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It's a Tuesday evening, and local radio station 101.5 FM is playing Corinne Bailey Rae's smash single "Girl Put Your Records On" for the umpteenth time. It's the only song that most American audiences know her by, but she's touring the States all summer long trying to change that. The 27-year-old British chanteuse already has a substantial fan base back home, but it's here in the birthplace of soul music where the longevity of her career will most likely be determined. It's precisely this type of challenge that the singer from Leeds, England, whose self-titled debut was nominated for three Grammys last year (including Song of the Year for "Girl Put Your Records On"), has prepared for since she started singing professionally.
"What a lot of people in England appreciate about soul," the guitar-playing songstress says via cell phone from her tour bus in Chicago, "is kind of the late '60s and the early '70s, acts from Motown, acts like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield and Nina Simone and Al Green and Bill Withers. There's a lot of people who identify with soul music 'proper,' as they would term it, rather than the kind of R&B Americans sing now, which a lot of people don't really relate to. A lot of the clubs in England play soul proper," she explains. "People don't go with Afro wigs or flares on or anything, but they go because they love the music and they identify with it and because the songs have a lot of meaning."
Intent on putting out songs that last and mean something to people, Rae, who says she grew up with "guitar music" in one room and "Aretha Franklin and all that stuff" in another, determined that there had to be someplace in between to express what she wanted to say. Indeed, Rae's music sounds alternately like lite rock, lite soul, and lite jazz, but it's definitely "lite" and easy on the ears, which, in this stressful world, many find comforting. Though her voice can also be enchanting, like fellow guitar goddess India Arie, the real basis for Rae's success is not so much her voice or singing ability as her ability to craft a song.
"When I first started working on the album, I was looking for that perfect writing partner," Rae says. "But in the end, I worked with a lot of different people, and I didn't think I really needed to find someone to complement me. I have more experience writing on my own, since I was in a band before [all-female rock outfit Helen], and I wrote all the songs there."
Capitol Records this month released a Live in New York/London DVD/CD set, replicating the track listing on Rae's debut but adding a few new songs.
"The new songs are songs I and a lot of musicians have come up with on the road," she says. "There's a song that we're playing live at the moment which I love called 'No Love Child' that a friend of mine wrote. I think I might put that on the second album, but I'm not sure yet what we're using. After this tour, I'm going to go away for a long time and take a look at what we've been doing and decide."
For now, she's opening for pianist and singer/songwriter John Legend. It wasn't something she'd necessarily planned, but the chance came up at the last minute, so she agreed.
"People in England like him a lot," she says. "I saw him first a couple of years ago, and I'm really into both albums. What I like about John Legend is that he doesn't always do what's expected of him. He's not in this kind of 'hip-hop/R&B mold,'" she says, sounding a little annoyed by the term. "I can really appreciate what's going on in America, but I like people that are doing things that are unconventional and unexpected and are not limited.You can tell that [Legend] likes Latin music, and he likes Burt Bacharach, and the song that he does at the end of the night could be a Doors record or Jimi Hendrix song. I like when people don't feel like they have to follow through on what they did on their first record."
Though Rae's music is regularly played on middle-of-the-road radio stations, it's the road less traveled, she says, that inspires her.
"I definitely consider myself an outsider and thankfully," she adds. "The 'inside' is not somewhere that I want to be; a lot of those particular values I don't share. At home, I'm part of a community that's thoughtful and intellectual, and it's not about having a lot of money, and it's not about being successful in certain commerce. It's about being honest and true to yourself, spiritual things."