While she sold over 4m copies of her 2006 debut, it's on her just-released follow-up, 'The Sea', that Corinne Bailey Rae has shown the depths of her talent as a singer and songwriter.
Dedicated to her late husband, saxophonist Jason Rae, who died tragically in 2008, 'The Sea' is both fragile and defiant – and all the more remarkable because its creator is not hung up on hit singles. She talks to Harry Guerin about taking "a big risk" and her plans for her music in the future.
Harry Guerin: You've broadened your sound and challenged fans of your first album with 'The Sea'.
Corinne Bailey Rae: I really wanted this record to be different. I wanted it to be heavier. I wanted the music to be more dynamic and have more contrasts. I wanted to write all the songs myself. I wanted to co-produce it and get this sound that had more layers and was more live feeling and [had] all the musicians together. I'm really pleased that people are responding to it because it was a big risk. It is quite a different record to the first album. I really like how it's turned out.
HG: I remember when I heard your first album I thought the best song on it was 'Like a Star' - the one you wrote by yourself. And I thought, 'The record company should give her her own head and let her write all the stuff'.
CBR: Thanks. I really do enjoy writing songs on my own, partly, I think, because I feel there's no pressure. When you work with someone else, obviously you learn a lot but you sort of 'arrange' it. You arrange to be in the studio at a certain time and you both sit there with your guitars and you're kind of coming up with ideas. But I think you censor the ideas that you have because you have to present them to another person almost for their approval. I think that kind of affects the type of songs you make.
So with this album I thought, 'I don't want to have that in my mind. I don't want to be censoring my ideas before they even come out. I don't want to feel shy and inhibited. I don't want to feel tied down to working at a certain time and a certain place'. When I first started writing I said to the label, 'Let me write the first few myself and see how I get on'. And then I didn't look back from there; I just enjoyed it too much and liked what came out too much.
HG: It's a confidence thing as well, isn't it? The more you do something the easier it gets.
CBR: I think as well it's other people having confidence in you. The label and my production team were just happy to leave me to it on this record. They believed in me and I think that helped - the fact that they would just leave me to it. I kept sort of turning round and there was no-one saying, 'Don't do that. Don't do this. Don't get that liturgical choir on there. Don't use a harmonium'. So I just kind of did all of it. I felt that if it turned out to be a disaster it would all be on my shoulders, but I kind of liked the pressure of that.
HG: From what I've read about the making of the album, there's something heartwarming about the fact that you weren't under pressure from the label. You constantly think that when people get involved with big labels everything is done by committee.
CBR: I was really lucky. There's a production company [Good Groove] between me and the label. EMI sort of comes to me through that company. The first time anybody heard the songs was when they were actually finished. I didn't do any demos. When you do demos you kind of lose the original spark, don't you? It's like the demo's always great and then when you try and re-do it you never capture the first excitement. I felt with this album that the first time we actually got the song right should be the take people hear, and that's how we ended up doing it.
HG: Like that quote, 'Excellence does not require perfection'.
CBR: I really don't like trying to do anything perfectly. You'll never achieve it and the more you try and get something perfect the more stale it becomes. This [album] is pretty ropey in some places and kind of undone, but I think it's passionate and I wanted to keep it like that.
HG: 'The Sea' offers something that's missing from a lot of albums these days: an experience from beginning to end. It's not just a couple of singles and songs around them.
CBR: I think that as well. I really hate those albums where you've heard one or two songs on the radio and you get it and the rest of the songs are songs that didn't make it to being the radio songs. I felt with this record it was just going to be a collection of songs. If anything, it's probably hard for them to try and find some singles!
I wanted the album to be songs that meant something. I knew I was going to have to play them a lot live and I want to feel connected to them every time I'm playing. I want them to have the capacity to grow and for us to play longer arrangements or change them and develop them with time, rather than feeling like we're trying to execute a three-minute radio song.
HG: Has recording 'The Sea' made you reassess the direction you want your career to go in?
CBR: I'm learning about how to record music. When I did my first album we were just in a tiny studio. We didn't have any money to get musicians. We didn't have time really to invest in working together with musicians on the sound, so we built everything up in layers. It was almost fragmented and then we put the vocal on top of that and sometimes doing the vocal almost felt like 'the icing on the cake' and it was a lot of pressure.
This time around I really wanted the vocal to be integral to the music and sort of lead the music. I wanted the drummer to be able to respond to what I was singing and vice versa. I wanted us to be able to rush into a chorus or really hold back on a verse and not feel tied down. I want to record like that in the future. I want to almost forget that the thing's being recorded and have a lot more freedom. I feel that I've definitely arrived at a method of recording that I enjoy, where there's nothing on the tape and then suddenly there's a take there.
HG: After hearing 'The Sea' I think it's very hard to second guess what you'll do on your next album.
CBR: Your second record, I think that's your chance to say, 'Right, either I'm going to do the same thing over and over or I'm going to be someone who's can't be pinned down'. I don't know what I'm going to do next, either. I'd just love to see what happens.
It's a massive privilege to have the opportunity to make albums and know people are going to hear them. I feel pretty excited about all the things that are open to you as someone who makes up songs and records music - you can just completely create a world from scratch. I really love doing this kind of work.
'The Sea' is out now on EMI Records.