A muggy Sunday night on West 129th Street. On the stage – well, floor – of New York’s compact but history-soaked National Jazz Museum, a soft-spoken Yorkshirewoman is talking us through the hard truths that have inspired her fiercely brilliant new album.
Dressed in a Mary Benson purple jumpsuit decorated with butterflies and psychedelic eyes, and mesmerising the audience with her between-song monologues as much as her new music, this angel of Harlem is Corinne Bailey Rae. Around her, a crack band of musicians hover, waiting for her cue to burst into exquisite blasts of psych-jazz, cosmic funk, dreamy R&B and out-and-out punk.
In nuanced, respectful detail, the singer and songwriter describes to the small, rapt audience the marketing to Black women of skin-lightening products, advertised in the pages of Black-owned fashion magazine Ebony. Then a gruesome hoard of American “negrobilia” – some 4000 everyday objects designed around stereotypical representations of Black people – bought up by a businessman with the express purpose of removing them from circulation. Then a 1954 photograph of 17-year-old Audrey Smaltz, posing on the back of a fire truck, in her capacity as Miss New York Transits – one of the only beauty pageants open at the time to Black contestants.
Across the 10 striking tracks on Black Rainbows, the double Grammy and double MOBO winner’s first album since 2016’s The Heart Speaks in Whispers, these and other subjects drive home her seven-year story. It’s a journey of discovery and enlightenment that’s taken Rae from her home in Leeds to Chicago’s Stoney Island Arts Bank – what she calls a “cathedral to Black art”, a repository of culture and history in which she immersed herself for inspiration.
At this New York show, the fifth of 22 American dates at purposefully meaningful venues including historically Black colleges and universities, the 44-year-old delivers a masterclass in radical thought, visceral enlightenment, joyous uplift and release, and transcendent theatrical entertainment. I’ve never seen anything like it. When I see Rae again, five weeks later, over breakfast in central Leeds, she’s just arrived back in her hometown from the US tour – a month of intensely performed, intensely talky shows.
With her husband Steve Brown also in her band, they had their three- and five-year-old daughters on the tour bus, and only finally made it back to Yorkshire after a last-minute London pit-stop for a recording of Later… With Jools Holland. Tired, much? “No, it was weird – I just felt really energised,” she demurs, beaming.
Even the set-up of the show – which she’ll be sticking to over a three-night London residency this week – was bracing: the entirety of Black Rainbows, a record that only came out halfway through the tour. “I've been working on the record for so long,” she continues of a fourth album that, when it was finally released last month, was met with universal acclaim. “And you very rarely get to tour a whole album. So I just thought: this is a big undertaking. That's why I wanted to explain everything and say: ‘Come on this journey, please stay in the room.’ And I just got so much out of it.”
As in its creation so with its promotion: this is Rae doing things her way. The daughter of a white English mother and a father from St Kitts, she was previously best known for the sublime jazz-soul of breakthrough singles Like A Star (2005) and Put Your Records On (2006) – “cosy” in the words of the Standard’s David Smyth in his 5/5 review of Black Rainbows. And indeed, in its deep mining of Black history, politics and art, her new album is a radical departure in multiple directions. “All these things have been my interest for a long time, but I had never thought of them necessarily informing the music that I made,” Rae tells me.
She’s on a new label now but admits that, early in the creative process, “the people around me… had made me consider that those things were niche. A bit weird, and perhaps only of interest to Black people.” She describes the thinking as: “You have this wider appeal, so why would you want to [specialise like that]? If you go down this road, it will be seen as a rejection of your wider fan base.” But, she says, she’s been wholly vindicated. “I haven't experienced it as that at all. I've done loads of interviews with lots of different white people at different radio stations.”
I ask: did she feel pigeonholed in the music industry as someone who made 'dinner-party soul'? “I feel like a lot of people don't get me,” she replies. “I don't want to stay in one style. I love soulful music. I love jazz. But if I just did that, I wouldn't be fully myself. “I used to say about my tours that sometimes my face would hurt so much from smiling. Because all my songs are so [happy]. It was beautiful and I'd get to talk to people afterwards and they'd say, 'oh, we fell in love to this', or 'I had my baby to this'. And I'm like –” Rae beams a wide smile. “But I also want to put across another feeling – that snarly, aggressive thing. So when I'm doing Erasure,” she says of a clattering Black Rainbows standout song which is “really hardcore – which I'm relishing doing because I'm wanting to tell that story”.
Equally, I wonder if she’s wanting to tell more of her own story. I interviewed Rae in 2010, around the time of her second album The Sea. It was a deeply moving, deeply powerful response to the death of her first husband, Scottish musician Jason Rae, from an accidental overdose. Then, she told me that she disliked the term “mixed race” but accepted its usefulness as a wide section of people understood it. But when she had been much younger, her preferred term for herself, if forced to say one, was "brown".
I feel myself as being inside Blackness. But I also recognise, in terms of colourism, that I have light-skin privilege
Looking back, does she think she consciously or subconsciously subsumed elements of her Black identity – not least because of the demands placed on her by the major label record industry? “I don't think I subsumed part of my Black identity. But I definitely was consciously holding away certain parts of the things that I thought about and explored. By my third album, I almost didn't need an A&R person because as soon as I would start writing something, I'd say to myself: ‘This is too slow.’ ‘This is too long.’ ‘This isn't about anything universal.’ ‘This isn't catchy.’”
More broadly, too, “I recognise how subjective all the terms are… I feel myself as being inside Blackness. But I also recognise, in terms of colourism, that I have light-skin privilege. I also recognise I am able to code switch and speak these two languages: white working class and white middle class. Even that's a code switch. My mum was a cleaner, but we went to middle class church, and then I went to university.” But ultimately, she concludes, “it’s all me.”
And with the kaleidoscopic brilliance of Black Rainbows, it’s all triumph. As much will be on display in West London this week, with Rae again having chosen a venue and location – Ladbroke Hall in Notting Hill – with resonance to her heritage. “Absolutely,” she says firmly. “I deliberately wanted to play in a space that was more of a Black community place. I do feel that link and that home with Caribbean culture. There's a really strong culture here in Leeds, too,” Corinne Bailey Rae adds pointedly. “It has the oldest West Indian carnival in the world – it's older than Notting Hill!” she laughs.
Black Rainbows is out now. Corinne Bailey Rae plays Ladbroke Hall on 25, 26 and 28 October