Corinne Bailey Rae: 'It has all been bit of a whirlwind'

The velvet-voiced Corinne Bailey Rae, winner of best UK female and best UK newcomer prizes at the recent MOBO awards, talks to Alexia Loundras about what inspired her to start singing
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The Independent Online

"None of this feels like it's actually happening," says Corinne Bailey Rae. Like Dorothy whisked away to a surreal world, Bailey Rae has turned upside down. She's gone from wowing crowds in tiny venues to seducing thousands on national tours. She has earned the golden praise of Burt Bacharach and swept more than 600,000 listeners off their feet with the soul of her self-titled No 1 debut album.

The day we meet, Bailey Rae is appearing on Jools Holland's BBC2 pop pageant Later..., alongside The Zutons, the crooning Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx and the grunge granddads Pearl Jam. It's her third appearance on the show, but she's still nervous. "It's recorded pretty much as live," she says. "Jools introduces you and that's it, you're on. Terrifying."

There's a Fame-like buzz backstage. Band members rush between dressing rooms and instruments parp. Bailey Rae's stylist sends two dresses to be ironed, while her make-up artist gets to work. "I hate the way make-up feels," squeals Bailey Rae as foundation is daubed on, but she submits.

It's been six months since her television debut on this very show. Since then, the bubbly Leeds lass, born of the same county that spawned Kaiser Chiefs and the Arctic Monkeys, has found herself firmly in the spotlight. Her haunting debut EP, Like a Star, set industry tongues wagging last year, and she kicked off 2006 by topping the same BBC tastemakers' poll that predicted the emergence of the Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand and Keane.

The genial 27-year-old possesses the kind of talent and Audrey Hepburn-esque elegance that gets Parky hot under the collar, but her velvety voice has enough pop bounce to appeal to the CD:UK generation too. Soundtracking both dinner parties and sleepovers, she always seemed likely to set record shop tills ringing.

Yet Bailey Rae doesn't crave the limelight. "I never wanted to be a pop star," she says. "I'm really pleased my album has done so well, but I'm surprised too. I didn't expect it to be mainstream. In my head, I likened myself to artists like Amy Winehouse, Omar and Terri Walker. These people are massive to me but they're not huge stars. When people would say, 'Oh, you'll be on Top of the Pops soon,' my reply was always, 'It's really not that kind of music.' Maybe that's why this all feels so strange."

Bailey Rae, four years married to her saxophonist husband (Jason Rae), isn't how you'd imagine a new pop sensation to be. Her music, too, is at odds with the guitar rock and glossy R&B chart vogue. Like the feel-good pop of her hit "Put Your Records On", there's a vintage glow to her songs.

"I wanted my songs to sound like the music I grew up with," she says. The singer was raised on Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Commodores and handfuls of funk 45s brought home by her musician father. "I've always really liked the way you can hear all the instrumentation; clear, warm electric guitar, Hammond organ, Wurlitzer and Rhodes. That kind of music feels human - it breathes and it has soul, not like R&B now, which is much too slick and perfect."

While the soulful strains of Curtis Mayfield and James Brown informed the young Bailey Rae's musical tastes, it was the grunge band Nirvana who kickstarted her career. "I saw their MTV Unplugged session," she says. "Suddenly, music sounded really simple. I thought, 'I'd really like to have a go at this."

Her voice has drawn favourable comparisons to Billie Holiday, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, yet before her encounter with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, she'd convinced herself she couldn't sing. "Before grunge, people seemed to prize high, clear voices and I didn't have that," she chuckles. "Mine wasn't a pop voice like Madonna's nor a massive soul voice like Whitney Houston's. My voice was lower, gravelly, not at all about range. It didn't fit in with what was considered good, which I thought was such a shame, because I really liked singing. But Nirvana made me realise that music isn't about being the greatest singer or musician. It was about expressing an emotional rawness."

Inspired by this and encouraged by a youth leader at her Brethren church - who bought Bailey Rae her first electric guitar - she found the confidence to form her first band, a grunge outfit called Helen. After twice winning a local TV talent contest, the band had early success, but their luck ran out when an offer to sign to Roadrunner Records collapsed after the bass player became pregnant.

Bailey Rae's leap from grunge to soul, though hardly conventional, was a natural one, particularly once she started working as a cloakroom girl in a Leeds jazz club. Surrounded by the vintage tones of her childhood, she found solace in this smoky world.

For the first time, she says, she felt she fitted in. "Because my dad came from the Caribbean and my mum was white, I always felt like I stood out," she says. "And because I went to church, I wasn't interested in getting wasted on cider or in boys behind the bike sheds, like so many other girls were. So suddenly, being around people who were interested in the same things as me - people who responded to music in the way I did - felt so liberating." Bailey Rae soon started singing in the club. She stuck to jazz standards at first but, encouraged by compliments, she soon found the confidence to give her own songs an airing, and her skills flourished.

Bailey Rae has always relied on the encouragement of others to give her confidence, and much praise has indeed come her way. But since the release of her debut, she has also faced criticism, with some commentators suggesting that her songs are too breezy and infectious and lack emotional depth. She seems unfazed. "I'm just telling my own stories," she says. "I'm not that accomplished a writer that I can imagine myself in other people's situations. So I just write honest songs about growing up." Indeed, the Arctic Monkeys told NME how her songs made them cry. And they meant it in a good way.

Bailey Rae yearns to remain credible in the face of pop success, so, she admits, such validation is priceless. "The terrifying thing about being suddenly well-known is that other bands will think that I'm really commercial because my album's done commercially well. Standing on the CD:UK stage with the Sugababes on one side and Westlife on the other really doesn't feel like my natural environment. So, hearing the Arctic Monkeys say what they said is just amazing."

It's half an hour to show time and backstage crackles with electricity. Bailey Rae's dresses, freshly pressed, are returned and she opts for a quirky gold Philip Lim design. She puffs up her hair and brushes her teeth (twice). Bailey Rae then installs herself in the loo. "I like to be on my own before I do a gig," she says, sipping her vocal primer - a cup of hot water. "I like to really think about what I'm about to do, really get inside the moment. If you don't concentrate on things, they fly past you without you getting to enjoy them.

"Playing gigs is what it's about for me," she continues. She describes her summer of festival appearances as a holiday, and when she performs her three songs on Later..., she looks like there's no place she'd rather be. "I really can't digest anything that's happened to me this year, but I love - I really, really love - going out and playing these songs." Then, during the final song of the night, Pearl Jam's grunge smash "Alive", their front man Eddie Vedder unexpectedly whisks her off her stool for an up-tempo waltz. Afterwards, Bailey Rae can't hide her glee. "I couldn't believe that Pearl Jam were standing 10 paces away doing a song I love," she gushes. "I was singing along and then the next thing I know, Eddie Vedder's swept me off my feet! My husband thought it was funny," she adds, little embarrassed. "If it had been Jamie Foxx, my marriage would certainly have been over!"

She falls about in giggles, all the nervous tension of the day dissolving a gurgle of laughter. "It has all been bit of a whirlwind," she says. "It's so hard to take everything in." Catching her breath, she grins, glowing: "And, perhaps, it's just better not to."

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