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Photography by Marsy HildMake-up by Kay Montano using CHANEL Beauty

 

 

 

CORINNE BAILEY RAE

 

 

Corinne Bailey Rae’s new album Black Rainbows was born of her prolonged encounter with Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, with each track responding to an object or group of objects in the Bank’s sprawling, rich archives. Her first, self-titled album was released in 2006 when she was only 26; the following year it was nominated for three Grammy Awards and three Brit Awards, and won two MOBO Awards. Corinne’s career has been marked by a vocal precision that dips between sweetness and something earthier and lyrics that unfold in an intimate, almost conversational register, underpinned by a lush musical complexity. She spoke to TANK about Black Rainbows and the moment of transition it marks in her already-fluid, ever-changing musical career.

NELL WHITTAKER Tell me about the moment that the album was sparked into being.

CORINNE BAILEY RAE I went to visit the Stony Island Arts Bank when I was on tour in spring 2017. I’d seen this photograph of Theaster Gates, though I didn’t know it was him at the time. Here was this Black artist with this goat-sculpture-thing up behind him on these thin spindly legs, going around on a train track. He had a sign from Harold’s Chicken Shop in the background, an image of a man chasing a chicken with a meat cleaver. I saw this Black man looking out of the photograph with this peaceful expression on his face, which seemed to communicate a huge amount of rested belief in the art that he was making. Who is this person? Where is he coming from, making this work I don’t understand, and in possession of so much solidity? I found out who he was, and I found out about the Arts Bank. Then I was due to play in Chicago and, flying in, I was thinking, I wish I’d told someone I wanted to meet Theaster Gates. I mentioned it to my manager and unbeknownst to me, she found him that day and invited him to the show. I met him after the show and everything just spilled out – I want to see the building, and I know you’re involved in gospel music, and I know that you have this ceramics practice. He let me into the Bank really early the next morning and to me it was like being shown around the chocolate factory by Willy Wonka. It was just tonnes of history and books, and then we’d go to another floor and there were newspaper articles, adverts, objects from America’s complicated past – Mammy Jars, “coloured only” or “whites only” signs, knick-knacks, photographs, postcards, the racist paraphernalia that Ana and Edward J. Williams, a Black couple, had collected as a way to pull them out of circulation. The way that all the various objects in the archive were presented intrigued me as many were hidden away in drawers wrapped in tissue. There was a sense that they could still do harm, and that they had to be handled carefully. I saw a sculpture made from the floorboards of an abandoned police station in Chicago, and it had this violence and beauty, these paint layers that look like they were being peeled or stripped off. Often, the things that bear witness to acts of violence are unspeaking – the walls, floors and windows of the police station, the back of a police car, the firearm. They were fizzing with not just history, but also a contemporary story, a new story. I felt that they were talking to me. When I left, I knew that I was going to write the album.

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NW Writing a record can be a largely solo endeavour, but this must have felt more like performing a kind of channelling.

CBR It did feel like a channelling and so different to anything I’ve made before. So much of mywork has been built from me and my experiences, my loves, my losses. I follow the feminist maxim that the personal is political, and I’ve always felt looking inwards was useful to others. But this was different because these weren’t my stories that I was hearing – you’re hearing a story that wanted to be told, whether that was coming out of my interest in the thing, the thing itself, or a combination of the two.

NW You’re going after these stories and these lives, but it’s necessarily an unfinished and unpredictable process with a degree of distance and an element of pursuit. Were there frustrations, as well as moments of connection, while you were putting together the album?

CBR The element of pursuit is particularly evident as you try to get nearer to historical fact. In some cases, understanding more fully would have required a different type of research. A lot of my investigation has been through instinctive interaction, especially when it comes to photographs. I saw a photograph of a white family going West with a young Black nanny for their child, and the girl is only about 15. I see a mother, a donkey, a baby, and this Black girl. What was her story? Most likely she will be used by that family for a certain amount of time until the child grows and needs looking after in a different way, by someone else. Then what – will she be taken on by another family? The thought of her becoming a young adult out in the West in these new pioneer towns became a romantic song called “Red Horse” about the Black pioneers who went West after the Civil War in search of utopia, which was such a big theme in the archive. People were trying to discover what conditions they needed to experience freedom. Different attempts at building utopia came up against resistance, whether they were separatist, Black-only movements or radically integrationist. There were frustrations but they helped me not to pursue the project from an academic point of view, but to allow my heart and my imagination to unwind.

NW “Red Horse” was the song I was also thinking about in relation to that movement between the known and the unknown because the refrain is: “I wanted to know you.” It’s such a moving and simple way of expressing love for someone or something but it also describes that “looking into” that is at the core of the album.

CBR It is a constant striving. A visual artist might paint the same woman over and over again because they are trying to bring in everything they see, and constantly failing. It felt like something that I was doing in relation to my forebears – my dad’s family is from St Kitts, a Caribbean family of West African descent. The families I was seeing in these photographs might have been kin, as it was often the case that a group of people were taken from one area, but some would be sent to the Caribbean and some to America and some to England, and many would die in the process. There was a splitting up of sister from sister and brother from brother and parents from child, and I wanted a kind of historic healing work, re-linking what’s been lost both in terms of facts and names and stories, but also in terms of lives. I am interested in entangled histories as my mum is English, so in my line there’s no way that I am descended only from the good guys. If I were to dig back in my line, I’d find oppressors and the oppressed, whether that’s in terms of gender or social hierarchy or ethnicity. I can’t be sententious because my history is enmeshed with these difficult subjects.

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NW How does this mix, or this murkiness, translate into the music, beyond the lyrics?

CBR So much of the music-making was wordless, which I only realised when I came to perform recently at the North Sea Jazz Festival and discovered how much choral sound I was making. In the studio, I’d record the bassline or guitar part then I was really just making noise, vocalising, adding layers and layers on. Was this a choir of living people? Is this a choir of dead people? Is this ancestral or angelic, or the voices in my head? I didn’t want it to be overly sophisticated; I wanted it to be hands on a drum and vocals and fingers on strings. I used the small instruments that were so important in Black revolutionary music in the 1970s, going back to tiny bells and cymbals and away from grand gesture. The idea was to express layers of history like bundles of feathers or hair – things that amount to a lot but are made up of tiny parts. Much of the music is like that, made up of layers. With “A Spell, A Prayer” I was thinking about time – is it possible that what we do here now can have any effect on the past? In enslaved people’s lives there were moments of transcendence or escape, an emotional, spiritual, psychic escape, that allowed people to continue, knowing that they would die in the living nightmare of that institution. I began to see that as a lightning strike – a strong image burned into your eye. I like the idea that like us, these people experienced transcendent moments in the birth of a child or sexual union or ecstatic experience. They weren’t so brutalised by experience that they were no longer people. To imagine ourselves into their lives is to continue to imagine our own lives and think about what these moments of freedom would look and feel like. In “A Spell, A Prayer”, that came out not just lyrically but in sound, as I wanted the track to have chaos and ripping and uncertainty during the mixing process as well. We had a hand drum but the way that it came through our mix made it sound like waves, which added another layer about passage and going over the ocean.

NW Where does the album end up landing in terms of genre?

CBR It’s hard to describe! When I went to the Arts Bank, the Johnson Publishing Library was a massive jumble of books. On one shelf, you would get Black pioneers going west, and on another, the rock churches of Lalibela, then you’d get a recipe book, one on masks since the 15th century, an autobiography, a yearbook. With the music, an object or a group of objects would lend me direction for that song and that restriction gave me so much freedom – I can do anything as long as it’s talking to these newspaper articles or these adverts. But what I keep saying to people is, it’s bonkers. That’s how I describe it.

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NW It wears its genres very lightly – it’s not by any means Americana, nor does it overwhelmingly borrow from gospel. It doesn’t follow a prescriptive path.

CBR I didn’t want it to be too literal. I love “New York Transit Queen”, a song based on a photograph of Audrey Smoltz when she won Miss New York Transit in 1954. The image straightaway made me think of a smashy guitar band, because I’d seen loads of photographs like that in the 1990s – I would go to riot grrrl nights when I was in a band like that called Helen. People would repurpose and reuse these photographs and write their band name and the gig date on them. So it looked to me like a flyer from that 1990s era, even though it’s a photograph from 1954, and I was excited to see it because I hadn’t seen many images of Black women from this era; it was all Bettie Page. Then to find out that the woman was now in her 80s and still living in New York was just too good. If you pull one thread, there is a whole unravelling. I was able to interview her, so here I was, this British woman asking, “What was it like to live in Harlem? How did you encounter racism?” But she gave me a different perspective. She said, “We lived in Black space – our teachers were Black, our dentists were Black, our doctors were Black, the bank tellers were Black.” They weren’t at the mercy of racism on an everyday basis. She said, “As children, we lived in a project. We didn’t know we were poor. We had a library in the basement, we had Black art on the walls, and we went to Miss Celia’s finishing school.” It wasn’t the world I had half-imagined for a young Black person in the 1950s in America. Sometimes we can see things so much through the lens of white racism that we don’t see the beauty and colour and dresses and problems and all the stuff that is why you live, all the backwards and forwards, art and literature. The struggle is important, but it’s not the whole picture.

NW It’s a really exuberant song. The 1950s was also really when the teenager was invented, so there was a new scene and a different space that suddenly opened up in society. You too were young when you were in Helen, right?

CBR I was a teenager, allowed in underage to play in bars and pubs. At that time everyone wanted to be Courtney Love, everyone had an allegiance to Nirvana, so everyone was in a band. But at that age it’s all happening at the same time, even in the 1950s. You’re excited to be a teenager and you’re frightened because of what’s happening in global politics. You’re in love with this boy who lives across the street, but you’re not meant to be in this area, because of your ethnicity. It’s a crazy mix, just like life is for us right now, heady and exciting and terrifying and full of hope but also so full of fear. What choice do we have but to really drink it in and not be trapped or incapacitated by our fear? I had my children a few years ago and before that, I was married, but I lost my husband when I was 29. That was like the end of my life as that life was. Everything that happened for me after 2008 was a big stretch of just agony, and then nothing, and then coming back up from under the water and thinking, oh, I’m still alive, and there’s all this stuff to do, and I’m not the one who died. When you’re in a partnership, you work so hard on becoming the same person, and one person dies, it’s like you have, too. I really do get the sense on a daily basis that I’m lucky to have survived this and then to have all this life on top. I wanted to make the record in bravery and hope.

NW At the beginning of our conversation, you said that when you saw that image of Theaster, you were responding to a kind of solidness. Your second album, The Sea [2010], is about movement, being on unstable ground, and that describes a long period of your life. Is this project about seeking out something rooted – even if not predictably so – and a form of presence?

CBR I think it is. When I saw Theaster, that rootedness was a real challenge to me, in terms of making work that you can be really solid about – looking at the work and thinking, this is me, and I stand or fall on the back of this. The Sea had so much pain and brokenness, in such contrast to my first record, that I definitely felt pressure from the people that I was making the record alongside to try to get back to where I was, and that felt really unnatural to me. With this record, I couldn’t ignore the call of that building and when I was making it, it felt like everything was Chicago, everything was those histories, and all the stories were all around me. ◉

 

Black Rainbows is out now.

All make-up by Kay Montano at C/O Management using CHANEL 31 Le Rouge and N°1 de CHANEL Revitalizing Serum. All jewellery by CHANEL Fine Jewellery

Styling: Caroline Issa / Hair: Femi Konteh / Photography assistant: Ella Pavlides