Corinne Bailey Rae defined the summer of 2006 for many people.

Her breakthrough hit, ‘Put Your Records On’, was ubiquitous and landed her a slew of award nominations, including at the coveted Grammys.

Now, ten years on, Rae is a songwriting force. Her third studio album, The Heart Speaks In Whispers, is an ethereal electronic soul record themed on dreaming and the subconscious. On the way back from a show in Cambridge, she talks about her music.

“I think soul music never really went away, it’s just gone through so many phases,” she says. “When I was growing up it had gone through a hip hop and reggae vibe, then there was trip hop which was really big. Then there was the whole Erykah Badu and D’Angelo phase. Now new artists are bringing electronic and synth jazz and atmospheric layers to soul. You’ve also got all the retro soul which is trying to sound exactly like Motown, Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, that kind of vibe. It never goes away.”

Rae wrote much of the new album in her hometown of Leeds. However, when the opportunity came up to record at Capitol Records in Los Angeles, she jumped at the chance. What was initially supposed to be a short seven-week stay turned into a semi-permanent living arrangement.

“There’s a really great future soul scene there with Thundercat, Flying Lotus, King and Moses Sumney. Lots of artists are making really soulful new music involving electronics. It
felt like the centre of the world for the sort of music I like. I was really happy hanging out and learning and writing.”

The Heart Speaks In Whispers saw Rae in the production chair for the first time. She says teaching herself to produce was one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of the album. However, she had help from her long-time producer and husband, Steve Brown.

“Steve’s really inventive with melodies for instruments. He’s always coming up with different ideas and hooks. He really trusts musicians and gives them a lot of say. When you’re producing a record it’s really hard to know how much to run things and control and how much to just let things happen.”

Rae wanted to make an album based on the theme of the subconscious, dreaming and nature, which led to a long writing process of vetoing songs that wouldn’t fit. She also sought to move away from her more traditional instrumentation choices to a layered synth sound inspired by her time in LA.

“Steve loves synths,” she says. “We also had a really big hand with King, who we got to work with as well. That’s a lot of what they do – vintage synths and layering and atmosphere and reverberant sounds. I love guitar but sometimes I just get a bit bored of it. I wanted something more floating.”

Rae also collaborated with songwriters such as Amber and Paris Strother of King on ‘Green Aphrodisiac’ and Valerie Simpson on ‘Do You Ever Think Of Me?’ Rae met Simpson in New York when she played at an open mic night at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar.

“The house band’s one of these incredible groups of musicians where you just get up and tell them the song you want to do and they know like every song that’s ever been made,” Rae says. “It’s the
sort of event where you never know who’s going to be there. People from the community go there and they sing songs, but then somebody would be in the hallway putting on a pink tutu, getting ready to sing, or Quincy Jones would be there. It’s a real mixture of artists calling in on tour and people from the community. It’s just an amazing vibe.

“‘Do You Ever Think Of Me?’ was just this song I wrote influenced by Curtis Mayfield. Then I saw Valerie in New York and asked her what she thought and she said to leave it with her. She sent me a version of the song with her chords woven in and her melody and it just took on this whole new life. It was incredible. I’ve done that a few times before – when I get stuck on something, I ask someone to jump in.”

Rae says one of the things that really strikes her about playing in the US is the difference in audiences compared to her home country. Her current tour has seen Rae play extensively throughout China, Europe and America, and she finds it strange to see how audiences react to her music in different venues.

“At the Sugar Bar they’ve got this call-and-response culture that comes out of the African-American church. It becomes a really big feature when playing live and especially when playing soul music. So you’ll sing a particular line and people will shout out and cheer, they might say stuff if they like it. It’s really beautiful and it brings you in the moment. You know what people like and you can pursue it. The guitarist might be doing a solo and suddenly it’s going for twice as long because people are shouting out and stomping.

“We’ve done shows on this tour where it’s all seated and quite polite and it’s like going to a classical concert where people are really enjoying it but they don’t want to shout out or anything because they feel it would be rude or interrupting. But then we’ll go to another show where everyone’s standing and dancing. It really depends on the place and sometimes that will really surprise me.”

Corinne Bailey Raewill play Bluesfeston Thursday April 13 – Monday April 17. She will also appear at the Metro Theatre on Sunday April 16.

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