[from Mojo. Corinne is awesome!]
Late afternoon in New York, on the second day of her first promotional trip across America - three cities, four shows and a plethora of radio appearances in just under a week - Corinne Bailey Rae went missing. Not for long, mind you, but, slipping out from the sound-check for that evening's show at the Mercury Lounge, she spent a stolen hour exploring the streets of downtown Mahattan. With her next video-shoot in a week, she window-shopped for clothes along Bleecker Street.
"I saw this dress on a mannequin," she explains, "and it was this perfect, gorgeous white dress." She asked to try it on, but the stern shop assistant refused, saying it was “just a sample…not for sale”, the dresses “not yet available”. She offered to order one; again, he refused. “It won't fit you,” he snapped.
"But I knew it would fit!" she hisses. "But he still wouldn't sell it to me. I said, 'I'm making a video in England, I'm a singer…'. I didn't say it to 'drop' my name, I didn't tell him my album's at number one, but he just cut me off, got all imperious, said 'I'm not going to ask you your name…' So I left.
The record company rang the store owner later that afternoon. “And he was all, 'Of course you can have it!'"
She grins and frowns at once, tuts a little, looks up at the deep Californian sky. "People can be so phoney, can't they? I hate that."
On the peach stone steps of California's Le Parc Suites, the dishevelled members of Corinne Bailey Rae's band soothe their jetlag-enhanced hangovers in the morning sun. Last night, the CBR tour touched down in LA, and Corinne's band, manager, and accompanying UK label staff and production company ate out at hip Japanese restaurant Katana, before spilling into the legendary Sky Bar, the model-frequented hotspot within the luxurious Mondrian hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Corinne, however, can be found sunning herself by the rooftop pool, reclining in petite elegance on a sun-lounger in a fitted vintage dress, looking for all the world like some off-duty 50s starlet. She chose to skip last night's Sunset Strip sortie in favour of a good night’s kip. The night of the show in New York was a similar story.
"There was a party at this club called Butter," she grins. "I'd stayed up as late as I could, the jetlag was kicking in, and my manager said I shouldn't go because I was tired, and it would be really phoney, full of models, all loud dance music. But it turns out they played loads of great hip-hop and R'n'B, and Sting and Lenny Kravitz and Axl Rose were there!"
That afternoon, a window of opportunity opening in her cramped schedule, Corinne makes a bolt for California's tourist attractions. She dawdles along Rodeo Drive's parade of ridiculously upmarket boutiques, a random Californian stalking her throughout with his digital camera, sensing she must be a celebrity of some kind, he's just not sure who; she pores over the celebrity imprints at Hollywood's Grauman's Chinese Theatre, hopscotches along the Star-studded boardwalk, past lunatics dressed as Chewbacca and Mrs Shrek, her eyes trained on the sidewalk, scanning the tributes to celebrities from the past.
Last October, unknown, Corinne scored an appearance on BBC2's Later… With Jools Holland performing her 'Like A Star', her Billie Holliday-esque purr deemed 'fabulous' by Burt Bacharach, and winning her a spot that hogmanay's Hootenanny special. A limited edition EP featuring the song grazed the Top 40 in November, while Put Your Records' debuted at #2 in the UK Singles charts this February, a week before Corinne Bailey Rae debuted at #1 in the Albums charts. A steep trajectory for a New Star.
"I still think, people know the song on the radio, but they don't know me, they don't know what I look like or anything," she says, with a distinct sense of relief. "If it stayed like that, it would be perfect. I've heard that some journalists visited my mum's house while I was in Europe. And apparently someone was camped outside my friend's house in a car. Weird. I'm not gonna be at parties or famous nightclubs, I live in Leeds!"
She wrinkles her nose, bemused by the attention. "I went to my local Borders, and I was on the cover of the Leeds Guide, on sale there, and my album was on display behind the counter. Nobody noticed. I even paid by Switch - my name was on the card! I'm a boring person, I'm not going to be shit-faced, falling out of the Met Bar or anything. You don't see KT Tunstall in the Star, stumbling out of a taxi cab, do
Outside the iconic 'stack-o-wax' Capitol building, dwarfed by its carpark fresco of jazz legends. A nearby LA Times reporter canvasses for her opinion on rumours that EMI might be selling the building and carving it up into condominiums; she politely
and proudly explains that, as an employee of Capitol Records, it would be improper of her to offer a quote, adding an off-the-record, heartfelt "It'd be a shame."
Corinne's not here for the dreaded 'meet'n'greet', just to take in the view from the roof. But while she tries to remain incognito, quietly walking the circuitous hallways of the cylindrical skyscraper, heads of departments like Sales and Marketing spot her and pull her into their offices, for impromptu meetings where she grins and chats warmly, easily with the industry bods, while still ensuring things are done her way.
"Sometimes, when British artists come over here - especially black artists whose music doesn't fit what people consider 'black music' - the label will want to remix the record for America." she offers, forty-five minutes later, finally surfacing atop the Capitol Building, walking to the edge of the rooftop and taking in its panoramic view. "I'm not willing to do that. That's what those meetings I just had were about... I'm really pleased that all the people I've worked with so far seem to 'get' how I want to work it. I don't want massive posters all over Sunset Boulevard, I want to keep it low-key. I want people to discover me. I just want to play my songs, and see what people think. I like the fact that my album is more singer-songwriter based, played on guitars, raw. It totally doesn't make sense to the R'n'B scene here. So it's good that it's different.
"If it stays underground over here… I'd be overjoyed to be an 'underground sensation' here," she smiles, contentedly, looking across at the Hollywood Hills. "I'm not trying to dominate the world."
Hours after the Austin Music Hall show the night before she flies back to Leeds, to normality, at a showcase for supportive, influential US radio station KCRW in the plush 18th Floor ballroom of an upscale Austin hotel, Corinne strums an acoustic and sings from a tall stool, her band playing deftly behind her. It’s a startlingly confident performance; but then, Corinne has been singing for a very long time.
“I always loved to sing, when I was really young,” she offers, afterwards. “But I never thought of myself as a singer; my voice was croaky, low. To me, a singer was someone like Mariah Carey, or Whitney Houston. It wasn’t like Sister Act 2, I’d never had any ‘Hey, that girl can sing!’ moments!”
She sang in church throughout her childhood; though, she points out, not a gospel church as many assume her skin colour would dictate. Her mixed-race background causes confusion in many she meets, like the European journalists who ask her what she learned from her ‘black side’ and her ‘white side’ (“There isn’t that division,” she sighs, “It’s not like anyone displayed ‘ethnic traits’.”). She played violin and learned classical composition. When grunge hit, a fifteen year old Corinne responded to the simplicity, the immediacy of guitars, drums and vocals - “Suddenly song-writing didn’t seem this impossible, impenetrable thing.”
She formed a band, Helen, with her best friends and boyfriend. They played youth clubs and venues in Leeds, revelled in the thrill of writing a song one day, and playing it that night. NME gave them a favourable review, David (son of Don) Arden became their manager, and said he had a development deal with Roadrunner Records on the table. Then their bassist became pregnant.
“It didn’t sink in,” she remembers, the disillusionment still smarting. “I guess we’d seen Neneh Cherry on TV with a bump and thought, we can still do the band. David said we shouldn’t mention it to the Roadrunner people, that we should start searching for a replacement. We told him we didn’t need a replacement. Two, three weeks passed and he never called. And when the record company never called back, we wondered, did he even have the deal? It was devastating.”
By 1997, aged eighteen, she was studying English literature at university, working part-time at a local jazz club called The Underground. Sometimes the bands would invite her to sing with them, a ballad perhaps, or ‘God Bless The Child’.
“My mum had bought one of those ‘free-binder-with-issue-one’ partworks, called Jazz Greats or something,” she grins, “And the first volume came with a Billie Holliday CD. I was like, why didn’t you play me this before?? I fell in love with that music, this different scene that I’d never heard, that I felt a lot closer to.”
Her music took a new direction. While in Helen, labels had tried to lure Corinne into a solo deal, which she’d steadfastly resisted. Now, she worked on crafting her song writing, perfecting her sound. Good Groove, a production company co-owned by former Radio 1 DJ Gary Davies, had enough faith in her talent to finance the recording of the album; meaning that, when they shopped her around the record labels at the beginning of last year, it was with the final product, the album, already finished to her exact specifications.
“It was a case of ‘Do you like this or not?’” she smiles. “Some labels didn’t even talk to me, they spoke to my manager. They were off the list. EMI understood it. They weren’t saying that we needed to re-record the album or anything. We put a lot of thought into the recording, we left all the ‘imperfections’ in there, the bum notes, the string section coughing or dropping their bows… Once its all layered together, those details make it sound somehow richer. I didn’t want it to be some perfect, airbrushed image, I wanted everything to be real.”
At the KCRW showcase, she charms the invited industry bigwigs with both her music, and her natural onstage manner, cracking jokes and just enjoying the moment, like this wasn’t a critical juncture in her career, in her life, like there wasn’t anything at stake.
“I wanna have a life, you know?” she offers, afterwards. “I’m married, I want to see my husband, I want to see my family, I want to write other music and I want to live, to enjoy it. I’m not a ‘pop star’, I’m not going to ‘cane it’ to sell as many records as I can. That’s not me.”(c) Stevie Chick 2006