Don't let Corinne Bailey Rae's baby-soft voice fool you. She might sound like a delicate waif, but the sensitive singer-songwriter becomes an exacting taskmaster in the recording studio. "I have to be both," she says. "When I'm writing, I can be emotional, but when I'm in the studio, I have to be strong enough to get my point across. I have to get what I heard in my head onto the [track]. I owe it to the music, and for the sake of the song; sometimes I have to push until we get it right."
The 27-year-old Rae seems to have gotten it all very, very right. Her first single, the acoustic "Like a Star," released last November, earned her a nod as Best New Artist from UK critics and broadcasters. Last March, her self-titled CD debuted in the No. 1 spot on Billboard's UK chart, something no other British female artist has ever done. She entered the U.S. charts at No. 17 in June and is still in the Top 20. She's made the talk show rounds, appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Good Morning America and Live with Regis and Kelly. MTV picked up her summer groove "Put Your Record On," VH1 featured her on its "You Oughta Know" campaign, and she's headlining one of the summer's most anticipated tours.
"It's been an exciting time," says Rae, not sounding at all like she's just spent the day answering the same 15 questions over and over. She has. This is the tenth interview of the afternoon for her and one of hundreds she's done over the last six months. But Rae, like her music, sounds fresh. "I'm not sure I was exactly prepared for everything that's been happening, but that might have been for the best. How do you get ready for something like this?"
Corinne Bailey Rae
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Not that Rae hasn't spent the last 12 years doing exactly that. While still a teen, she started a girl grunge group, Helen. Rae played electric guitar, sang and did some songwriting. She wrote "Like a Star" while still with the group. Helen was signed to a label and was set to start recording when the bass player got pregnant and left the band. That sank the record deal, leaving Rae without a musical home. She was at Leeds University studying English literature and working at an area jazz club as a hatcheck girl when she started sitting in with the club's house band. The music she heard there influenced her, pulling her away from grunge and into her current mix of acoustic pop, jazz and soul. After signing with Capitol Records, Rae released a single in 2005, the reaction to which paved the way for her solo CD. But Rae says the album's success, while it's what she was working for, is still surprising.
"I certainly didn't have any idea how well this album was going to do. I mean, I was happy with the music, but I had no idea that the reaction was going to be this big. And the reaction's been marvelous; it's all been very exciting. A little scary, too, this is all so strange, you know? But mostly it's just exciting. We've done a bit of touring now and the audience has been especially wonderful. But, still, all of it has been unexpected."
While Rae may have been unprepared for the sudden and immense success of her CD, she seems to be handling it with a sense of humor. She laughs when she's told that the Pussycat Dolls and the movie soundtrack for Disney's High School Musical are ahead of her on the charts. "That's the way it is, isn't it? Everyone has different tastes, and there's no predicting what's going to be popular when."
Rae says she doesn't worry about the chart rankings or unit sales, insisting that she leaves that to the record company executives. "I write and I sing. I try not to worry, too. That's somebody else's job.
"Is there pressure to perform? Of course. Now that this record has done so well, I'm sure that there will be lots of pressure on the next record. But I can't even think about things like that. Right now, I'm just enjoying this."
Like many other artists, Rae has seen a backlash to the sudden and overwhelming success of her CD and tour. "There's been a bit of that already," she says quietly, referring to recent (and erroneous) criticisms that she held herself out to be the next Billie Holiday. While some critics did compare her to Holiday or Norah Jones, Rae herself never made any such claims. "I never set out to sound like anyone but me," she sighs. "It's flattering, of course, when someone says something like that, but I have never tried to mold myself or my music to resemble anyone else.
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"Lots of people are calling my music different things -- pop, jazz, acoustic. I think there is a little bit of each of those in there, and more, too. I certainly didn't write any of these songs thinking, 'Well, now I need something more jazzy or something more pop.' I just wrote the songs I [had in mind]; I focused on the melodies and the meanings, not the types. I listen to all types of music, and it's natural that those influences come through my songs."
Rae co-wrote each of the CD's 11 songs and says that while fans can chart the personal lives of other singer-songwriters through their songs, she doesn't think fans can assume her music is a glimpse into her personal life.
"If you listen to the album, do you know me?" she pauses. "No, I don't think so. You can't say what kind of person I am just based on this music. I have lots of sides, lots of moods, and so does my music. I'm glad people like this album, but by no means is this everything I am. I have lots more songs in me, I hope. I do put a lot of myself in every song, but not in an autobiographical or personal way.
"I don't think, 'What does this say about me?' or 'What are people going to think?' when I write a song. I just write the best song I can at the time and hope it's received well. If I worried about what the audience was going to think about my songs, I couldn't write, I think. I would be frozen, you know, hoping that I was doing it right, that people would like it. It's better for me to write whatever song I have in my head at the time and hope that's enough."