Few singers these days can get their worldview across with the timbre of their voice alone the way Corinne Bailey Rae can—warm, intimate, largely positive and humanist, her brand of neo-soul usually hints at the promise of joy, not mere sensuality,just around the corner. Her eponymous debut put that across quite well, along with the hit “Put Your Records On,” but her follow up album The Sea was indelibly colored by the sudden death of her first husband, saxophonist Jason Rae. Now, after six years, this British singer/songwriter and guitarist is back with original material, and she’ll be promoting her stunning new album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, with a show at Champions Square on September 22nd.
You’ve been compared to seemingly every chanteuse on the planet. How do you feel about that?
I always take things as a compliment when they’re meant as a compliment. What I’ve been doing for the last three albums is building an identity as an artist, so when people recognize that, I’m flattered.
Why six years?
A lot of it was about touring behind The Sea for two years—Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil—and I felt like I was really investing in my career. And of course I did an EP of covers that led to a Grammy (Best R&B Performance in 2012 for Bob Marley’s “Is This Love”). I was able to build my own studio in Leeds so I could work whenever I wanted to, but then I came to Los Angeles to record for Capitol for seven weeks and I wound up staying for seven months, just because I loved the scene so much. I was able to meet some of the people on Kendrick Lamar’s record, and it was great to work with other black women for once who are really making their mark on the industry.
You’ve said the writing process was more organic for this album as well.
The songs came in a very subconscious way; I didn’t sit down to write them. I really just wanted to play my instruments, my guitar, my piano, and then sometimes I’d start something as simple as a hand clapping rhythm and the music would come through. I’ve always been happy to follow my instincts.
The new studio in Leeds was probably a big help?
Absolutely. I can sing vocals when I feel like it now. I like working late—2 and 3 a.m.
It certainly fits your style… Very intimate.
[Laughs] Night time is the right time.
Besides being organic, the new songs also seem cosmic. Do you feel like you’re painting on a larger canvas now?
I think that’s a really good observation. I know there’s a lot in there about the sun, the moon, the stars, seas, vibrations… I’ve been thinking about life and death and how we’re all connected to each other. We were born from somewhere, and we go somewhere after we die. We’re all connected, and we have so much information about the world that I think we often feel powerless. Writing gave me the permission to explore these ideas and realize no, we’re not powerless. We can change things because change is a natural state. People have power. And getting together is something we need to do.
Would you consider this album the start of a new phase?
I think so. I like to feel like I’m trying something new and different. I feel braver. I’ve been working smarter and faster and doing all these collaborations… When anything comes through you, you should go for it. I feel lucky, because I have the sort of voice that has its limitations, but it also has a lot of character, so whatever I do will always sound like me.
This album seems jazzier and more experimental than your first two. Was that intentional?
Yes, definitely. It just happened that I started to get into [John Coltrane’s classic 1960 album] Giant Steps. I’d already heard it before, but I feel it more now, and when you add that to my other influences, like Stevie Wonder, it starts putting across different emotional twists and turns. As a result the record feels more…collage-y.
How does the heart speak in whispers?
How our bodies feel tells us things about ourselves and what we process; if we’re overworked, we’re tired. Things like that. I think we have natural intuitions that we don’t realize, and we should tune into that. You feel like the same person always in a very organic way; but I feel more expansive now. It’s a maturity thing. People are like trees, always growing and developing naturally. And our heart is the place we store our dreams and memories. So I’m the same person at heart. I still feel like a child all the way inside.