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Corinne Bailey Rae: ‘When my husband died in 2008, it took me a long time to make a new life and stop getting in my own way…’ [Exclusive]

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Corinne Bailey Rae Credit Press 2023

Corinne Bailey Rae is back with her bold new album, ‘Black Rainbows’ – a project that, for the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, has been a long time coming. 

Two decades into her recording career, the latest project from the star is inspired by the objects and artworks collected by Theaster Gates at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, and includes a collection of songs, a book ‘Refraction/Reflection of the Arts Bank’ photographed by Koto Bolofo, live performances, visuals, lectures and exhibitions.

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“This record is really different for me; when I was making it, I always thought of it as a side project,” admits the musician. “I wasn’t thinking about whether people that liked Put Your Records On or Like A Star were going to like it or not. I was actually going to put it out under a different name – it was just going to be its own thing, called ‘Black Rainbows’, without my name on it at all – which made sense to me.”

Why the change of heart? She laughs: “It was only when I saw the album cover and they’d put my name on it that I thought, ‘It looks good on there – just own it!’”

From the rock hewn churches of Ethiopia to the journeys of Black Pioneers westward, from Miss New York Transit 1957 to how the sunset appears from Harriet Jacobs’ loophole, Black Rainbows explores Black femininity, Spell Work, Inner Space/Outer Space, time collapse, ancestors and music as a vessel for transcendence.

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“Seeing this photograph of Theaster in the Arts Bank; this Black man standing in front of all of this contemporary art – a pile of bricks on the floor and a goat on a circular train track – and first of all thinking, ‘What is this art?’ (not knowing much about contemporary art) but also the fact that you don’t see many Black men in those spaces…” she reflects.

“Local people curate this building and make distinct decisions about what’s in it,” she explains. “It went from being a white area to being a Black middle class area to being a Black area where there’s many people who don’t have jobs and have a heavy reliance on the government.”

The Bank also documents the progression of music in the region and includes Frankie Knuckles’ record collection as a pioneer of the Chicago House scene. “It’s Black. It’s queer. Everyone was mixing together and making a new sound, and when [Knuckles] passed away the family left them there,” she shares. “You can see the markings he’s made and you can see tape that he’s put on things. What he’s got three copies of and what he’s got of his own remixes, that he’s never opened. And they’re digitising it. They also have these dance parties where they play from the archive; these wild parties where it’s part museum, part happening. Theaster’s like, ‘We’re gonna have to move this dance party because there’s people having sex in the bathroom!’”

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It’s part of reclaiming an identity and a culture that was suppressed for centuries and while the Arts Bank has an empowering ethos, at its core is a collection of “massive objects of pain” that document that period in time; a selection of negrobilia – including derogatory images, postcards and problematic objects – acquired from auctions and yard sales and taken out of circulation. 

“They have this issue of, ‘How do we show these objects?’, because you don’t just want to line them all up and then say to the community, ‘Come and have a look at this horrendous collection of distorted images of Blackness’,” reflects the musician. “When I first went, everything was wrapped up in drawers and kept really carefully, which puts it in a different context. Objects that have been made for white amusement by white artists are now in this Black space where they’re being kept away, and as I was walking around it was almost like all these things were telling their stories.”

Reflecting on the project, which has been “an obsession for six or seven years”, Corinne has several other songs in the vault that are “closer to what she’s done” in the past, but believes now is the time to unleash her statement piece. 

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“With my last record, it was all soulful and ballads and people said, ‘Oh, we love it and it’s nice’, but I wanted to make something that was noisy and to signal that this was a different record for me,” she says. “I feel like this is the right time for me to be doing something like this. I’ve always shared a lot of the things I’ve been feeling, inadequacy and all of those things, through my music. 

“When my husband died in 2008, it was kind of like my life was over and it took me a long time to make a new life and stop getting in my own way. Now I’ve been able to shed that feeling and be a bit more kind to myself, because I’m still here, I’ve had my kids and it feels like the right time for me to be doing something which is about freedom.”

Read the full interview in the October 2023 edition of RETROPOP, out now. Order yours or subscribe via our Online Store, use our Store Finder to locate your nearest stockist, or get Digital Copies delivered direct to your devices.

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