Corinne Bailey Rae: 'It was a buzz to hear black girls' stories of how my music helped them'
One year on from her third studio album, soul singer Corinne Bailey Rae talks to Joe Nerssessian about her fondness for live performance and the joy she finds in inspiring young black women through her music
It's been a little over 12 months since Corinne Bailey Rae returned from a six-year hiatus with her third studio album, the colourful The Heart Speaks In Whispers. Since its release, the Leeds-born singer-songwriter has indulged herself in an arduous touring schedule, covering almost every inch of the globe.
"I hadn't played for a while, and after making a record you can feel really insular," she says down the phone from across the Atlantic, having just finished a series of US dates.
"To go back out and play for people was really amazing. I had this new phase where 18 and 19-year-olds were coming to the shows because they had been fans since the first record, when they were just kids.
"I've had this whole wave of really young people at the shows, and they are all saying, 'This is my first time seeing you'."
It's 11 years since Bailey Rae shot to fame, and the considered 38-year-old has been through a fair bit in that time. In 2008, midway through recording The Sea (the follow-up to her million-selling debut), her husband, saxophonist Jason Rae, died from an accidental methadone and alcohol overdose.
She remarried in 2013, getting wed to collaborator and friend Steve Brown, and is naturally guarded on queries about the experience.
"All the changes you go through personally really affect the music you make, and my music on the one hand is personal and the other it comes from my lived experience and the interaction with the world around me," she says.
When she returned to performing with the latest album, Bailey Rae decided to hold meet and greets before shows. It was here she first noticed the abundance of young black girls coming to see her.
"It was such a buzz to hear their stories about me; how they got into the music, what it meant to them over the years, and the different ways the songs have helped them," she says.
"I saw tons of young black girls who really got the message of Put Your Records On, which is specifically a message for black girls about self-love and embracing your natural hair."
It's a message she's keen to continue promoting, notably during an appearance at London's Afropunk Festival later this month.
The event, initially launched in the US in 2005, champions multiculturalism, diversity and celebrates aspects of black culture that are often ignored.
Bailey Rae begged her agent to get her on the second version of the London festival because she "loved the look of it".
"I wanted to play there because I wanted to be there," she laughs.
The two-day event includes a stellar line-up of black artists from the UK and America, including Lianne La Havas, Danny Brown and Thundercat.
It's also a chance for some of the UK's black talent to demand more mainstream attention. They have been doing a fair job of it over the past 12 months, says Bailey Rae.
"We have been building up a presence since the Eighties, and that is symptomatic from something like the Mobos, where they were once for those outside of the mainstream, but right now those artists winning Mobos are also popping up at the Brits, the Grammys and the Mercury," she adds. "It's because young people are forcing the mainstream to play catch-up and recognise that this is what people are listening to.
It's true, too. Skepta was rightfully handed the Mercury Prize, and followed it up with two Ivor Novellos. Boy Better Know recently headlined the Other stage at Glastonbury, and female rappers such as Little Simz and Lady Leshurr are garnering more and more attention across the industry.
All that mainstream success doesn't mean the Mobos are surplus to requirements, however, Bailey Rae, a two-time winner, argues.
"They're still important because they continue to recognise black work even when it falls out of favour with the mainstream, which obviously does happen," she explains.
Turning reflective, she describes her own experience growing up a black woman in the UK as "different and awkward".
"But I've realised that I wasn't alone, and I've been allowed to join my voice with other people who share that, and it makes it a really positive experience," she says.
The singer spent some of her time touring the US during last year's presidential election and has just completed a run of dates down the west coast.
There was a stark difference between black and white-dominated communities in the surprise at Donald Trump's election, Corinne says.
"Most of the black communities weren't really shocked when Trump got in as much as the other communities were," she adds.
"There was more of an awareness of the detachment from empathy from groups of certain people, and I think that's helped him to get in.
"And the self-interest and the idea people have to look after themselves.
"There isn't empathy for the poor or dispossessed, or people who struggle or people with mental health or health problems."
Perhaps surprisingly, it was on tour in South Korea that she felt most at home.
The clash of ancient culture meeting high-tech capitalism sparked an intrigue that she promises will take her back.
Another highlight was performing at a jazz festival in China, where the genre has only been legal since the Nineties.
"It felt like the rebellious music that it is," she says, adding: "Punk and jazz are the opposite ends of the same spectrum because they are both looking for freedom and they give musicians the right to take music in their own directions.
"It's not asking for permission, it's inventing a new space."
- Afropunk London takes place on July 22 and 23 at Printworks. Tickets are on sale http://afropunkfest.com/london/tickets/ now