Taking long breaks from the music business is risky, but Corinne Bailey Rae has been very quiet for half a decade. After winning her second Grammy in 2011 for a sultry cover of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love,” the British singer/songwriter from Leeds had gone virtually silent. It’s also important to remember there was a four year gap between her 2006 eponymous debut album and her acclaimed 2010 sophomore album The Sea. After hearing “Been to the Moon,” the lead single from Rae’s new album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, it’s easy to recognize how crucial taking your time to craft the perfect sound can be.
Known for her melding of soul and folk/pop, Rae’s latest offering consists of 1970’s inspired soul and spry electro-funk/pop, courtesy of collaborators like KING, veteran drummer James Gadson and bassist Marcus Miller.
Rae spoke with EBONY.com about her long delay, the importance of following instinct and nature, and how the passing of her first husband shaped some of the material on her new album.
EBONY.com: It's been six years since your last album. How have you been spending your time?
Corinne Bailey Rae: We did a lot of traveling with The Sea; we went to places we'd never been, like Argentina, Indonesia, Brazil. I really wanted to finish touring because I wanted to get back to writing. I wanted to get home and work out what I wanted to do next. After the tour, it was the first time I thought to myself “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”
My life had changed quite a lot. I really wanted to design a studio and have my own place. So, a lot of the work was making a studio in Leeds. I wanted to experiment and have more control of what was happening in the studio, to be able to be there as long as I wanted and not to feel as if I was on the clock.
EBONY.com: There's lots of vivid imagery all over the lyrics. Was that because of the traveling?
Rae: I think a lot of the imagery came from the fact that the album's really internal. The album's called The Heart Speaks in Whispers, and it's a lot about internal transformation and journey and the subconscious and dreams and nature. So, I think a lot of the imagery comes a lot from that; it's about what's going on in your mind and the pictures that come before your eyes when they're closed. It kind of explains you about your own life. It’s symbolism; looking at a tree and thinking about how deep its roots go and how it parallels with one's own life, how much strength you draw from underground, cycles of growth and death.
EBONY.com: How does each song tie into the album’s title?
Rae: To me, every song on the record was pointing to that title because the fact that your own heart speaks to you in a really strong way; your instincts really guide you, and it's important to quiet down all the chaos, all the noise and just listen to what is true to you. The heart is an incredible organ. I really like the old Egyptian way of thinking about the heart, as a place where all your memories get stored. We think of the brain like that in the Western world. But with the heart, that was who you were, and I feel that way. I'm emotional and instinctively driven. With all the songs, they're all about how you get that message of what's going on by being involved in nature or by listening to your body or what goes on in your dreams. I felt that instinct was an important driver on this record."
EBONY.com: You worked extensively with Paris Strother and her group KING. What was it about their music that grabbed you?
Rae: When I first heard KING, I just absolutely loved them. I'd heard The Story EP, and loved their songs, the productions and how dream-like it was like. It was the take on the harmonies that Stevie Wonder pioneered that came out of jazz, but it was also electronic and I really loved that. It was inspiring. At the time, I wasn't thinking, 'I'd love to work with them.' I just thought they were great and I'm glad that they existed. Then Esperanza [Spalding] said she went to school with Paris and I was out in L.A. working with a producer and grumbling because he was really busy. She said Paris is in town, you should call her. She handed me the phone with it ringing and we started the conversation.
Esperanza drove us over and we got connected and got on with them instantly. Now, we're such good friends, it's hard to even remember that day. She's an incredible producer. I sometimes work with people on co-production and generally they don't turn out, because they're commercially minded. With Paris, we let our imaginations run wild.
EBONY.com: A lot of the songs on the album deal with time. Where did that come from?
Rae: I think it comes from being conscious of how precious time is. That definitely comes from my experience of losing a partner and feeling, at that time, that time was endless and stretched out and how could I possibly survive or get any joy out of what seem like an endless life ahead. Once you become happier and feel more joy, you become more aware of how valuable every moment is and you don't want to lose any moment. You're more conscious of being in the present as well; we're not thinking so much about the future. "Stop Where You Are" is really about not holding your happiness away from yourself, or thinking, "When I get this job, when I get this car, when I get this partner," and all these provisions that we put on ourselves.
Life is here; life is happening all around us. The one true thing you can experience if you lose someone is the fact that the one thing you want to do is bring that life back, and you can't. Time is really important on the record. There's also this fact that time is kind of elastic; you can have the air which time drags on and then you feel like things just fly by, and it's all to do with your perception of time. Time is a really big theme on the record. I'm glad that came across.
EBONY.com: “Been to the Moon” is one of many songs on the album that deal with love unreciprocated. Is that from personal experience or from observation?
Rae: I think that's something that happens on the journey when you're in a relationship with someone. You don't often get there at the same time and sometimes you're really sure about someone and they're not just about you, and by the time they're sure about you, they change their mind. When you're first getting together with someone, there's the dance of how open you are and how much you show you're into it or not. I like the playful aspect of that, definitely on something like, "Been to the Moon." I like the idea of how I really put myself out there for you and now it's your turn; how are you going to show me you're serious. That closely relates to me, a person who's serious about relationships. The song's really about being honest with yourself about what it is your want and asking are you in or not.
With "Hey, I Won't Break Your Heart," that's specifically about love the second time around with the same person after being hurt by someone. I have a lot of friends in that situation where one partner has let the other partner down and they're both trying to move forward. I thought it was really poignant subject; starting again, re-investing hope in the same person. I really admire people who can do that.
EBONY.com: Do you feel that these songs fill a void on radio? Most songs that talk about betrayal don't include forgiveness.
Rae: I'm writing these things because I think they're familiar to me or they're other people's stories, but I am really interested in the complexities of love. Most radio songs are about the chase; you're into me, I'm into you, here we are, it's happily ever after. I'm interested in what happens after the happily ever after, or when things are difficult, or someone loses a job. All the real stuff of life; the dynamics of love, the strength of love is the thing that fascinates me about love. Those are the sort of songs I'm interested in writing and listening to.
Corinne Bailey Rae’s new album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, is out now.