by Eastsider
posted 08/03/2017





“It was very unreal. I remember thinking: I don’t really know how I ended up in this room, but I’m really grateful to be here.”

On the eve of her debut tour of Australia, Corinne Bailey Rae is on the phone talking to Eastside Radio about pinch-yourself-moments.

And she’s had a few.

For starters, there were the times she picked up Grammys (2008 for Album Of The Year, ‘River: The Joni Letters’ and 2012 for ‘Is This Love’ which scored her Best R&B Performance, not to mention another four nominations). Having Prince attend one of your concerts because word of mouth about you before you’ve even released a record is so strong, would have to be another time you’d pinch-yourself to ensure you’re not dreaming. And of course not everyone gets a call from NASA asking for a contribution to a space probe mission. Bailey Rae did: Destination Jupiter!

What the British neo-soul artist is recalling today however, is the time she played the East Room of the White House, handpicked to be part of a concert honouring Paul McCartney. Her accompanist? Oh just legendary pianist Herbie Hancock.

“That was just a crazy event,” continues Bailey Rae, “because of all the other people who had been invited to perform. So Dave Grohl, Jack White, Elvis Costello, Emily Lou Harris, Stevie Wonder. The fact that all these people were in the same room was really mind bowing for me. I remember doing the rehearsal with Herbie Hancock and opening my eyes and Paul McCartney was sitting in the front row. I was like ‘whoa!’. The front row in that living room in the White House is about a meter and a half away!”

When it came time to the actual performance, Michelle and Barack Obama would be sitting in the same spot.

“In the finale everyone came on stage for ‘Hey Jude’ and I remember this voice springing up next to me.” At this point Bailey Rae starts singing down the phone reenacting the let-loose section towards the end of the song. “The voice was [coming from] Barack Obama –  singing the adlibs!”

It’s not a night you’d easily forget.

“That night started a lot of friendships for me. It was one of the first times I [met] Stevie Wonder and I’ve spent a lot more times with him more recently.”

Corinne Bailey Rae Sydney 2017

She also supported Wonder in London’s Hyde Park last year.

Is the man as charming and sweet up close in real life, as he looks to us from afar?

“Yeah, he really is,” confirms Bailey Rae. “With some people there’s such a gap between their whole persona and who they are, which is a perfectly fine way to be an artist, but I think with him the message he’s putting across in his music is how he wants to be and there is that same kindness and peace around him. Similarly with Herbie Hancock. I think he’s been a buddhist for 40 years or something. He doesn’t come in all stressed out and sit down and create all this amazing philosophical music – it comes out of his personality. That’s always an amazing thing to see when people move and talk and eat and laugh in the same way they play and write and live.”

Last year, Bailey Rae released her third studio album, ‘The Heart Speaks In Whispers’ which debuted at number two on Billboard’s R&B chart. It digs further into the neo-soul and R’n’B idioms she is best known for, while strummy pop appears alongside. Still, it’s funny to think she began her music career in a majority-female indie band inspired by grunge and the riot grrrl movement.

“I still work with the guitarist from that band,” advises Bailey Rae, audibly excited by the memory of those young, heady days. “She’s sort of my best friend, I’ve known her since I was eleven.

“That was my first step into writing and playing my own music. I grew up playing classical music. I played in an orchestra, but playing in that band was the first time I really thought that music could be your own thing, your own ideas. That was totally an eye opener for me at the same time as getting into Nirvana and Billie Holiday.”

The band was simply called Helen and as she once told the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Billie Holiday was her favourite jazz singer because, “nothing was show-offy. To me, she had stuff in common with people like Kurt Cobain because there was all this pain. She would boil a melody down to its essential notes so it almost became like a grunge song.”

If, as was on the cards, Helen had signed to the US hard-rock label Roadrunner and become a wildly successful grunge act, would Bailey Rae’s desire to make soul-jazz records been the band’s undoing at some point?

She laughs at the thought. “[Helen] was… indie, but it was kind of soulful as well. I mean, we used to go to this club night called Brighton Beach which had two rooms. The main was all sort of indie and sixties – so Stones, Kinks, Beatles –  but they’d also play The Stone Roses and Oasis… But then the small room in the same club was all Stax and Motown and Northern Soul and people just moved between the two.”

Even before Helen, Bailey Rae was a musical renegade. As a teen at Sunday services, she and the kids in the youth group would take tunes from acid-house group Primal Scream and change the lyrics to perform them for the congregation.

“We had this church youth leader who was really alternative. Many of those old hymns are adapted from old pub songs and songs that came out of drinking culture or unions. People have adapted them to make them spiritual and of course it’s gone the other way [too]. Music itself is a spiritual thing, so I really liked singing Primal Scream or writing songs about the old testament that sounded like Radiohead. We had a really good time. I think it was an important thing for my creativity.”

And anyway gospel-style vocals and organ featured heavily in some Primal Scream tunes.

“Absolutely,” agrees Bailey Rae, “and all that I’m blind, but now I see. You only had to change a few words and you were sorted.”

Corinne Bailey Rae plays the Metro Theatre in Sydney on April 16 and Byron Bay’s Bluesfest.

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