Corinne Bailey Rae‘s new album, ‘Black Rainbows’, is a fascinating tour de force. Inspired by multiple revelatory visits to Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank, a Black art and culture hub that Bailey Rae calls her “second home”, it’s a bold and unselfconscious collection that defies categorisation. One minute she’s chanting over punky guitar riffs on the thrilling single ‘New York Transit Queen’, the next she’s singing with bell-like clarity on the sublime piano ballad ‘Peach Velvet Sky’. “I just felt very free in terms of how I could use my voice and what the music could sound like,” she tells NME.
By design, ‘Black Rainbows’ is quite unlike any other Corinne Bailey Rae album. “I didn’t want to feel any weight of expectation in relation to what I’ve done before,” the Leeds-based singer-songwriter says when we meet in central London. What she’s done before, of course, is consistently impressive. Released in 2006, her eponymous debut went triple-platinum in the UK after spawning the Grammy-nominated pop-soul bops ‘Like A Star’ and ‘Put Your Records On’. The latter, which was turned into a TikTok hit in 2020 by American indie artist Ritt Momney, remains an enduringly lovely summer anthem.
Then in 2010, Bailey Rae earned a Mercury Prize nomination for her deeply poignant second album, ‘The Sea’, which was written in the wake of her husband’s death. Her third LP, 2016’s ‘The Heart Speaks In Whispers’, was another accomplished set on which she embraced blissful folk-soul and balmy alt-R&B. Bailey Rae has always had range: she began her career in the late ’90s as frontwoman of briefly buzzy indie band Helen. They never quite made it big, but before this interview begins, Bailey Rae says she can still remember the “sheer excitement” of seeing their first NME mention.
Now, fourth album ‘Black Rainbows’ contains nods to her musical past while showcasing the skill and imagination of an artist who feels “more confident than ever”. Listening to Bailey Rae talk about the objects in the Stony Island Arts Bank – some exquisite works of art, others painful reminders of America’s racist past – is both moving and riveting. “I felt like these objects were talking to me,” she says as she recalls her first visit. “There was something about this building, and the subjects [in it], that I wanted to interact with. I wanted to give voice to their stories.”
NME: Are most songs on the album inspired by individual objects in the Stony Island Arts Bank, or are some inspired by the overall collection and feel of the place?
Bailey Rae: “They’re all inspired by objects and events in the Art Bank. One of the songs, ‘Put It Down’, came out of an event [there] where a DJ called Duane Powell was playing all these Frankie Knuckles records. The idea was that you go to this party and write down your woes. You write down the things that are ailing you, fold up the piece of paper, and then put them in this giant pot. And then everyone comes in and sort of dances out their woes as they’re set on fire.
“And the process worked! The thing that I put down – [something] that had been weighing heavily on me for a long time – really did lift away from me. So the song is called ‘Put It Down’ because I gathered my woes, put them down and made them burn. When it’s too much inside, you’ve just got to dance it out. And I really wanted to make [a song] that kind of reflected that. But the whole record started as a side project.”
Why did it start that way? And when did it become clear that it was actually the next Corinne Bailey Rae album?
“I wanted to do something really different to anything I’ve done before. I didn’t want to think, ‘Would someone who likes ‘Put Your Records On’ also like this?’ So in my head it was this weird side project and that’s how I pitched it to the people I worked with. I was like, ‘It won’t take me long’, but it’s become my obsession. You know, [here I am] seven years later.
“But because of that, I felt like I was able to respond to the objects without thinking about the style [of the songs]…. Whereas with the projects I did before, I was so aware of the massive budget [and] the pressure – the fact that my first record was really successful and my second record got a Mercury Prize nomination. [With the] third record, I felt a lot of pressure from the label: like, ‘this has got to be a radio smash’. I felt like I was policing my own ideas a lot of the time [and thinking] ‘should I even finish this [song] if it doesn’t sound like a massive radio smash?’ And that’s the most horrible thing to do as a songwriter.
“But with this [album], I had none of those thoughts…. Nothing was off limits at all. Like, I could make a punk song [‘New York Transit Queen’] in response to this very cool ’50s photograph of a woman called Audrey Smaltz winning a beauty contest. [In the photo she’s] hanging off the back of a fire truck. I used to see a lot of photos like that when I was in my indie band – at that time, old beauty photos were being reused as Riot grrrl posters. So when I saw this great ’50s photo, I instantly thought of shreddy guitar and punk.”
What advice would you give to the 19-year-old Corinne Bailey Rae who was starting out in that indie band 25 years ago?
“I always feel that I would never go back and change anything about my own journey because it’s led me to here – that butterfly effect sort of thing. But to any young people [making music] now, [I would say] that the most exciting thing is to hear a song that’s actually written by an 18-year-old or actually written by a 22-year-old.
“Sometimes artists feel, ‘Oh well, the label said I should work with this guy. He’s had all this success and he’s a really cool producer.’ But a 35-year-old bringing their perspective [to your song] makes it different. I’d rather hear a song that’s a bit of a mess. Maybe it’s a bit rambling, maybe the chorus doesn’t hit as hard as it’s meant to, but it’s really that girl’s thoughts when she woke up that morning. That’s so fascinating to me. I think there’s so much more room in music for weirdness and individuality.”
And not all songs have to be written with TikTok or the radio in mind.
“TikTok can be really good though. I’ve spoken to producers who’ve been asked to work with new artists. And the label has said: ‘Can you make us 10 TikToks? Like, don’t write full songs with [the artist]. Just write 10 TikToks, and if any of them start to react, go back and fill in the song. It’s an interesting way to work – it’s like fishing – but it’s really different from the way I know how to do it.”
How did you feel when Ritt Momney’s cover of ‘Put Your Records On’ became a big hit after popping off on TikTok? Was that weird for you at all?
“It wasn’t weird at all… I liked his vibe – it was lockdown so we talked on Zoom – and I really liked [his version of] the song. I liked the place in the chorus where it kind of took off. I heard about it at first because 12-year-olds on my street were like, ‘We heard your song’, and I had to say: ‘Well, I don’t think that’s the original version!’
“And then there was this whole, like, backlash on the internet [where people were] sort of saying, ‘He’s this white man, and if he’s covering this song, he’s taking it away from Blackness.’ So I had to step in and say: ‘This song’s for everyone.’ When you write a song, you’re out of control of it and don’t know how people are going to react to it. In the US, there’s definitely a focus on the [song’s] lyric “got to love that afro hairdo”. There’s a whole natural hair movement and this song is part of their and our pride. But [at the same time], I do think that this song is for everyone. And also, it’s great when people cover your songs because it has a benefit to you as well. So I was really happy with how it turned out.”
Where is the most unexpected place you’ve heard your music?
“I mean, I haven’t been the one who’s heard it, but people have come up to me and said: ‘I gave birth to your song.’ And I won’t say the name of this person, but this big, tough hip-hop artist was like, ‘I walked down the aisle ‘Like A Star’. Sometimes people are into my music who I would never expect, but I guess that [reflects] on how you think of yourself as an artist.”