Speaks in Whispers took place there. It’s a funky space, according to Rae. “Our studio is all papier-mache art from India, weird German broadcasting equipment. Steve’s got crazy keyboards from the former USSR. You have to go online to translate the different knobs, because it’s all in Cyrillic. It’s a great place to spend all day messing about. I have a term for other, you know, real ‘professional’ recording studios: Black Leather Couch Studios. The vibe is: ‘Big hits have happened in this room! Timberlake has been here!’
“That environment just makes me feel like I’m in the wrong place,” she adds with a laugh. “I need to feel like myself. The songs I hear, the type of music I like to explore — they’re only going to happen in a weirder room.”
Additional reporting by Whitney Bauck.
This article originally appeared in the May 7 issue of Billboard.