Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to the Leeds singer-songwriter about her journey to rediscover happiness and the music she found along the way
There is a genuine enthusiasm that radiates from Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae as she speaks to me. Her joie de vivre is delicate and not overstated, but a gentle constant that seems to touch everything she talks about.
It’s hard not to feel like this is a long overdue happiness that seems to have finally found its way into her life. Her second album, 2010’s The Sea, was heavy with grief for her recently lost husband, Jason Rae. Six years later and she’s found love once again, with producer Steve Brown whom she married in 2013, and she has released her third album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, which tells the story of someone who has reclaimed their happiness and freedom. As she says herself, “[the album] was very much about my own journey from out of darkness into light, out of bitterness into sweetness, and that process of rebuilding my life after losing my husband.”
This lightness of spirit carries over into her playlist – both in the selection of carefree tracks and in the way she seems almost to get lost in her enthusiasm while describing each track and artist.
Most of the tracks are ones she’s recently discovered, having been raised on a diet of funk and pop as a child. She only really stumbled across world music while living in halls of residence at university in Leeds, as it was the first time she was really able to explore other people’s tastes. “That was a really good way to come across new music.”
One such band she uncovered while at university was Buena Vista Social Club. “I really gravitated toward [them] because of the thought of musicians who have lived their life in music and then haven’t been known by the world for whatever reason. I think it was hard for a lot of Cuban musicians when the new regime came in, a lot of them had to leave Cuba, and a lot of them had to change the way they lived and performed in their home country. So I was really struck by that story.”
She was particularly drawn to BVSC singer Ibrahim Ferrer, because of the “crying nature” of his voice. “He has this incredible vibrato that really welcomes you in, and it just feels like someone pouring their heart out. It feels like a universal voice that could be understood anywhere in the world. You don’t need to know what he’s singing about; the feel of the music tells you the sadness, the pain, the love, the regret.”
Bailey Rae has always gravitated towards the sounds of Latin America, especially during her uni days, finding solace in those sunny sounds after coming back to her drab halls on a rainy day – “I was able to drift away into a completely different environment.”
Appropriately, her next playlist track reflects that sunny, Latin music – Umalali, a collaborative group featuring Garifuna women from Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. This was a more recent discovery; Bailey Rae travelled to Belize a few years ago. “We didn’t hear a lot of music [there], but when I got back I really wanted to have more of a connection to this part of the world; it’s not that far from Saint Kitts where my dad was born. I love the movement and overlaying of African and European music. When people travel they share and bring music. All music is a conversation between different geographical points.”
Her playlist now takes a trip across the Atlantic from Latin America to Africa, starting with her most recent discovery, Nigerian funkster William Onyeabor. The guitarist in her band, John McCallum, gave her the album Who is William Onyeabor? for her birthday this year and she fell in love with it, especially the track ‘Fantastic Man’. “I love the dynamic of it; it’s like ‘I’ve been telling you that you’re so wonderful and beautiful, but when are you going to tell me that I’m fantastic?’ I like the playful nature of the song, and the production, you know, it’s unusual. There’s so much space in the song. It’s lilting and spacious.”
From Nigerian funk the playlist dips into South African soul jazz. Bailey Rae was first introduced to singer Letta Mbulu’s music through the album Free Soul, which was produced by David Axelrod – “I love what [Axelrod] does to familiar music to make it unfamiliar” – but the track she selected here is the excellent ‘Kube’ from the album Naturally. Like many other South African artists of the time, Mbulu moved to the US because of apartheid, meaning the soulfully sung lyrics carry a heavier weight: ‘There is a river standing between me and my home… Got to stand up. Got to move on. Got to build me a life of my own.’
Bailey Rae’s final playlist track is the love song ‘M’Bifé’ by Amadou & Mariam. “I love that song,” she enthuses, “and the way that it starts with that little innocent boy, just saying hello to them.” But it’s the love story between the two that seems to strike a chord with her. “They’re both united in their music, and the fact that they are both blind and they’ve lived their lives together, there’s just something really beautiful about the depth of their love. I think it really comes across in their music.”
When taking her new album into consideration, this sense of joy and optimism makes perfect sense. The Heart Speaks in Whispers reflects a musician who has come through tough times but emerged on the other side, reborn. “The album really is about freedom and transformation. It’s about finding newness, excitement and hope in life, and I felt that that was an important thing to say so I didn’t have to worry about what form the songs would take. That became really clear to me as I just went on this journey with music.
“I felt that the songs often came in a really subconscious way,” she continues. “I’d just get a melody or a groove, and I would just follow it. I really enjoyed writing in that way.” As the title suggests, listening to your inner voice and allowing it to take you on an unexpected journey is the underlying theme. “You should listen to what’s going on inside, because we’re all connected, we’re all having similar experiences. I think music is powerful if someone’s writing about something that’s very personal to them, because it naturally chimes with so many people across the planet.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #119 (July 2016). Subscribe to Songlines.
One of the tracks Corinne Bailey Rae selected for her playlist was Amadou & Mariam’s ‘M’bifé’.