A RADICAL RETURN TO FREEDOM
The Leeds musician talks about shedding that cheery soul-pop image, the inspiration behind her new album Black Rainbows and why she’s finally found the freedom to bring her own style of music to the world.
When Corinne Bailey Rae first wandered into Stony Island Arts Bank, a grand 1920s building on Chicago’s South Side neighbourhood, little did she know just what a huge impact it would have on her life and music.
It was a place she had spent a lifetime waiting to discover and one that truly opened her eyes to the history of black culture, inspiring her to write her fourth album Black Rainbows and a place she fell so in love with, she now calls it her second home.
Talking about her first visit there in 2017 she said “I felt like these objects were talking to me. There was something about this building and the subjects in it that I wanted to interact with and give a voice to their stories.”
As an artist, it gave her the strength to break free from the shackles of a demanding record label and for the first time in a long while, sing about the things that really mattered to her and in a style that didn’t conform to any expectations.
Saved from demolition by artist Theaster Gates in 2012, The Stony Island Arts Bank opened five years later as an art and community space that houses permanent and temporary collections ‘honouring black excellence and confronting the traumas of the past..’
Filled with more than 16,000 books, every single copy of Jet and Ebony magazines, photographs, sculptures, all of Frankie Knuckles’ massive vinyl collection and countless artefacts, the Leeds singer was mesmerised by the disturbing yet powerfully uplifting contents on display which inspired her to write the new album.
The 44-year-old Grammy winning artist added: “When you first visit Arts Bank, your initial instinct is that it should all be put on a bonfire, but then you realise it’s evidence of how widespread this culture was and what black people endured for so long.
“It was these people, their stories and their determination that was so captivating and with all of this information in my head, it was really easy for me to write songs. I felt incredibly stirred by the stories I encountered in the archive and whenever there was an empty space, my imagination came running to fill it.
“On my first three albums, the focus had always been me: my experiences, my relationships, my thoughts, my feelings but this album is totally about my observations of this historic archive.”
What started out as a side project soon developed into an obsession and as she explored the harrowing history further, she realised she needed to shed that cheery pop soul vibe that had made her a household name since her 2006 breakthrough.
She said: “As it was initially a side project I told myself it didn’t matter what people thought because I wanted to do something really different to anything I’d done before. I didn’t want to think, ‘Would someone who likes ‘Put Your Records On’ also like this?’
“In the past I was always so aware of the massive budgets and the pressures from the label who just wanted a radio smash and for a long time I felt like I was policing my own ideas in order to just please them.
“For a songwriter that’s the most horrible feeling but with this album I had none of those thoughts, nothing was off limits at all and that gave me a real sense of freedom.”
It is a refreshing musical renaissance and just as she knew she could never write a song like Put Your Records On again following the death of her first husband in 2008, she also realised she couldn’t be blasting out a foot-stomping dancefloor filler to reflect the painful reminders of America’s racist past on this album.
She added: “I can’t make pretty music about ugly things and with the song Erasure for example it had to be a distorted guitar and rough vocals because how else do you deliver the line ‘they fed you to the crocodiles’?”
The album itself is a bold and unselfconscious collection that swings from punky guitar riffs on the thrilling single New York Transit Queen to ambient electronica and then a sublime piano ballad on Peach Velvet Sky.
For a singer who has gone through so much, it’s refreshing to see she now has the strength to defy the mainstream with such a brave, unique and groundbreaking release.
And Black Rainbows is just that – a powerful genre-hopping statement that resonates and showcases the skill and imagination of a passionate soul who’s happy to have finally found her own voice.
Black Rainbows by Corinne Bailey Rae is out now.