Corinne Bailey Rae has been through the wringer since her eponymous debut album a decade ago.
As hits like “Put Your Records On” and “Like A Star” climbed the charts, she toured with John Legend and racked up Grammy nominations. Then, in 2008, her musician husband, Jason Rae, died from an accidental overdose. Two years later, the nectar-voiced soul singer released The Sea, a dark meditation on mourning.
Despite the adversity, it appears Bailey Rae, 37, has emerged a more self-assured and centered artist with her new critically acclaimed album The Heart Speaks in Whispers. The Leeds native’s lyrics are brighter and her beats are funkier as she sweetly seduces the listener into a summery trance. Perhaps this has something to do with falling in love with producer Steve Brown, whom she married in 2013?
We asked her in anticipation of the U.S. tour that brings her to First Avenue on Sunday.
City Pages: What informed the title of your new album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers?
Corinne Bailey Rae: I think the record really is about instinct and intuition and listening to your inner voice and how we interpret the things that are going on in our bodies and how we respond to nature and how we listen to our dreams and how we tune into our intuition.
[The heart] speaks quietly and sometimes it’s easy for it to be overwhelmed by all the things that happen around us. I felt like the record is about tuning into that and turning down the noise around us so we can hear what’s really going on inside.
CP: Some of your songs sound motivational. Is singing a way to lift yourself up?
CBR: I think so. Especially that song “The Skies Will Break." A lot of the visions in that song came to me through this dream I had about this person who was very sad and overwhelmed. In this dream, I was next to them and encouraging them.
While I was writing that song, I felt like it was a song to encourage someone who was having a hard time, but now I feel like that song sort of encouraged me to stay in there, that things will change, that things will get better. That’s definitely been my experience over the last few years of coming out of bitterness into sweetness, coming out of darkness into light.
I feel like the record really reflects that idea of encouragement, belief in transformation, and how time can change everything.
CP: There’s also a lot of sensuality on the album, particularly on the track “Green Aphrodisiac.” Where does that come from? What do you find sensual or to be an aphrodisiac?
CBR: I think that really came from being more in my body. I’m someone who has lived a lot in my head. There’s been a lot of planning, thinking about the future, what you want to do next, and where you want to go. In the last few years, I’ve been able to be more in the present.
When we were on our last tour, with The Sea, I remember saying to friend a mine who was traveling with me -- we were in Portugal for the day -- and I was like, “This beach is great. I’d love to come back here and have more time.” She said to me, “Yeah, but you’re here now.” It was like I couldn’t experience it because I knew we only had a day.
I feel I’m much better now at dropping into being where I am. I’ve really enjoyed the travels of the last few years while I was making the record, going to Jamaica or Greece or Los Angeles, just really feeling the wind on my skin, the heat, being able to eat delicious food and swim in the ocean, things that are much more immediate and in the body and sensual.
“Green Aphrodisiac” really comes out of those experiences, being in a really green and beautiful environment where it’s spring and everything’s new and you feel like what’s happening outside in the world is a big reflection of what’s happening in yourself. There’s all this newness and sensuality and romance and love.
CP: Does getting remarried have anything to do with that?
CBR: Yeah, definitely. I think finding love -- especially when it’s unexpected, I mean, I think love is pretty much always unexpected -- in my situation, it’s with someone I’ve been friends with for a really long time. It was sort of an awakening of that side of our relationship.
It’s like looking at each other in a different way and finding out new things about each other and being able to explore that language which is more about being in the present, being in your body, and being able to enjoy the full richness of life.
CP: Is fashion a form of creative expression for you as well?
CBR: It really is. I love being able to express myself through what I wear. When I was younger, we couldn’t afford a lot of clothes. Clothes became this really special, coveted thing.
I was underweight for my age, so I would wear clothes that were years, years younger. I would buy a jacket for a 9-year-old and it would fit me when I was 16. I’d have to find all these weird fits of clothes that I couldn’t necessarily find in the main shops.
I really enjoy it now, being able to go to Fashion Week and meet designers. I love Duro Olowu, he’s a Nigerian designer. He’s interested in art and literature and culture and sculpture and painting and photography. I feel like people who design are part of the wider artistic community and they interest me.
Sometimes I like to wear certain clothes, it’s like armor, it’s like dressing up and getting into character. I love to wear jumpsuits on stage, I love to wear capes, and more outlandish things. I feel like they are an expression of what I’m feeling inside, and outside, in terms of what I’m doing with my music. I want it to be constantly expanding and experimenting and challenging myself.
CP: Prince has been an inspiration to you. What was your relationship to him?
CBR: I met Prince really early on in my career. He came to the first ever show that we did in the U.S. He was a really big supporter of mine, a really good encourager. He invited me to a show he did in the 02 Arena in London.
He had a residency there for a month and I went to a few of those shows and after-shows. It was amazing to be around to see the talent burning through him and the ideas and the vivaciousness. I loved being around him.
We played in Abu Dhabi once when he was also doing a gig. We went to his show and the after-show and then he invited us back to his hotel room and I got to spend a good amount of time with him there, to see how he works and find out about things he thinks and how he runs his tour and how he works with his band.
He did a performance and he was watching it back straightaway a few hours later on the big screen with his whole band, saying what he wanted to correct and change for the next show. The main reason he was watching it is because he wanted to improve. He was pointing at the screen, saying, “I want to beat that guy” about himself. I really admired that.
He tweeted about this one song [of mine], “Stop Where You Are." I always thought he was really encouraging. That was a really special relationship to me. I was looking forward to sharing what I’ve been working on with him. It’s a sad thing to not be able to imagine more times meeting up with Prince. It’s a real tragedy what happened.
Corinne Bailey Rae
With: Mina Moore
When: 7:30 p.m. Sun., Aug. 7.
Where: First Avenue
Tickets: $31-$36; more info here