Artists You Should Know: Corinne Bailey Rae
*Originally published February 26, 2021*
Full Name: Corinne Jacqueline Bailey Rae
Language of Discography: English
Genre: Neo Soul, Contemporary R&B, Jazz, Blues, Acoustic
Corinne Bailey Rae is an English singer/songwriter from Leeds, England. She is best known for her breakout single “Put Your Records On” which is featured on her debut self-titled studio album. We have just recently passed the 15th anniversary of her debut (February 24th 2006), so in celebration of that alongside her birthday which is the date of this piece (February 26th), let’s take a dive into Bailey Rae’s artistry and her influence!
Bailey Rae had been involved in music long before her debut album. Growing up, she studied classical violin for a short period of time before directing her attention to singing. She describes singing at her family’s church as her favorite part of the service. Bailey Rae had started as a member of a Brethren church but eventually started attending a Baptist church, where youth worshippers such as herself had creative control and even had the opportunity to write their own worship songs. It was also at this church that she was able to expand her musical horizons and the youth leader contributed to Bailey Rae’s first guitar.
Later Bailey Rae attended and graduated from The University of Leeds as an English Language and Literature major (we love a fellow English major). It was during this time frame that she met Jason Rae, a jazz musician whom she would marry in 2001 at the age of 22.
Inspired by groups like Veruca Salt and L7, Bailey Rae would go on to form an indie band during college by the name of ‘Helen’. The group didn’t attract offers from UK labels but soon was able to gain the attention of US-based label Roadrunner Records. However, the deal ended before it could even start because the band disbanded after their bassist became pregnant. Bailey Rae was crushed and wasn’t even sure where to go next from there. But within a few years after marrying Jason, she started working on her own solo material, approaching a more ‘soulful’ style rather than indie.
She began gaining traction in 2004, after getting signed by Global Talent Publishing and being approached by record producer Mark Hill. This resulted in the release of a 2005 collaboration “Young and Foolish”, giving Corinne Bailey Rae even more public attention.
Later, in November 2005, Bailey Rae released her first lead single “Like a Star” before releasing her self-titled debut album on February 24th, 2006. The accolades and opportunities that came afterward were astounding as she went on to gain three nominations for the 2007 Grammy Awards; Record of the Year, Song of the Year (Put Your Records On), and Best New Artist.
My earliest memory of listening to Corinne Bailey Rae was in high school, her debut album premiering just one year prior to my Freshman year. Her debut album ended up becoming my soundtrack of sorts all through high school. Tracks like ‘Breathless‘ and ‘Trouble Sleeping‘ became my anthem for unrequited love of which I was often a victim, while songs like ‘Till it Happens to You‘ was my go-to in order to mourn loves that never actually happened (because teenage dramatics).
Her first album definitely gave me a sense of relatability that I desperately needed through those years, during a time in which I felt quite isolated from (and eventually disinterested in) my peers. In fact, her presence alone gave me assurance that I didn’t have to be a replica of everyone else in order to be happy or to make an impact in any way. With a petite 5’3 frame, I could see myself in her, and I’ll admit she’s one of the main reasons why at one point I was obsessed with learning how to play the guitar.
Even though I’ve had friends who weren’t at all familiar with Bailey Rae, all I had to do was mention ‘Put Your Records On’ and it’s all: “Ohhhh her? I love that song!” If I had to describe her voice, I feel that the main three words that come to mind are: soulful, chill, and genuine. When it came to the success of her first album, she found herself surprised as she didn’t view it to be very mainstream. In fact, there was a period of time in which she didn’t think she was a good singer because her voice didn’t reflect the high, clear voices common among pop singers. She didn’t have the high tone of Madonna, nor the boisterous voice and range of Whitney Houston. Her voice has been likened to icons like Erykah Badu, Macy Gray, and Billie Holiday and she also made it known early in a 2011 interview with The Independent that she wanted to make music reminiscent of the music she grew up on.
“My voice was lower, gravelly, not at all about range. It didn’t fit in with what was considered good, which I thought was such a shame, because I really liked singing. But Nirvana made me realize that music isn’t about being the greatest singer or musician. It was about expressing an emotional rawness.” Corinne Bailey Rae, 2011 Interview with The Independent
I couldn’t agree more. Nothing describes Bailey Rae’s music, especially from her first and sophomore albums, more accurately than the idea of emotional rawness. In January 2010, she released her sophomore studio album “The Sea”; four years after the release of her first album and two years after the sudden death of her 1st husband Jason Rae.
Jason Rae’s passing took place while The Sea was still in development, about halfway through. The album is comprised of songs created before and after his passing, and the influence doesn’t go unnoticed. Bailey Rae describes the creative process as a way to deal with the different emotions she went through during her grief.
‘I don’t really want this song to go into the world, ’cause it’s so naked…’ But I had to.”
Take for example a track like “Are You Here“:
He’s a real live wire He’s the best of his kind Wait till you see those eyes He dresses like this different scene He’ll kiss you, make you feel sixteen What’s it even mean? Are you here, are you here? Are you here ’cause my heart Recalls that it all seems the same It all feels the same, pick me up
One thing about her music and lyrics is that, when she sang, I felt it. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard any other artists articulate grief in the unique way she has in her music.
Another track, I Would Like to Call it Beauty (also one of my favorites on the album), is a solid summary of what the album was supposed to be. She describes it as the mystery behind what keeps you going, what keeps you carrying on. The album is about loss, yes, but it’s also about hope.
The theme of water and tide is brought to the forefront with the use of a live band during the recordings, much different from the first album in which she and her producers were going through countless snare and drum sounds to find the right sound. She describes the theme of the tide as a direct reflection on how the album was recorded; at times it would just be her and the guitar, but then the band arrangements would swell up like an incoming tide–and then retreat back to just her voice and guitar.
Corinne Bailey Rae’s style marks an important lesson when it comes to the art of music and performance: tone and sentiment. As Bailey Rae described herself, her music isn’t filled with a lot of vocal acrobatics and belting notes, but it pulls the listener in with vulnerable lyrics and a captivating tone. She possesses an innate ability to draw in her audience and make them feel whatever she is feeling, a talent much harder to find than a powerhouse vocalist.
On May 13, 2016 Corinne Bailey Rae made her highly anticipated return with her third studio album The Heart Speaks in Whispers. Originally with 12 tracks, the deluxe version holds four bonus tracks. In this project, we see Rae take on a more electrified and groove-oriented approach to her sound. While previous albums were more emotionally charged, I feel that The Heart Speaks in Whispers was lighter and engaged us in Bailey Rae’s creativity rather than just her tone and sentiment alone. The album was partially recorded in Los Angeles, exposing the more Black alternative/bohemian scene for which she fell head over heels for. She collaborated with Amber and Paris Strother, 2/3 of the R&B group KING, on several tracks.
Such influences of LA’s Black alternative scene are evident in tracks like The Skies Will Break, Horse Print Dress, or the leading single Been to the Moon. When I listen to these tracks, I feel a light-heartedness reminiscent of her first album with a musicality that shows she is not afraid to step away from the guitars. And with KING being part of the process, it came as no surprise that the influence of Prince came along with it (he also worked with KING). As described in an album review from NPR: “Green Aphrodisiac” recalls the Purple One’s pastoral work on Diamonds And Pearls, while “Horse Print Dress” takes up the playful seductiveness of songs like “Peach.”
The album was co-produced by her now husband Steve Brown, who was once a long-time friend and colleague. They worked well together on projects from her first two albums, but The Heart Speaks in Whispers showcases their ability to love and work together. “He insists on musical truth” is how Bailey Rae describes working on the album. In fact, the parts of the recording that didn’t take place in L.A. took place in Leeds in their own home studio.
Overall, there’s no denying the impact Bailey Rae has been able to achieve since her initial debut. A lot has changed for her over the years both personally and musically. Let’s also highlight that this post mainly speaks of her solo albums; I haven’t even touched the list of collaborations and covers she’s given us!
I have always found it odd that such an influential singer/songwriter doesn’t have as big of a following as I believe she should. However, looking at previous interviews, it likely aligns with what she wants. But Bailey Rae is not a stranger to gratitude; she always shows her love for her fans on her Instagram and Twitter accounts. Also, in celebration of the anniversary of her debut album, she uploaded a special Q&A for the fans which I recommend checking out if you haven’t already
She said it herself, “I never wanted to be a pop star”, but simply wanted to create music similar to what surrounded her growing up, music that brought her joy. She seems to enjoy a more quiet lifestyle anyway, living happily with her husband and two daughters.
Bailey Rae has also moved on to create music for film and television, most notably her rendition of Coldyplay’s “The Scientist” for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack. There is also her contribution to The High Note soundtrack, with an originally written song “New to Me” performed by Tracee Ellis Ross in the lead role.
In any case, nothing stops me from blasting these albums as if they just dropped yesterday. Whether her future plans include another album (which she alludes to in the Q&A), giving live performances (you know, when the world opens again), or more songwriting, I’m so excited to see what Corinne Bailey Rae has in store for the future. She’s an artist I adore, and I hope you get to know her too.