Corinne Bailey Rae has spoken to Music Week about her journey through the music industry, emphasising the contrast between making decisions based on creativity as opposed to business.
In the wake of the release of her fourth album Black Rainbows (out now on Thirty Tigers), the Grammy-winning Leeds singer/songwriter has described the industry as “a game” that she is now better equipped than ever to navigate.
Inspired by frequent visits to Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank, a “cathedral of Black art, culture and history” curated by artist Theaster Gates, the 10 tracks on Black Rainbows are rooted in individual objects, people and stories found in the building, leading Bailey Rae to explore a range of styles away from the soulful sounds that have seen her sell millions of records and win a glut of awards.
Black Rainbows is her first studio album since 2016’s The Heart Speaks In Whispers, and also marks a first foray into the independent sector with Nashville label Thirty Tigers.
Here, she traces the origins of the record and looks back on her industry story so far, touching on Black American history, the glitz of the Grammys, business lessons and more…
This album’s origins go back to 2017, how do you look back on the start of the process now?
“The record is about the objects in Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank. I was playing in Chicago in 2017 and I got to meet the artist Theaster Gates who curates it. He ended-up coming to my show and invited me to visit the building – it’s a Gothic building which used to house a Chinese and Black bank. I was just amazed by it. It has all these incredible artworks all over the walls, an amazing library of all the books that were collected by the Johnson family who owned Ebony Magazine. There’s also a collection of [racist] objects from America's past, things like a jar of cookies shaped like a black woman but with a distorted grotesque face. This banker had collected all these items to try to take them out of circulation, and his family had donated them. And then upstairs there's Frankie Knuckles’ record collection, which his estate gave when he passed. It's all his vinyl, which is amazing to go through. So as a songwriter, my imagination just started to spark from being in that building and I knew from that first visit I wanted to go back. For the rest of that tour, I was scribbling notes and writing poems about the things I’d seen. So I did go back, loads of times, and ended up with this album.”
How did that experience inspire the songs on Black Rainbows?
“I remember speaking to a woman there about what segregation was like, how it was normalised for them, but even as kids they knew it was wrong. Then I found out she was the same age as my mum! I thought I was getting into the past, but actually this was just what it was like in the 1950s. I was so interested in discovering this history, so I kept going back, asking questions and joining in. They had a thing where you wrote down ‘What's making you blue’ and then danced it out to house music from Frankie Knuckles’ collection, before they set fire to the notes. I documented in Put It Down on my record, a sense of a burden that I'd carried for a lot of years was lifted. I managed to dance it out.”
Rather than only thinking about the anger or sadness, I also considered the irrepressible nature of humanity
Corinne Bailey Rae
That sounds like a really positive experience, but how did you confront the negative items in the collection?
“It was a ride really. I read about this city that was a Black Wall Street in Oklahoma in the 1910s but I then discovered it was the first place that was ever fire-bombed on American soil. So for almost every page you would read about something incredible, you'd turn over and there's some kind of kickback. But from that, I found a story of resilience and renewal. Radical people making art, making life, despite the many obstacles that they faced. For example, Harriet Jacobs escaped her slave owner by living in a crawl space [between the floors of a building] for seven years, only watching the outside world through a hole in the wall. I just thought about her mental fortitude, enduring this kind of self-made prison so she could escape – which she eventually did! So rather than only thinking about the anger or sadness, I also considered the irrepressible nature of humanity.”
How did you approach these stories musically?
“I just went with how music came into each story. New York Transit Queens is a really good example. I was reading an issue of Ebony Magazine and saw this amazing photograph of this woman in a bathing suit with fireman's boots on. I dug a bit and found she won this Black beauty competition, which was a response to Miss Subway where the white winners would get free rides all year. She won Miss Transit in 1954, but to me, those photographs were also familiar, as it reminded me of how images created for the male gaze were used during Riot Grrrl in the ’90s accompanied by an aggressive feminist text. That is my background, I started off in an indie band called Helen, so when I saw this image I just wanted to celebrate her and that sound. She's actually this great heroine and I ended up meeting her. She's been an artist, she worked on Wall Street and then she got married to a woman in her 60s and she's a gay activist now. So every object led me down a hundred other paths.”
With such an extensive process, did you feel any pressure to set deadlines?
“I recorded quite a bit in Chicago, and then we finished it off mostly in our studio in Leeds. It's taken a long time, I had two children during this time as well, but it's always been in my mind. It's been like women's quilt work or something, you do a square whenever you get a chance.”
The album covers a range of genres and sounds, and in places is very different to your previous records. How was the A&R process?
“I felt like I had so much control. When I started it, I had it in my head as a side project so I thought, ‘It doesn't matter if the songs aren’t catchy, I can write a song about the rock churches of Ethiopia because it’s going to be called Black Rainbows.’ It was only when I saw the artwork, and the designer had put my name on it as well that I thought, 'Yeah, it should be my album because this has been my obsession for all these years.' Stylistically, it's all very different, but when I first went into the building the library hadn't been put in order, the shelves were a big jumble, and I felt I wanted the album to be like that. Almost like a record collection that hasn't been put in genre order.”
I was a working class girl from Leeds and was suddenly flying on a private jet to go to do Oprah!
Corinne Bailey Rae
You are on a new label for this album, how's that experience been so far?
“It has been so good. I did have one other major label conversation about this record, we had a Zoom with a few faces on it. They said they liked it and would introduce me to the team who would work it and I could already feel that thing which happens at labels where, unless you're loved by the person who is at the absolute top of the tree, they're not really involved because they're on a yacht somewhere. Then I spoke to Thirty Tigers on Zoom while I was in a weird hotel on tour and I thought, 'Right, this will take half an hour.' The head of the label [David Macias], who looks like he's in the Grateful Dead, and I spoke for an hour-and-a-half! We were talking about the state of America and the conversations that need to be had in an echo chamber culture. There's no point putting out a record where it's only going to appeal to people who already know this stuff. You want to make something that can open a door and start a conversation. Then I spoke to Lee [Dannay, head of A&R]. I really wanted Shawn Everett to mix the record and she had already spoken to his manager, so that was great. It turned out Shawn couldn't do it in the timeframe, but instead of making me choose someone else they were like, 'Let's just put it out a bit later.’ I'm not used to me saying a thing and people saying ‘Okay’ so that was really weird, but brilliant. They really get it.”
Looking back then, how would you sum up your major label experience?
“There were major highs, obviously, that first record was so successful. I was a working class girl from Leeds and was suddenly flying on a private jet to go to do Oprah! Or I go to the Grammys thinking, 'Oh, that's nice they asked me to read out some nominations so I’m involved,' but then later Justin Timberlake is on stage saying, 'Album Of The Year, Corinne Bailey Rae.' I didn't ever know I was gonna be in that mix, or that I would meet Nile Rodgers or Stevie Wonder. All of those things happened through that label and it was really fun. I've been really lucky to be able to stay in touch with all those people. My first flourish, or whatever, made me these connections, but I can still get on stage with Herbie Hancock or get on the phone with Stevie Wonder because these people have been so kind and faithful to me. And of course, the other thing about labels is you are never done. The person who was once at the label is now in management, or they're booking a festival or whatever. So I just kind of stay friends with everyone. They make decisions based on business, I make decisions based on my creativity, so ultimately, it's kind of a game. For my next record, maybe I will look for a major deal or maybe I'll sign for an independent thing, but I just felt like for this record it was definitely the right thing to go with Thirty Tigers.”
So are you more confident in the music industry now?
“I think also being older helps. When I first started out I was in my 20s and almost everyone there was my parents age so there was a feeling of, 'Yes, mum, yes dad. You know best because I don't have any experience.' Now my managers are slightly younger than me! They're brilliant, they don't make me do stuff I don't want to do, which is such a new thing.”
Finally, in 2016, just before you first went to Stony Island Arts Bank, you made some music for NASA to celebrate its Juno probe. Is it funny to think it’s been orbiting Jupiter the entire time you were making this record?
“Through that I met the space scientist, Scott Bolton, who was in charge of the whole project, and we ended up seeing Vangelis together in Paris on Bastille Day – those two were best friends. I spoke with Vangelis about constellations and stars and then he had a music project for me. Vangelis played me loads of stuff and we had a jam. He was suffering from ill health at the time so it never came to anything, but even in the things that never come to pass there's beauty in dreaming in what could have been.”
INTERVIEW: PAUL STOKES
PHOTO: ULRIKE RINDERMAN