MUSIC: Corinne Bailey Rae ‘Art feels more limitless to me now.’

by James Hendicott
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Corinne Bailey Rae

To the casual listener, Leeds native Corinne Bailey Rae might be best known for smash 2006 hit ‘Put Your Records On’. For much of her career, her music was an exploration of her own experiences and emotions, a kind of highly cathartic, relatable output. Then one day, on tour, she briefly visited a Chicago archive of black culture and history, The Stony Island Arts Bank.

Inspired by what she saw, Bailey Rae’s first album in seven years, ‘Black Rainbows’, released in 2023, became a very different, very cultured record. “This was a side project right up until I saw the graphic designed for the art work,” she says. “I forgot to say ‘don’t put my name on it’, and when I saw it, and thought about my seven year obsession, I changed my mind.”

“I had heard about this visual artist called Theaster Gates, who was making art out of bricks and fire hoses and stuff. Through that, I learnt about this massive library, the Stony Island Arts Bank. I invited him to my show in Chicago, and he took me to the arts bank, even though I had to leave  town at 8am after the show. I walked into this 100 year old Greco Roman bank with pillars in this very poor community, in the southside of Chicago, with a lot of crime, violence, drug addiction, and so on.”

“It’s a difficult landscape. But I could have stayed forever, and it became an obsession of mine, looking at all the books and some of the grotesque, racist, problematic content, too. I picked stuff up and I felt like everything had a story. I wanted to do something, but straight away I separated it from my normal work. Then I realised that it was me, not separate to me. It was just not about my relationships and thoughts and feelings anymore.”

“‘Black Rainbows’ is all other people’s stories, but it’s about how they relate to me, and they kind of tell themselves to me. When I held something, it wasn’t quiet. When I left, and got back on the tour bus, all I could think about was the stories behind these objects.”

For a long time, Bailey Rae wrote away around the Arts Bank, until ‘Black Rainbows’ came to be. “I felt like the songs could be anything. It didn’t have to be big choruses, or to go on the radio. It has had a really good reception. On the other hand, without a big single being played on the radio, I think a lot of people don’t know that it’s out. Then again, I don’t feel like that’s a reason not to make an album.”

“I had a lot of space with the third album, but I was looking for radio smashes, and I found that kind of paralysing. I didn’t need to ask anyone for them to tell me that it wasn’t quite right. I felt there wasn’t a point in finishing songs if they weren’t going to be big like ‘Uptown Funk’.”

“Instead, I find myself around contemporary artists like Theaster Gates, looking more broadly at art. He works in glass, he has a band, he works with bricks, he lectures. Art feels more limitless to me now. I’ve learnt from this brilliant artist, from the way that he does things. Sometimes it was weird, I’d never been in that kind of environment before. I was a long way from the pub with my rock band! Instead I was nurturing my art.”

Corinne Bailey Rae headlines Rock Against Homelessness in the Olympia Theatre on May 26.

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