Corinne Bailey Rae’s debut album is still in heavy rotation in my household. Her songs are like moonlight. I was saddened to hear when her husband died of an accidental overdose in early 2008. Not much had been heard from her since then, but an interview has surfaced with her. She looks lovely as ever, beautiful hair growing out, sad eyes with fleeting smiles. She’s working on her 2nd album, and I am very excited to hear it. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Corinne went home to her house in Leeds and began writing songs, just her and her acoustic guitar. One of the first she finished was called The Sea, a powerful elucidation of loss that was based on a family story that had been passed down to her about her grandfather’s death in a boating accident. It climaxes with the lines, “The sea, the majestic sea, breaks everything, cleans everything, crushed everything, takes everything from me.”
She says now, “I don’t know if there was something in the air or what, but the songs seemed different, a bit darker. With The Sea, I was just thinking about loss, about the impact losing your father would have on you as a child, how one event that big could colour your life, bleed into everything else and force you into a certain shape.”
Another song she wrote around that time was called I’d Do it All Again. It was written after an argument with her husband, Jason Rae, a gifted jazz musician who often played saxophone in her band. It was a testimony to the strength of her love for him, a song about how nothing, not his restlessness or the occasional rows it precipitated, could ever make her question that love.
“It was written literally just after me and Jason had this massive disagreement, a big argument, a bad one,” she says now, faltering. “Almost as he was leaving the room, I just sat down and wrote it. It’s just about how I felt about him at that time. Even right in the middle of the worst times, I remember thinking that I would choose this exact life again, that I would do it all again. It was me saying, I’m not wishing myself out of this situation. I’m 100% committed to this person. I don’t have any regrets about this relationship even though there are all these difficult times.”
I’d Do it All Again begins: “Oh, you’re searching for something I know won’t make you happy/Oh, you’re thirsting for something I know won’t make you happy…”. It sounds now like a plea, a calling-out to someone to accept the life they have been given. “I just wanted him to be content,” she says.
She wrote I’d Do it All Again in January 2008, and “just kept on writing and trying out ideas”. Then, on Saturday 22 March, she was in a taxi in Leeds when her phone rang. A voice she did not recognise said that it was the police, that they had been trying to contact her all day, and that they needed to speak to her in person.
The police asked me to meet them at a certain place so the taxi had to do a U-turn and go back the way we came,” she says now. “I always think of that moment when I had to turn back. My life was going in one direction, then, in an instant, it was turned around.”
The coroner’s report found that Jason Rae, aged 31, had died of an accidental overdose of methadone and alcohol. The coroner described Rae as “a naive user”, which brought a strange kind of comfort to the young widow who was struggling to make sense of a death that seemed so random, so senseless. “The word ‘naive’ jumped out at me,” she says. “It’s like Jase was playing with something he didn’t know the consequences of. He was impulsive, I guess. He liked to have a drink, have fun. It could easily have turned out to be one of those stupid, drunken things you do that you get to talk about afterwards – ‘You’d never guess what I did when I was pissed?’ – that sort of thing. It’s unbelievable that this one didn’t turn out like that, that this was the drunken, curious thing that went wrong.”
In the living room, she picks her way through guitars and amplifiers, and sits down at a piano in the corner with Steve Brown. As he plays a slow meditative melody, she sings I’d Do it All Again. It is breathtaking; sombre but defiant, and imbued with a whole other layer of meaning – and longing – since Jason’s death. It feels almost as if I am listening in on someone singing to herself.
“A year ago I could not have imagined going out and playing these songs live,” she says afterwards, “but now I’m looking forward to it. I want to play live as much as possible. I want to get to that place where it’s just coming through. It’s not a performance, it’s not self-conscious, you’re outside of time, outside of yourself.”
Later, I tell her that the “before” songs have now come alive in a different way, maybe because she is singing differently, inhabiting the songs in a much more forceful way than before. “They have,” she says, “they definitely have. What surprises me most is how the songs I wrote before it happened resonate almost as much as the ones I wrote after. The circumstances have cast it all in a different light. It began as a ‘before and after’ record, but it’s become an ‘after’ record.”
For a long time, she continued to refer to her late husband in the present tense, seemingly unable to grasp that he was gone for ever. About three months after his death, she tried to record some of the songs she had written, even turning up at a studio to meet a producer. “I laugh now at how deluded I was,” she says. “I felt like everything would somehow go back to normal if I got on with things but, in reality, I was still in shock.”
Then came the strange inertia that grief instils in those left behind, the long, terrible numbness that is, in itself, a kind of death. “I didn’t do anything for a year. I mean, nothing,” she says, still sounding as if she can barely believe it. “Everyone was asking, ‘What have you done?’ But I had nothing to show them. I didn’t go anywhere. I didn’t write anything. I didn’t work. I sat at my kitchen table for a whole year, people came and people went, life drifted by. It was just bleak. Bleak.”
Did she think that she might give up music altogether? “I did think that I could never do this sort of thing again because if anyone asked me about Jason, I would just explode. For a long time, I didn’t even try and write. It was just too big a thing, too raw. It was just too destructive to make anything creative out of. All I wanted to do was destroy things. And I’m really not that type so it was all these emotions that were totally alien to me. It was just a bleak, empty, hollow nothing.”
Earlier this year, though, Corinne began tentatively recording again. She had started writing after playing a few low-key club gigs at the end of last year. The intimacy of that set-up had led her to Limefield Studios, where she has worked at her own pace for months now.
Most poignant of all, though, are a pair of songs written in the wake of her loss: the plaintive Are You Here? and the slow-burning I Would Like to Call it Beauty. The first is a love song, or, more precisely, a lost-love song. It begins, “He’s a real live wire, he’s the best of his kind, wait till you see those eyes!” When I ask her about it, she says, “I actually don’t remember writing it. That was one of the songs that just came through. It was like I was wishing him here. It’s a song about grief and loss and that’s really what the whole record is about. It’s like I want to tell people about this thing, this thing that I could not make sense of and could not find anything I could read, or listen to, that would help me make sense of.”
Anyone expecting the same kind of well-wrought, if hardly challenging, pop songs that made her debut such a big seller is in for quite a surprise. In her place is a singer of immeasurably sad songs, someone who has transmuted her well of grief and anger into something beautiful and raw. “I definitely feel more serious,” she says. “I feel more impassioned. I have total belief in these songs and when I sing them in front of people, I want to pass that on. I don’t think there is anyone of my generation saying these things, singing about these things. And it happens, you know. It can happen to anyone at any time. I want to be out there on stage with my hands out going, does anyone else feel the same way? That’s what it’s about, too.”