Soul songstress moves from darkness to light
Corinne Bailey Rae is looking forward to her visit to Memphis this weekend.
“First time ever, and I can’t wait,” says the British neo-soul singer, who makes a tour stop Sunday at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street.
Bailey Rae first discovered the city’s musical legacy while growing up in Leeds, England, in the 1990s through Stax great Isaac Hayes’ latecareer comeback. “I guess the blues is just such an influence on all popular music, even if I hadn’t been aware of particular musicians, their music has sort of soaked in.”
Besides performing, Bailey Rae, 37, will look to spread some of that musical awareness among younger generations of musicians during her visit here; before the concert, she’ll host a soundcheck meet-and-greet and Q&A with 20 Stax Music Academy students, and she is providing them with tickets for the show. It’s one of several educational events the singer is doing on this tour, a nurturing aspect to her career that reflects a newfound joy in the artist’s life.
Bailey Rae’s joy is hard-won. She exploded onto the scene a decade ago with her self-titled debut album, a breezy, jazzy modern soul collection that sold 4 million copies. Two years later, she won her first Grammy Award for working on Herbie Hancock’s Joni Mitchell tribute and was midway through work on her eagerly anticipated second album when tragedy struck: Her husband of seven years, saxophonist Jason Rae — who played with her as well as Amy Winehouse and others — died of a drug overdose. Bailey Rae was devastated but by 2010 had recovered enough to complete “The Sea,” a critically acclaimed album that wrestled with her grief.
Now six years later, she is back with a new husband; a new album — her third full-length album, “The Heart Speaks in Whispers”; and a renewed spirit.
“It’s definitely about transformation, moving from darkness to light and bitterness to sweetness,” Bailey Rae says of the record, which came out in May. “That’s something that’s been happening to me really gradually over the past few years. Being able to learn from nature and how you can sometimes be in an environment that’s been really devastated by a hurricane or a volcano or a fire and see
new life coming through, see nature fighting back and the natural order being restored.”
That spirit of transformation is very much present on “The Heart Speaks in Whispers,” a buoyant, deeply grooving record that, as evident on the lead single, “Been to the Moon,” pushes onto the cutting edge of contemporary R&B.
Bailey Rae began work on the album in her native Leeds with longtime collaborators Steve Chrisanthou and her husband of three years, Steve Brown. Creatively anxious, Bailey Rae kept hearing different musicians than she could get in England, so the production decamped to Los Angeles. There she was able to collaborate with A-list players like bassists Esperanza Spalding, Pino Palladino and Marcus Miller (Miles Davis, Hancock) and drummer James Gadson (Bill Withers, Motown, Beck).
“With (Gadson), it was his sound I was looking for, his vibe, and similarly with Pino Palladino,” says Bailey Rae of assembling her dream team. “I really wanted them to work together. I didn’t know at that time they had worked together. They had just worked together on D’angelo’s record. But I thought they would really work well together, and they do.”
In fact, in L.A., Bailey Rae discovered inspiration in a resurgent, vibrant R&B scene. Besides playing with musicians who are regularly called to back up the likes of Beyoncé, D’angelo, Erykah Badu and Adele, she ended up writing and recording with Grammy-winning songwriter and producer Malay (James Ho) and sisters Amber and Paris Strother of the hot neo-soul trio KING.
“I found a real kinship with them,” says Bailey Rae of the sisters, who together and separately ended up working on four tracks on “The Heart Speaks in Whispers.” “It’s so great to work with young people, so great to work with other women. Getting to go to shows and hear Moses Sumney play and Thundercat play — I just feel like there’s so much happening in L.A. right now, and I love spending time there. It was very inspiring to be around people who are doing really new things with soul music, bringing in a lot of indie and rock and more experimental hip-hop angles.”
Despite her love affair with Los Angeles, Bailey Rae has no plans to leave Leeds any time soon, inasmuch as she will see it at all in the coming months. With a packed tour schedule and a backlog of music ready to be released as well as new songs coming down the pipe, she doesn’t expect to be home any time soon.
“I want to just keep working,” she says. “There’s a big gap between my two albums, and it’s really made me sort of itch for just making more and more music. I feel energized by that time away, and I just want to make as much music as I can.”
British soul songstress Corinne Bailey Rae performs Sunday at the New Daisy Theatre.