'It's all about moving from pain into joy': Corinne Bailey Rae tells Liz Jones about the tragedy that put her life on pause - and her new contentment
Singer-songwriter CORINNE BAILEY RAE was riding high on the success of her Grammy-nominated debut album when her husband died from an overdose. She tells Liz Jones about creating a new record after a six-year hiatus – and finding love again
CORINNE WEARS COAT and DRESS, both Red Valentino. RING, Joomi Lim
When I arrive for our photo shoot in Bow, East London, Corinne Bailey Rae is already having her photograph taken in a designer print dress and spring coat: ‘I love pattern and colour.’ Her hair is a mass of corkscrews, her mouth full and wide, but everything else about her is tiny. Before we sit down for lunch, Corinne changes into her civvies: Lurex disco pants that hug every angle, a black poloneck, biker jacket and faux-fur leopard-print coat. She is effortlessly cheerful and colourful. I ask what size she is.
‘I have no idea!’ I imagine she’s a six. ‘I have never been to a gym,’ she says, piling her plate high with falafel, salad, hummus, bread and cubes of coconut. ‘My dad is tiny – I take after him. I eat all the time, I have a really fast metabolism. I love food. Piles of creamy avocado, broths. I love the Hemsley sisters, I’m really into clean food.’
We are meeting because Corinne’s third studio album is to be released next month. It’s not as pop-y as her 2006 breakthrough hit ‘Put Your Records On’ and her eponymous first album, which sold more than four million copies and garnered her four Grammy nominations. It’s very jazzy. Her voice sounds amazing: gritty, grown up. ‘It’s about moving from pain into joy, from bitterness into sweetness,’ she says. ‘It’s written with the knowledge that life is full of cycles. There are times when there is agony, times when there is joy.’ Her second album The Sea, released in 2010 and shortlisted for a Mercury Prize, was mostly written before the death of her first husband Jason Rae, but every track seemed infused with the loss.
Is it hard, coming out with a record after a long hiatus, with so many female singer-songwriters vying for airplay? ‘I haven’t really been away. I’ve been writing, recording, rehearsing. I love Jess Glynne, I think she has a beautiful voice. I like St Vincent. MIA is really cool.’
DRESS, SKIRT and EARRINGS, all Prada
Like me, Corinne has travelled down from Yorkshire: she from Leeds, me from the Dales.
‘I love living in Leeds. I have a house, a garden. It’s ten minutes to the centre but also 15 minutes away from being in a pub where they don’t take credit cards.’ The one thing she dislikes is the cold, but, luckily, she also spends a great deal of time in Los Angeles. ‘People have said, “Oh, you’ve moved to LA” and been really snarky about it, but I love being in LA where it’s warm and sunny, and there’s a good music scene.’
Corinne was born in Leeds in 1979 and her family is mostly still there. She has two younger sisters: Candice lives in London and works in education, while Rhea, an actress, has landed a role in Coronation Street, playing Caz, fiancée of factory worker Kate Connor. How does she find playing a lesbian? ‘She’s happy there are lots of different people represented on screen.’ Was Corinne, whose mother is white and her father from Saint Kitts, supportive of the Oscars boycott prompted by the lack of black nominees? ‘It’s important everyone should be able to see themselves in the media.’
SKIRT and TOP, both Miu Miu
Corinne’s mother Linda is a strong woman: her father died in a boating accident when she was only 12 or 13, and Linda gave up school to help care for her three sisters. Corinne’s own father left when she was small, but, she says, ‘Our families are close. Every Boxing Day my mum has my dad’s family over for dinner.’
Did Corinne find it hard growing up mixed race? ‘I never felt like a divided person. I think Leeds is good for that: it’s really integrated.
Corinne with her late first husband Jason Rae
In school I never felt, “Oh, which one am I?” There are mixed-race people on both sides of the family, so it just felt normal to speak these two languages and [be part of] two cultures. In my house, the Dire Straits record belonged to my dad, the Bob Marley record was my mum’s.’
I wonder if her mother knew how to look after her hair? ‘No, but I had four aunties on my dad’s side. They told my mum, “This is how you grease it, this is how you plait it,” so by the time she got to Rhea she was good at it. My mum was married to a black man at the age of 19 – she’s really informed about cultural issues. She works in a primary school raising awareness of diversity.’
I’m tiptoeing around the elephant in the room: the tragic fact that Corinne’s first husband Jason Rae, a fellow musician whom she married in 2001 when she was just 22, died of an accidental overdose in 2008, aged 31. They met in a jazz club (she was working in the cloakroom while a student, reading English literature at the University of Leeds). He was found dead on a friend’s sofa; Corinne received the phone call from the police while she was in a taxi. The coroner’s verdict was an accidental overdose of methadone and alcohol; a forensic physiologist added that Jason was a ‘naive user’.
We talk instead about her second husband, musician Steve Brown (he co-produced the new album and is in her band on tour). ‘We got married three years ago. Loads of people came – we have a big overlap in our circle of friends as we’ve known each other a long time. He’s from Leeds, then he moved to Manchester and played with a cinematic orchestra. I had a lot of bridesmaids: sisters, cousins, friends.
Corinne performing earlier this year, and with second husband Steve Brown
‘I think it’s amazing that you can make that commitment to someone. To me, a marriage is like you’re looking at the journey ahead, then saying to someone: “Do you want to do this with me?” It’s an exciting and heavy thing. You don’t see how long the road is.’
How do she and Steve manage working together? ‘He is very aware that in rehearsal and on stage, I’m the boss. I run that band. As a husband, he looks after me. There’s definitely a distinction between having a cosy day at home and being who we are on the road.’
As for the future, ‘We haven’t got plans to have children, but lots of things happen in life that you don’t expect. I really love kids. I’ve got lots of nephews and nieces.’
Although Corinne seems incredibly down to earth, her life is very starry. Before the Grammys in February, she performed at a charity event with Lionel Richie, whom she will be supporting on tour later this year. ‘He’s a really nice guy. It means I will be playing stadiums, which I’ve never done before.’ I tell her I loved the Prince cover on her EP The Love, the record that earned her a Grammy (for Best R&B Performance for her cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Is This Love’). Has she ever met ‘the purple one’?
‘Loads of times. After his show in Abu Dhabi, he invited us back to his hotel where we watched a recording of his performance. We left at 7am and I said to Steve, “Did we just party all night with Prince?”’ She has even met President Obama: ‘Me, Michelle Obama and Paul McCartney is the most showbiz photo I’ve got.’
Is she daunted about entering the fray again when she goes on tour in June? ‘I don’t get nervous, especially if we’ve rehearsed enough. I love touring. I was in Dallas last week performing in front of 300 black girls and they were singing along to every word. It was really moving.
‘I live in music, I write it, I perform it, and I will do that in any context for the rest of my life. As long as I’m able to make enough money to live doing that, I feel free. For me, success is – or, I should say, will be – feeling I’ve done good work.’
Corinne (right) with her sister Candice, and receiving her Best R&B Performance Grammy in 2012 from industry bigwig George Flanigan
I ask if she has at last found happiness after losing her husband so young. ‘I don’t put things off – certainly a lot of the new record is about that: “Stop Where You Are” is about being in the moment, not saying, “When I get this job I’ll be happy, when I get this money, when I get a partner…” We should accept happiness where it is and where we are.
‘I have learnt to enjoy today because you never know how long anything is going to last. It’s impossible to control your life. Everything is risk and danger – that’s what makes it amazing.’
After Jason died, Corinne spent two years at home in Leeds not working (her considerable success meant she wasn’t worried about money). Although she didn’t want to go out, she did want people around her. ‘My family were great, [as were] his family and my closest friends. Everything slowed down: it feels as though it was five years long.’ As part of the grieving process, she started gardening. ‘It’s an old-lady hobby, but when I had all this time, I got into the patterns in nature and how you look at something that’s all brown and dry and think, “That’s it, it’s dead,” and then a few months later you start to see the shoots coming through and this new life. I wanted to see things grow because I sat for so many days just doing nothing and going nowhere.
‘It was a horrendous time because everything stopped and there was nothing to do, nowhere to go – there was only existing. I would sit and everyone would come round and we’d talk, and people would go and people would stay. It felt like it went on for ever. But it was an amazing time, too – it was really moving how much people see your pain and want to take it away from you.’
They talked about Jason all the time. ‘A lot of people think, “Oh, I don’t want to bring it up and make you upset,” but I think it’s weird if people suddenly start avoiding it.’
She couldn’t tolerate noise after he died, couldn’t watch TV, but then she gradually started listening to music again. ‘The first thing I remember listening to after Jason died was Nina Simone singing “Feelings”. Music sort of ministered to me. It was only intense things I wanted to hear.’
Corinne grew up singing in church, but I wonder if she lost her faith when Jason died?
‘No, because I never had the sort of faith that meant, “Oh, Jesus is a superman who makes sure nothing bad happens to me.” So much about life is suffering. The amount of joy I have is the biggest thing.
‘You want answers that you can’t get. I went to a funeral recently and found myself thinking, “Why does anyone have to die?” So much of grief is running up against that wall over and over again with those questions and then, eventually, after the millionth time, it’s, like, “I can’t get back that way, it’s sealed off, and all I can do is go this way.”’
Was she angry with Jason? Did she blame him? ‘I felt bad for him. It was something accidental and I felt like it wasn’t deliberate on his part. The main thing I felt was sorrow: sorrow that it happened and sorrow for him. I realised it happened to him, it didn’t happen to me.’
Both she and Jason knew Amy Winehouse well. ‘When I hear her music on the radio, I just feel this wrench. It’s a tragedy you can’t undo. She was always so sweet, especially because at the time she was riding so high – when we met at the Grammys or the Brits she’d always encourage me.’
Corinne’s own stance on drugs and alcohol remains the same: ‘This is life, it’s happening and I don’t want to desensitise myself to it. I want things to be real. I’m lucky that I’m able to lose myself in music and trip out. It’s a massive escape for me, which I guess some people find through drugs and alcohol, but I don’t. I have never even taken a sleeping tablet.
‘I didn’t have any professional help [when Jason died]. I’m not against it, but I just felt I was able to do it without that sort of counselling where you talk and talk. I talked it through with so many people: that’s what helped me.’
The anniversary of his death is approaching at the time we meet, but Corinne says she doesn’t ‘feel like it’s getting near the time. I think your life grows bigger and stronger to carry the weight of that pain. It’s not that certain songs come on the radio and remind you of when we were together. It’s always just something you’re aware of. It’s there all the time.’
Corinne Bailey Rae’s new album The Heart Speaks In Whispers will be released on Good Groove/Virgin EMI on 13 May. She will tour the UK with Lionel Richie in June
Styling: Sabrina J Henry at Eighteen Management
Make-up: Shinobu Abe at CLM
Hair: Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes using Kevin Murphy
David M Benett/Getty Images, Wireimage, Rex/Shutterstock, Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix
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