Corinne Bailey Rae at Sing Jazz 2017: "The saddest time in music is when everything sounds the same"
Like a star
If Corinne Bailey Rae's heart speaks in whispers, it would champion individuality. With her neo-soul, jazz and R&B voice and ever-changing mane, the 38-year-old doesn't sound or look like anybody else. Last weekend, the bi-racial beauty (born to an English mother and West Indian father) from Leeds walked up the platform in one of the 10 "fingers" of the ArtScience Museum, just hours before her headlining performance at the Singapore International Jazz Festival 2017. Instead of commanding the stage with Grammy-acclaimed songs such as Is This Love or Like A Star to a large crowd, the Brit's Yorkshire-tinged advice echoed through the intimate compound filled with music students.
Bailey Rae's own introduction to music happened at a young age too. When her sister started playing guitar in school, the budding musician used to borrow it and practise playing songs. Nirvana was a huge inspiration. "I used to watch them on MTV and the music they were playing seemed so simple — that was a great way of thinking that maybe I could write some songs," she gushed. Fuelled by Kurt Cobain, she started a band called Helen with two of her best friends and her then-boyfriend. Their gigs in bars and clubs made Bailey Rae consider music as her career. After being spotted in university, the musician went on to work with EMI for her debut album, a record that came out in 80 different countries. Since then, the highlights of her career include sharing the stage with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Herbie Hancock and performing for the late Nelson Mandela.
"The whole thing is such a joy, to make up songs wherever you are and turn them into real music," laments the musician before the Q&A session kicked in proper. "I feel a connection with people. That's the main reason why I made music: To feel the connection."
You have a really distinct voice and way of doing arrangements in your music. How did you arrive at this identity?
My musical identity comes from my limitations. When I was growing up, I never really thought of myself as a singer. I used to try and sing along to Mariah Carey songs and just think, "It's such a shame I don't have this nice voice". It was only when I heard Nirvana and hearing Kurt Cobain sing — at the same time being introduced to Billie Holiday — that blew my mind and opened my mind up to the idea that there are all these different kinds of voices in the world. I feel like my own style was developed from having this voice that I'm very grateful for — but to me is an unusual voice — and that's pushed me in a certain direction.
What's the most important thing you would advise young musicians on finding their own voice?
For young people, honouring the experiences that you've had is important to make something unique, not to limit or censor yourself. I love popular music but the saddest time in music is when everything sounds the same. There's a massive Justin Bieber song on the radio and everyone thinks, "Right, in order to get on the radio you have to sound like this, have this tempo, this melody, be repetitive..." — I think that's a way of limiting musicians. There are seven billion of us in the world and I don't think you can write a song that people can't relate to because so many of our experiences are universal. That's something I say to myself as well: Continue with your own unique style because you're bound to find people who understand it.
What's your favourite song that you've written and what's the inspiration behind it?
One of my favourite songs is Like A Star. I always remember exactly where I was when I wrote that song: Learning jazz chords and learning not to be afraid of jazz. That song's very special to me because it makes me think of the person I wrote it about and that feeling of being in a relationship where you always argue. But when you're able to argue with someone, it's a sign of intimacy where you can disagree and know that you still have a kind of understanding with each other.
You studied literature in university. Did it have a profound impact on you?
I think of myself as an outsider musician. I didn't study music. Being in university was a good experience — how we tell our stories and what happens when you change the narrative. It opened my mind up to the idea that you can hear a song and each person can have their own interpretation of the song. That made me feel that there were a lot of possibilities in terms of making music. I couldn't have any expectations of how people would take that song. When it existed in the world it was none of my business how people interpreted the song. A really good song can mean different things to different people at different times in your life.
Your latest release is a cover of Coldplay's The Scientist for the soundtrack of 50 Shades Darker. What's your process like when you approach a cover from a different genre?
I love interpreting other people's songs. I think if you choose a really great song, there's so much freedom because I feel like all the work has been done. A great song can be played in so many styles and moods. I love the way that Chris Martin sings in a really simple style. For 50 Shades, it was in a scene where she [Anastasia Steele] starts off after they've had a huge break up; it's raining outside and she's going to work and she's distracted. I thought that song would be perfect for that part in the movie. It had to be sad, it had to have this yearning. When I do a cover, I want to do something different to the official version. When you approach a cover, the original is so good you don't want to do anything like it. For Bob Marley's Is This Love, I wanted to make it really playful and take it away from the reggae context and put it into an R&B and soul context.
What's your songwriting process like and how has it changed in The Heart Speaks In Whispers?
I sit and the ideas come to me. I like to play with my guitar and start singing out the words. I often feel that I don't know where my words come from. With my most favourite songs, I would play some chords and get a line or phrase and that would become the core of the song. It's almost a puzzle to think of how to finish it and turn into a song. For me, songwriting is a serious process. This record, I really got into production, learning how to be a producer and how to approach a song. Whether you want it to be fast or slow, have lots of energy, lots of layers, use live drums....almost every song had five different versions by the end of it.
You're friends with Esperanza Spalding, who's also headlining Sing Jazz and whom you've worked with on The Heart Speaks In Whispers. What do you admire about her?
I met her a few years ago and she introduced me to this incredible band called KING. They inspired me because I love working with other women. It's quite rare to meet female producers. Esperanza really inspires me because she's so confident, and she takes up these massive projects. At the moment I think she's writing an opera with Herbie Hancock.
You went through a difficult patch in your life after your first album was released. Was there a time in your career when you wanted to give up?
Even in the most difficult times in my life, I have sat and looked out the window and found myself writing a song. I have an irrepressible need to describe what I feel to make my day-to-day life poetic and to try and boil it down into something that's concise. I really like writing songs and singing melodies. I get to travel far and sing to people that I've never met before and make them smile. They make me smile and we all go on a journey together. Music has been a sort of magic carpet that takes me to different places.
Corinne Bailey Rae performed at Sing Jazz 2017. To listen to her album, The Heart Speaks In Whispers, click here.
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