Corinne Bailey Rae: 'I didn't want to do anything after my husband died'

In 2008 Corinne Bailey Rae's world was rocked by the death of her husband. Now the singer is back – and stronger than ever

Corinne Bailey Rae's hair has got bigger. The halo of ringlets that framed the singer's features when she burst to prominence in 2006 is now a bountiful shoulder-length thicket. It's a new, assured look that complements her beautiful and emotionally uncompromising new record, The Sea. But it's not all that has changed since we last met.

Four years ago, Rae was in the midst of a whirlwind of hype and expectation. After topping the BBC's Sound of 2006 poll, her eponymous debut shot to No 1 in the UK. Singles "Put Your Records On" and "Like a Star" soundtracked both dinner parties and sleep-overs, propelling her jazz-influenced soul-pop into the mainstream. MOBO gongs followed, as did Brit and Grammy nominations and huge American tours.

Rae's debut eventually sold four million copies worldwide. But she was not the archetypal pop star. Possessing a charming Audrey Hepburn-esque poise and a textured, Billie Holiday-styled voice she was the antithesis of her outspoken, party-going contemporaries, Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse. That may well be because, during her teenage years, Rae was more likely to be singing in church than joining her peers getting wasted on cider. Born in Leeds in 1979, to an English mother and St Kittian musician father, she started attending a Brethren church when she was 10. Rae's youth leader there was instrumental in setting her on her musical path; he introduced her to acts like Radiohead and Björk and helped her to buy her first guitar.

The disarmingly genial Rae was always happy to talk openly about herself: whether remembering her childhood immersed in her father's Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder 45s or her short-lived teenage incarnation fronting a riot grrrl band, Helen. She was also open about her enormous admiration for her jazz saxophonist husband, Jason Rae. The pair, who married in 2001 when Rae was just 22, had met when she got a life-changing job in the cloakroom of a Leeds jazz club whilst doing her English Literature degree at the city's university. Just as the jazz club provided an environment where, for the first time, she felt she truly fit in, so Jason inspired her with his passion for music and encouraged her to perform herself.

Now, after three years off the road, and with the release of her second album imminent, Rae is back on the promotional treadmill. Perching herself on a leather chair by the window of a trendy London hotel, she's as warm and welcoming as I remember her.

But there's an unspoken nervousness hanging in the air. In March 2008, Rae's husband was found dead in a friend's flat after an accidental overdose of alcohol and methadone. The coroner's declaration that Jason had been a "naive user" offered little comfort. And although Rae's album was nearly half finished before that fateful day, The Sea is infected with her loss; tempered by her experience and weighed down by its context.

Understandably, the singer is reluctant to talk about her husband's death – she'd be forgiven for not doing interviews at all. "It has been difficult," she admits. "You find yourself volunteering loads of personal stuff, but then you forget that those words are going to get printed, shown to lots of people and interpreted in a different way." She smiles softly. "I feel like people want to get in, they want to know more and more and sometimes you feel like that's too much."

Yet despite her wariness, the singer seems composed. Rae nods: "Today I feel more solid," she says. Friendly and confident, Rae wears no make up, and while she remains femininely fashionable, the pretty dresses she used to favour have been replaced by a sophisticated black cardigan and black peg-leg trousers.

Success has allowed Rae to indulge her love of fashion, but it was neither something she courted nor expected. "I felt my music was left of centre," she says. "I never imagined the thing that I liked would chime briefly with popular taste. It was weird for me that I was seen as this safe, mainstream sort of thing."

Rae might have found her popularity bemusing, but with her radio-friendly tunes and breezy videos, her broad appeal was assured. And Rae enjoyed her success. "Spending 15-hour days recording or doing gigs and travelling never felt like work," she says.

Crucially, her album sales bought Rae creative freedom. "I wasn't interested in fame, and I'm still not. So I never felt I had to match that first record in terms of commercial success," she says. "Instead I felt I could do my own thing, knowing that whatever I did, I would have an audience – even if it was much smaller – that would get what I do."

Rae explains she wanted her second album to be an organic process. "I wanted to capture what it feels like to be taken over by music," she says. "I wanted to work with musicians I knew, in a space I was comfortable in and get everyone in the same room together, interacting with each other. Even the way I was writing was different. This time I didn't collaborate with anyone, I would just walk around my house, seeing what came in."

What "came in" were soul-searching, confessional and emotionally dense songs. The album's title track was the first song Rae wrote. It's a surging epic about the death of her grandfather in a boating accident while her aunt watched helplessly from the shore. The song plaintively explores grief and powerlessness in the face of life's cruel turns: "I was writing and thinking about how that must have affected her," says Rae, "how things that happen beat you into a certain shape. And how can you turn off that trajectory?"

Of course, "The Sea" has greater resonance in the context of Rae's own loss. As does another early song, the tender "I'd Do It All Again". Written in the aftermath of a massive row Rae had with her husband, it's bookended with the line: "You're searching for something I know won't make you happy". A line which seems painfully prophetic now.

As one would imagine, Rae's life was derailed by her husband's death. "When I'd had the experience, I was really scouring to find someone else who'd been through something similar, because you're constantly thinking, 'how should it feel?' It doesn't feel like it's meant to. There's a certain universality to the shock and strangeness of it: it's as close to someone just vanishing as you can experience, because obviously that is what happens."

Wrapping her cardigan tighter, Rae continues: "For a huge period, I didn't want to do anything. It was like a barrenness which I'd never experienced; this sense of time just stretching and stretching and not having anything to put into it all."

I ask if it ever crossed her mind to abandon her album. "I didn't think about that at all," she says. "I wasn't thinking about anything – I don't even know what I was doing. But all the time I was playing my guitar and singing out my feelings, but it was just a big mess!" She laughs. "The songs I wrote in that phase were for me – and it was good to have that. But I guess, at some point, they started turning into something else."

Rae's muse returned gradually. "I never thought, 'Oh, I must start writing again'," she says. "But I would look out the window and get a little description and think, 'Oh yeah, this used to happen all the time'. Suddenly, little lines and melodies started to come in again and I wanted to record them. And it felt great to have something to do again."

Rae's decision to record her album with musician friends in familiar surroundings was something of a lifesaver. "It didn't feel like going back into the studio," she says. Manchester's Limefield Studio, where Rae recorded the album, was a welcoming place, filled with happy memories. "It was like a friend's house that I'd been to loads. And there were no strangers there. Just friends who knew us both so it was not weird at all. And if I didn't want to go, I didn't go."

The one thing that made Rae nervous was playing back the songs she had already recorded. "I wondered whether when I listened back it was going to sound like this different me," she says tentatively. "Some people had said to me things like," (she adopts a hushed tone), "'Oh you'll never be the same again,' which I thought was really unhelpful. Losing a partner, so much of your identity is tied up in being with that person and part of that marriage, so it's terrible to say you'll never be the same again. I was really happy when I listened back to everything I had done and thought, 'I still feel that way!'

"The songs I had written had taken on different meanings and I really liked how it sounded," she says, smiling. "I'm happy that I don't feel like the record has a seam down the middle: like this is when you were happy and this is clearly now. It was important to me to have a continuity between the two halves. It's like I'm still the same person."

The Sea is an honest, uncensored album. "I just wrote about things that were in my mind," says Rae. "They revealed stuff to me about what I was thinking which I almost didn't know."

Rae's songs openly plunder her emotions. The Jeff Buckley-esque "I Would Like to Call It Beauty" ponders grief and loss, while the spine-tingling opener "Are You Here" packs the emotive whallop of a careering juggernaut. It begins with the line: "He's a real live wire, he's the best of his kind" before continuing, "Are you here? Are you here 'cos my heart recalls it?". The rawness of human emotion is laid painfully bare in this bittersweet recollection.

Rae admits some songs were "really sad to do". But ultimately, she says, the process has been both therapeutic and rewarding: "There's a certain level of strength in knowing you're not going to fall to pieces," she says. "[Grief] is a really long process, so I don't feel like I'm over it. All of this is an expression of how I'm feeling and it goes forward. But it takes a lot of years to feel any different. Yet amongst all of that there are other things – there's this seam of beauty or there's this exoskeleton strengthening. That was something I wanted to communicate."

And that she does, because despite the melancholy and introspection that bleeds through Rae's album, The Sea, much like the singer, is also imbued with life. "I'm proud of having finished it," she says, making a bee-line for the bacon rolls that have arrived. "I feel happy that I've actually done it, and done it my way, because it's been really hard. But I felt I had to move some air, make something happen."

Now, Rae has shifted her focus onto her live shows. "I want the gigs to be really powerful," she says. "I want them to be engaging and intimate, the kind of gig where you remember how you felt and what you were wearing. I would love to be part of that experience with a whole bunch of people."

But what life holds for her beyond that, she's not sure: "When all this finishes, I have no idea what I'll do. I don't feel nervous about it," she smiles, "just really glad I have this thing to walk me through these next few months."

The Sea is released on 1 February. Corinne Bailey Rae plays London's Shepherd's Bush Empire on 24 February (Corinnebailey rae.net).

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