Corinne Bailey Rae - why I love Leeds

Corinne Bailey Rae at Black Girls Rock, New Jersey Photo by Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock

Corinne Bailey Rae at Black Girls Rock, New Jersey Photo by Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock - Credit: Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock

Singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae, back with a new album after six years, tells Tony Greenway about her musical influences and heroes and why she loves life in Leeds

Putting on the style at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards, Universal Music Group after party, Los Angel

Putting on the style at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards, Universal Music Group after party, Los Angeles Photo by Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock - Credit: Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

After you’ve achieved a decent measure of global fame and success — and been given armfuls of awards including two MOBOs and two Grammys — the temptation for most of us would be to get the hell out of our hometown and buy a large property in Bel Air, complete with a swimming pool and hot and cold running servants. But not internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae. Although she spends a lot of time in LA, New York and London these days, her heart and her home remain in Leeds where she was born 37 years ago. She loves it too much to ever leave. ‘I’m in Leeds a lot,’ she tells me. ‘I have so many friends in the city and my family is there. It’s been such a formative place for me.’

Part of the attraction, she says, is that Leeds is an integrated city which celebrates diversity. She likes the way people of all backgrounds and cultures co-exist. ‘My dad is from the Caribbean and my mum’s English – and that’s not such a big deal there,’ she says. ‘I like that you can be at the Leeds Carnival one minute and go to Otley and have a pork pie the next. I love Pateley Bridge and Harrogate. I love the countryside. I find it really inspiring.’ Plus, the music and club scene in Leeds is pretty unbeatable, she thinks. ‘I think Leeds City Council did a really good job of encouraging musicians by putting on concerts and competitions like Bright Young Things and Breeze Leeds.’ She says all of this in a surprisingly broad Yorkshire accent. Her singing voice is hauntingly ethereal and as striking as her looks, but her speaking voice remains beautifully, resolutely Leeds.

Bailey Rae has joined that rarefied list of UK artists who have broken through in America. Her self-titled debut album, released in 2006, went platinum and was an instant hit all around the world, going to number one in the UK and reaching number four in the US. She was duly nominated for three Brit Awards and headlined the jazz stage at Glastonbury. Her second album, 2010’s The Sea, went top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic and was nominated for the Mercury Prize.

Her music — on her first album, at least — is all warm weather and blue skies. The song Put Your Records On, for instance, which reached number two in the singles charts, is life-affirming and drenched in sunshine. The Sea is darker, but then it was finished during a particularly tragic time: in 2008, her husband, Jason Rae, a saxophonist, died of an accidental overdose of methadone and alcohol.

Now, the sun has flooded back into Bailey Rae’s music — and her life. She married music producer Steve Brown in 2013 and, this month, returns with a vibrant new album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers. The lead single, Been to the Moon, requires just one listen, then remains in your head all day. The theme of the album, she says, is about transformation, renewal and hope, and moving from bitterness into sweetness and darkness into light; something she’s experienced personally. She had an urge to write something joyous. ‘I wanted to be encouraging and say (to people): “Hang on in there and things will get better”. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to reflect and think: “Actually, I think I was telling myself that message”.’

She has built her own studio in Leeds so she can use it at 3am if she wants, but recorded the new album at the iconic Capitol Studios in Hollywood, where Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Carole King and The Beach Boys made classic records. ‘Great studios, really good engineers and we made loads of friends,’ she says. ‘And great musicians we always dreamed of working with were right there on our doorstep. We were supposed to stay for six or seven weeks but ended up staying for seven months.’

Her diary is now getting full again. In April, she played a Live at Leeds Festival gig at the HiFi club where she used to work before fame came calling, then squeezed in a tour of the US and also performed in South Korea. Next month she’ll be appearing on stage with Stevie Wonder (‘I have been a fan my whole life’) and Pharrell Williams in London’s Hyde Park. She’s also supporting superstar Lionel Richie on his dates in the UK and Ireland and, as part of that, is appearing at Sheffield Arena (on June 22nd). ‘Lionel Richie!’ she exclaims, as though she can’t believe it herself. ‘That was an unexpected phone call. I’d performed at this event for him (the Grammy MusicCares tribute concert) and he was amazing. You forget how many great songs he’s got.’

Bailey Rae has quite a few herself as the enthusiastic crowds at her concerts prove. ‘I played a gig last night and in the audience were people from 16 to 60, gay, straight, black, white, male and female. Sometimes when you go to see a band the audience is the same person over and over again. My music seems to get discovered by all sorts of different people.’

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Music has played a major part in her life for as long as she can remember. As a kid, she would plough through her dad’s collection of 45s which featured the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and P-Funk. ‘He also liked that Dire Straits album that everyone had back in the Eighties,’ she remembers. ‘My mum would listen to artists like Simon and Garfunkel and albums like Paul Simon’s Graceland. They were really into music; it was a big part of our house. I also studied a lot of music, played violin in orchestras and I did ballet, too, so I was listening to quite a bit of classical.’

In her teens she formed an all-girl rock group called Helen that used to play at the legendary Duchess of York, among other Leeds’ venues; so after A-Levels she opted to study English Literature at Leeds University because she didn’t want to break up the band. ‘Plus,’ she says, ‘Leeds Uni is very prestigious and super-academic, and the English course is quite radical.’ (Bailey Rae received an honorary doctorate from Leeds in 2011). She left home — which she sings about in the emotional but uplifting Butterfly — and moved to Headingley and Hyde Park. ‘I worked at Clock Cafe (now LS6) and The Underground, which was like an education in jazz and live performance. Then I worked at Harvey Nichols. All the time I was trying to get somewhere in music and finish my albums. I feel like Leeds has nurtured me.’

It still does, because she’s still here. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to walk down the road and bump into globally famous, down to earth Yorkshire lass Corinne Bailey Rae. ‘I think living in Leeds has been a really good way to stay grounded and people know me there,’ she says. ‘I remember when my record first came out there was a load of excitement around me in the city. Now people are so used to seeing me they don’t really react. And I like that. I like to be somewhere where I can have conversations with people. You catch their eye in the street or on a train and chat. I like to interact with people I don’t know.’

Releasing a new record after six years and preparing to hit the road again doesn’t feel like a comeback. It feels more like a reconnection. And, anyway, she hasn’t been idle: lots of things have been happening to her, but off stage. ‘I’ve been meeting new people, learning new techniques, going to different studios, travelling and getting immersed in music,’ she says. ‘Lots of people have said to me: “Have you had a nice break?” I wish! I haven’t really had a break at all...’

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