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Corinne Bailey Rae: Rae of hope

Life was good for Corinne Bailey Rae. Her debut album had been number one and was selling by the million. She'd performed at the Grammys in LA and, as she considered a follow-up album, she could reflect on an astonishing journey from student life in Leeds and a job as cloakroom attendant at a local jazz club, to being an internationally acclaimed singer.

Then, while in a taxi, she received a phone call telling her that the police in Leeds needed to speak to her. That's when her world turned upside down and her fairytale existence came to a shuddering halt.

Her husband, sax player Jason Rae, had been found dead, a victim of rock'n'roll misadventure. After an evening in the pub, Rae had taken methadone at a mate's house.

Bailey Rae is still coming to terms with the shock and the loss. "He was impulsive," she muses. "He liked to have a drink and have fun. It's unbelievable this drunken, curious thing went wrong."

Almost two years after the tragedy, she's still fragile. Sombre. Emotionally vulnerable. She's got new songs to sing now. Darker, bruised and cathartic, they're a long way from the summery pop-soul that made her a star.

Even before her first album was released, her talent was obvious. Along with Amy Winehouse, she was someone who I confidently predicted in the Herald would become a worldwide success.

Usually it would take an artist a lifetime to get from the happy-go-lucky ambience of the single Put Your Records On to the haunting spirituality of I'd Like To Call It Beauty (a track from the upcoming album The Sea), but Bailey Rae has had a lot of pain to draw on as she's sought answers to life's big questions.

The power and depth of her new album confirms that she is indisputably a major league artist. There's such real soul on display here, I wonder whether she always knew she had such ability.

"I'd always loved singing, but I'd never felt of myself as a singer," she explains. "I grew up hearing Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston and those kind of singers on Top of the Pops and thinking, 'I love singing, but it's such a shame I can't be a singer 'cos that's what you have to sound like: have five octaves and be really technical.' I thought it was such a shame. I could sing in tune, but the sound that came out was not like that. Then in my early teens I discovered people like Billie Holiday and Martina Topley-Bird and all that grunge music that came out of America, especially Kurt Cobain, and then Björk, and I heard that there were all these different types of voices and people expressing themselves vocally and not being technically as great as Whitney Houston, and it seemed so much more real and raw to me that it gave me confidence in my own voice."

Away from yet another intrusive excavation of her grief, Bailey Rae is charming, enthusiastic and positive. "It was only when I started working in a jazz club when I was at university that I started to think of myself as a singer," she continues. "I found that I could sing in my own style and that people were into it."

She'd been married for seven years when Jason died. The grieving process was traumatic and confusing, but music afforded her a template for healing.

"I got lost in the music and was just singing out stuff and not really thinking about what I was singing," she says. "And then I was almost surprised that those words were in my head and in my mind. I didn't intellectualise it."

The only thing I heard from Bailey Rae during those bleak days was Take Your Time, a duet she did with Al Green. She brightens up at the memory.

"He was amazing," she enthuses. "I think he'd heard some of my first album and suggested we do a duet together. I was really nervous. I knew we'd be writing songs together in the room, so I made sure I had ideas to arrive with. His full-time job now is being a pastor in a church, and he has this real peaceful vibe about him. A very child-like vibe. It was amazing to work with him. His voice is just as amazing as it always was. It's so tender and high and easy for him to control it. It's remarkable."

When she tentatively began recording again in Leeds, Bailey Rae knew what was most important to her.

"I find music pulls you together and makes you feel whole," she says. "I wanted it honest because it's my expression. I wanted it to be real to me, so that every time I did it, it felt real to me.

"I'm not a good performer. I feel people can see through me when I'm doing stuff that's not really me. I find that thing of being raw and open easier to do as long as people are listening. I feel I need that connection."

The informality of the recording sessions for The Sea contributed to the album's sense of intimacy. "I wasn't thinking about recording," she reveals. "That's one of the traps you fall into if you haven't done much recorded work. The red light goes on and you think, 'Oh, I'd better not mess up.' Whereas this time I thought, 'I just want to sing the song.' It really helped me this time that no one was sitting behind the control desk watching me. I felt I could take more risks and not be afraid that I'd mess up. I'd get lost in it. That's how I wrote the songs as well."

Jason's unexpected death made no sense to Bailey Rae. Coping with that harsh reality has fuelled a beautiful artistic statement.

"It just flowed out," she says. "I didn't have to think too much. These are things that were in my mind. I found more stuff would come if I wasn't thinking but I was just walking around my house or outside. I felt there were things waiting to come out." HQ

Corinne Bailey Rae's new album The Sea is released on January 29th