Corinne Bailey Rae on The Heart Speaks in Whispers

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Corinne Bailey Rae

Corinne Bailey Rae.

The ‘Put Your Records On’ singer’s third album. And how about that Belly cover?

Another piece originally written for hmv.com/ca, from May 2016 around the release of Corinne Bailey Rae‘s third album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers. The album kind of got lost in the shuffle, and I don’t recall too much about the record myself, but at the time I was glad to be able to ask Rae about covering a song by Belly – I’m somewhat obsessed by that era of ’90s alt-rock that also includes Throwing Muses, Sugar et al, and thought it a somewhat surprising cover. 

Corinne Bailey Rae burst onto the music scene with one of the more prescient singles of the era, “Put Your Records On.” Not only did the 2006 song presage a generation’s growing vinyl fixation, but it also helped propel the Yorkshire-born singer to the top of the charts, especially in her native England, and earn her a number of awards and nominations. In 2008, this culminated with a Grammy win for Album of the Year (for her work as a featured artist on Herbie Hancock‘s River: The Joni Letters). The Sea, Rae’s 2010 follow-up to her debut, was nominated for the 2010 Mercury Prize for Album of the Year. Sadly, at the time of the album’s gestation, Rae lost her husband, saxophonist Jason Rae, to an accidental drug-related death. The Heart Speaks in Whispers, out this Friday (May 13), is her first release in six years, barring a 2011 EP of covers (more about which later).

Corinne Bailey Rae, “Stop Where You Are”

SC: You’re in Leeds right now, working on shortening some of the songs on the new album so you can play them on TV. So was the idea with this album to write longer songs?

CBR: I really wanted to roam, and explore with the record, and not to try to think about, ‘How can I make the songs the most, sort of, digestible.’ I just wanted to be free, and to see what came out. You can always do that sort of editing process later on. I really wanted them to have their own space and to live. I wanted the lyrics especially to have space.

SC: Do you think that’s because you’re more confident in the studio, or more comfortable with the people that you’re playing with?

CBR: I guess it’s a combination of things. I felt like I wanted to be playful on this record. I built my own studio, we have all of the instruments in one space. It’s great wondering around there, playing a drum machine or playing a snare drum or bass or guitar. It was important to be able to wonder around, to make it feel like a wonderland instead of an environment where you feel like this kind of professional thing going around, which I find in a lot of studios. I guess the reason the songs can stretch out for a bit is that I feel like I’ve been experiencing a lot of freedom, personally and observing people. Between The Sea and now I’ve see Patti Smith and Prince and Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter. It’s been incredible to see them and gain permission to explore and see what’s next. Just to have confidence in the ideas. And because the record’s been written in a subconscious way, where I feel like I’ve been quieting everything down around me, and letting the music come in, and letting fragments of ideas come in, or whole things, or having dreams, and having that inform what I’m writing about, I feel like I really trust the songs, almost like I’m trying to stay away from controlling them.”

SC: The album title The Heart Speaks in Whispers sounds like it’s from a poem.

CBR: It comes from the first song on the record, ‘The Skies Will Break.’ I really love the idea of the heart speaking to us, being an organ that informs to us, that’s constantly speaking to us but in order to hear it we have to quiet things down around us. This kept coming through in all the songs I was writing, about how we learn lessons in nature, and how our body feels, and it’s important to feel connected and feel all our senses, and listening to dreams, and instinct itself as well. They’re ways in which our heart communicates what we need, which is an important message. Particularly in our culture where we’re bombarded all the time with different messages telling us what we need, how we won’t be happy if we don’t buy all this stuff. Advertising’s really powerful, it’s constantly surrounding us taking away from happiness, telling us we’re not happy. I like the idea of listening to the heart, that there’s this inherent truth we have we can get to at any time.

SC: “Stop Where You Are” is one of the album’s big moments. Was the inspiration for that song cutting through the noise?

CBR: Absolutely. I really felt with that song it was about being present and being where you are. There are so many things that pull us out of the moment. I remember going to see Prince a few years ago. He does this thing where he invites people onstage, and he pulled out 15 people from the audience, and they were dancing and singing, he was playing the guitar and they were lost in it. I remember seeing this one woman, she was a foot away from Prince, and she spent the entirety of this song screaming at her friend in the front row, ‘Pass me my phone, pass me my phone.’ You can could see this drama unfolding, where the friend got the phone, she threw it up, it fell on the floor, then the bouncer had to get it, and he couldn’t quite get it, and she just missed it, the song was over and they all came off stage. She just missed a moment of her life because she was thinking, ‘I have to prove I was up here, I have to share it with my friends, how can I share it with my friends.’ That thing that we all do, when you spend so much time thinking so much about the future, and you’re stopping yourself being in the moment. The whole screen thing is a really big way of pulling us out of the moment. I’ve been guilty of it, being in a beautiful place on tour and saying to my friend, ‘Oh, I must come back here.’ Well, you’re here now.

I really feel that in the last year. It’s been a combination of losing my husband at 29 and living through that and realizing that someone can be here one minute and the next they’re not here and that’s very real. Just to have life is a precious thing we can’t really control. I feel I’m more aware of that now, I’m more connected to the moment. I love that image of the song where it says ‘Light a fire where you are.’ That to me is about ritualizing the moment and not forgetting to celebrate the moment. it’s really easy for us to think, ‘I’ll be happy when this happens or that happens, when I lose this weight, when I get this great job, or when I go on holiday.’ We’re holding our own happiness away from us by putting these kinds of provisos on being here now. What if we just stop where we are to say, ‘Here, in this moment, with all its imperfections and all this drama, we can just be aware that we’re here and of the people we’re sharing with it.’ I really felt like that song wrote itself.

SC: On The Love EP in 2011 you covered Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and Belly’s “Low Red Moon.” Why those songs?

CBR: Belly was one of the bands I absolutely adored as a young person. To me, they were writing about things that were really personal and small and feminine. It was a message to me you could write songs about anything, about how you don’t get along with your sister, or how you feel on the way to seeing a friend, or jealousy. For me, they rewrote what you’re allowed to write. And I love the simplicity of that music. I love the petiteness of the riffs versus the kind of monster ‘70s rock band stuff that had become so big. To me that was like a blueprint for Helen (Rae’s first band), to do something in a really DIY independent style.

The reason I wanted to cover that Prince song is because I really like the way he expressed the complexity of love. You can be someone’s lover and father and sister and mother. I love the idea of that, that there’s this familial aspect to being someone’s lover that is based on love that you’ve known before. It’s still got this sexual side of love, but it’s also the everyday thing of being cared for and being protected. And it’s not particularly gendered, he’s making himself into a kind of every person. It always comes back to love and the way we’re connected to people, and the relationships that we have that aren’t just sexual, but our friends and family. So I love that he kept that familial and spiritual and sexual love, it was all part of this one big thing that is complicated and fascinating. I guess that’s why I like that song.

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