Sunday Conversation: Corinne Bailey Rae On Her New Album And Dancing

Grammy winning singer/songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae returns this week with Black Rainbows, her first new album in seven years. A superb collection Rae originally envisioned as a “side project,” the album is one she now proudly calls the next work in her distinguished discography.

Inspired by her time in Chicago, and in particular visiting The Stoney Island Arts Bank, Black Rainbows tackles both different sounds and very different subject matter for the U.K. tunesmith. The result is a fascinating, thought-provoking musical history lesson.

Rae spoke at length with Sage Bava and I about the new record, how going to dance parties in Chicago freed her musically, songwriting and much more.

Sage Bava: This album is from another world for sure. And just in the progression of you, it’s fascinating to see and be able to listen. I just want to know the inspiration for this new Corinne and this new chapter and this new literal world that you’ve created.

Corinne Bailey Rae: Inspiration for me was walking into that building, the Stoney Island Arts Bank, for the first time, being in Chicago and meeting Theaster Gates. He came to one of my shows. We invited him to the show. And then to be in front of the Arts Bank, this amazing 1920s gothic building, and then to go inside and see all these incredible books on all these amazing subjects. Subjects that some of which I’d known about and some of which I hadn’t, all this amazing Black history and art and culture; and then to be around these difficult objects from America’s past but to research them and to find out how they were made, who used them, why they’re still here, and to look at art objects on the walls, to see sculptures, to see paintings, to see Nick Cave [and Karen Searle’s] Soundsuits just hanging up on the wall. Theaster said to me when he saw me in this space he said, “Oh, you should do a show here.” But straight away I felt it was more than that, and when I left and I was on tour, all I could hear were the voices of all these objects, of all these things that I felt like they were talking to me and that I felt like they were telling me their story whether it was a photograph of a young woman or an object or a sculpture or a newspaper article. They opened up more questions than they answered, and so I really want to get back in and immerse myself with all that stuff. And we did an artist residency there for two weeks where I was just reading and researching and photographing and making music. We set up a little studio and recorded some songs, and then it really just has become my obsession, this building. And this thing of allowing the things you make to be influenced by the things that bounce around in your head and the things that keep you up at night, I think that’s been a really new thing for me.

Bava: Wow. Has that been a very different process than your creative process on all the other works that you’ve done?

Rae: Yeah, I think there’s been a mixture. One of the main differences for me is that essentially they’re not my stories. So up to this day as I’ve been writing music, it’s been “These are my thoughts, these are my feelings, these are my experiences.” I’d sit down with my acoustic guitar, it would all kind of start from there and singing. But with this record, some of these songs I felt like they’ve just kind of come in. So it was about the objects but also about the events in the Arts Bank, like a song “Put It Down” that came about from being part of this dance party in the Arts Bank where the bank has all of Frankie Knuckles’ records, all of his personal record collection. So he’s the godfather of house music. So just reams and reams of thousands of records. And then there was a DJ called Duane Powell. And they have this night in Chicago where he comes to DJ and its local people from the South Side and also you come from across town, and you write down your woes; you write down the things that are bothering you, and then you fold them up and put them inside this big clay vessel. And then you all dance. You dance for four hours and it’s hot and it’s sweaty. And then at the end of it, the woes get set fire to. And I really had the experience of putting something in there that was heavy on my heart, and putting it in and have it burnt up by this experience. I’ve really been able to leave it behind. So I think the songs come from these experiences and these objects, but also sonically I thought that I was making a side project. And so I thought this doesn’t have to be like anything I’ve done before. Let it be as free and weird as I actually am, as I find myself to be at this point. So I wanted to have one song was a piano ballad and I was being sort of more theatrical and operatic, and another song where I was able to sing over these ’50s dreamy strings or something that referenced the afro, futuristic ’70s P-Funk Parliament-Funkadelic. I wanted it to be cosmic. I wanted to have loads of vocal layers, a new sound I hadn’t used before to be part of something that’s kind of electronic and distressed, but then also be able to play punk like my first band. So it’s different in those ways. It’s different from where the music comes from and it’s different because of what the music is as well.

Steve Baltin: It’s so interesting to me the idea of a side project because really in the evolution of an artist, it’s always still a natural progression of who the artist is. So at what point did you realize that this wasn’t a side project but this is in fact who Corinne is seven years after her last record?

Rae: I think it took me a while to realize it. I was working with this really good designer, graphic artist, and I talked to him about the record and I said, “We’ve got these photographs. Do your thing.” And when I saw the front cover, it had my name on and I had thought, “Oh, I didn’t tell him not to put my name on it, just to put rainbows.” But when I saw it there and the way that he’d written it, and it was kind of like a new version of the same me, I thought, “Yeah, I should just own up. This is me. This is what I want to do.” This is, like you say, a new phase in me, a phase where I realized that as an artist, you can write about absolutely anything that’s an interest to you. And especially anything that’s historic is gonna be universal, that it will resonate with other people ’cause they’re all just human stories. So I thought, “Yes. This is me.” I haven’t had to worry on this project, is it a catchy chorus? Has it got enough hooks? Is it the right length? Will people who liked X like Y? But now that it’s here, yeah, I really wanted to kind of claim it as my own.

Baltin: There is something just freeing about also being in a totally different world, like dancing to electronic music for four hours. Talk about how that inspired you musically.

Rae: Absolutely. And they’re able to do that. They’re able to take you out of where you are, take you out of your moment, take you out of who you are to a certain extent. I was talking earlier about music with someone. I was saying, “Music is transcendent for me.” When I’m on stage I feel more like myself than I ever feel, but also I feel outside of myself. I feel like I go somewhere, and it’s outside of time and it’s outside of space. And I get that on the dance floor as well. And I’m not someone who has like dance moves in my videos, but I as a person love to dance and feel lost in dance. When I first started going out in nightclubs when I was 17 and 18, that was all you did. I’ve never been a big drink person who drinks loads or takes drugs or what, but it was the music for me. It was like, you go to the bar, you have one drink. If you’re not thirsty, why would you get any more? And then you’re just in it and you’re just dancing and you don’t want to miss a single song. And the music that I would go out to, it was this kind of ’60s club that I went to called Brighton Beach. But they would play Jimi Hendrix. They would play The Kinks and the Rolling Stones and then they would play ’90s indie music, but then they would play in the small room Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder and all the mods would turn up, dressed in their high collars. So I’ve always known of music as being communal, transcendent. And so I think to be in these spaces where I was myself but also I was really down the pecking order to a certain extent. When I was in these art spaces, I felt it was like, “Well, yeah, you’ve had this pop career, but we’re sculptors or we’re filmmakers or we’re playwrights or we’re poets.” And I felt that I positioned myself on the kind of outside looking in saying, “I’m just a baby in my art practice and you guys are here. Let me learn from you. Let me see what it looks like to really be free or to really spend a long time researching something and then present it, or to really be sort of naked and exposed and challenge yourself.” And so yeah, being in that environment was really different for me.

Bava: I’d love to ask about the arrangements of this music, especially the backing vocals which you brought up earlier. I think it’s so fascinating how you use your backing vocals. And I’d love to hear if those initial ideas just flew out of you and that’s what happened.

Rae: Oh, thank you. I think of a song, “A Spell, A Prayer.” That’s got lots and lots of vocals on it. I play the guitar but I feel like I’m not a brilliant guitarist. So on that song it has a really simple riff. But then so it’s like, I might have my song, I’ve got my song, and I’ve got my guitar part. And then I listen and there’s nothing else. But I kind of like that moment because there’s so much space and there’s so much freedom. But when I was recording “A Spell, A Prayer,” I didn’t have my guitar on me. It’s ’cause I was in the studio on my own and I couldn’t work out how to get this thing talking to the other. And we’d just got this brand new desk and it was massive. And I was like, “Ugh.” It was one o’clock in the morning, there was no one who could help me. And I thought, “Let me just put down my ideas kind of a capella.” So I put down like the bass notes and I put down the little riff of the guitar, that “Dun dun, dun dun, dun dun,” that thing. And then I felt like, “Oh, there’s so much space and I really love playing around in the studio with effects.” And I like these voices, I call them “ghosts.” So if I’m recording, I’ve got my headphones on, could just do all this, going from high to low in my voice. And I like to do those. And maybe I’ll do like, four ghosts in one note, and then I’ll just jump in with another harmony and do another one and jump in with another harmony and do another one and jump in. And I’ll just do it without hearing it back. Cause I think, one, I am excited in the moment. And two, I’m probably lazy. So I don’t have goods like, “Let me just check that it hasn’t got any weird sounds in.” So I just do them and do them and do them and do them. And then I just kind of press, to listen to them all together, I will un-mute them and then I’ll just hear it and think, “Oh.” And I like it but I haven’t known if this note is exactly right. You get a sense for it, don’t you? And there are like 10 different notes or something. So I would do that there and then I like putting in lines. I hear melodies and sometimes I’m hearing them thinking, “Let me get this melody out.” I’m not necessarily thinking, “I’ll leave it with the vocals doing it.” But then when I hear it, I think, “Oh, I like the vocals doing it.” So as long as this guy’s over here and it’s trebling, and this guy’s over here and it’s reverbed, and this guy’s over here and it’s distorted, and then it will fill up the picture and not get too confusing.

Bava: I was just stopped dead in my tracks by the final track and I just and still have goosebumps all over my body. Where did that song come from? And thank you for writing it and making it a thing ’cause it’s just so stunningly beautiful.

Rae: Oh, thank you so much. That song is “Before the Throne of the Invisible God.” I found in the library when I first went to see it in the Arts Bank, it wasn’t in order. So you didn’t have to think, “Hmm, what am I interested in? Should I go to the shelf about this or that?” It hadn’t been put in order so it was just a jumble. So you could pull off books and it would be dance since the fifteenth century, the history of mask, a recipe book, then it’d be the Black pioneers that went West. Then it would be the rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia. And so it is called Wonders of Ethiopia, this book. I thought, “What are these buildings? How do they make them?” And the original architects, I guess, they would’ve found this stone plain, this vast stone plain and decided to build something. Instead of building on top of it, they decided, “What happens if we dig down? What if we sort of carve out the building?” So the buildings are in a sense, a sculpture, like you’d make a sculpture by taking away, redacted sculptures. But I’ve heard people, known of people who study them, and you go to Ethiopia and you say, “How did they make this? They must have had such accurate tools, the windows here, on this side the same length, width these windows here. And how was this done?” And the people would say, “Oh, they were made by the angels.” And the researchers would say, “Oh, yeah, okay, fine.” And after they’d been there researching with their calipers, with their laser-precise instruments for a month, they’d say, “I think they were made by the angels.” Because there’s so much unknown about how the technology that could have allowed them to make these really sophisticated mathematical and geometrically sound buildings in the year 900. So how did they do it? And this church is still in operation. On one of the pages of this book, it said, it was a picture of a throne that had been made. So it was carved into the wall, solid stone wall. There was a throne and this is where God was meant to sit when God was in the temple. But I really loved that line, the Throne to the invisible God. I thought, before the throne of the invisible God, what else is there to do but kneel? What is the invisible God? What is the thing, the reason, the way we get here, the how, the why, the infinite, the eternal, the thing that makes us all connected?

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