ROARING, NOT WHISPERING

Singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae's latest work takes her soulful R&B in a new and defiant direction, shaped by skills she learned at Leeds.

After graduating from Leeds, Corinne Bailey Rae (English 2000; Hon DMus 2011) lived the life of a struggling musician, gigging whenever she could, while working at the Clock Café in Hyde Park. One evening some of my old teachers came in,” she recalls. “I felt slightly humbled as they'd had high hopes for me.”

Those hopes were eventually realised, as her self-titled 2006 album reached number one in the UK, almost all its songs received heavy airplay and the single Put Your Records On was nominated for two Grammy Awards. The album remained in the US Billboard 200 for more than 18 months and was followed by critically acclaimed studio albums The Sea (2010) and The Heart Speaks in Whispers (2016).

In 2011 she returned to campus to receive an honorary doctorate. "That was such a special honour,” she says.

Her success is partly down to a lifelong devotion to music. Leeds-born Corinne never considered studying beyond her home town. “I was in a band with two girls who were the year below me at school. We had loads of gigs lined up.”

Those commitments – and working in the city’s Underground bar – impacted on Corinne’s studies: “Sometimes I was working until 4am and then had an exam at 9. I always felt I under-performed. I got a 2:1, but should have got a First. I worked because I needed the money, but I was disorganised and always seemed to be racing towards a deadline.”

Even so, Corinne looks back fondly on her student life: “I tried new food and new experiences and met so many people who are still my friends. It's where you go from being a child to an adult and realize you have to spend your own money on toothpaste and toilet roll.”

She soaked up musical influences: “The Underground had a Motown night and a Northern Soul night. Music was so different back then, DJs would have lots of vinyl rather than just downloading tracks. And I loved the way the mods were like a sect, the way they dressed and danced and even the way they held their cigarettes.

“We honed our skills as musicians by playing places like Joseph’s Well and the Duchess of York. If you saw people going to the bar during a song, you’d know they weren't that interested. So it's where I learned to become engaged with the audience.”

Corinne's fourth album Black Rainbows is a departure from the sound she was best known for

Corinne's fourth album Black Rainbows is a departure from the sound she was best known for

The new direction was inspired by an exhibition at Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago

The new direction was inspired by an exhibition at Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago

“It helped me understand how racialised thinking was so widespread and normalised in the US."

“It helped me understand how racialised thinking was so widespread and normalised in the US."

"It was almost like seeing the civil rights struggle from the inside."

"It was almost like seeing the civil rights struggle from the inside."

Corinne profile image

On Corinne's new album, one reviewer said: “She’s not whispering, she’s roaring.”

On Corinne's new album, one reviewer said: “She’s not whispering, she’s roaring.”

Corinne speaks to the crowd at the Leeds alumni event
Corinne sat down, laughing on stage at the Leeds alumni event
Corinne sings into the microphone, holding a guitar

Corinne returned to campus in November to talk about her life and work and perform extracts from her new album. “I feel a strong connection to Leeds,” she told the audience in the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall.

Corinne returned to campus in November to talk about her life and work and perform extracts from her new album. “I feel a strong connection to Leeds,” she told the audience in the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall.

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Corinne speaks to the crowd at the Leeds alumni event
Corinne sat down, laughing on stage at the Leeds alumni event
Corinne sings into the microphone, holding a guitar

Corinne returned to campus in November to talk about her life and work and perform extracts from her new album. “I feel a strong connection to Leeds,” she told the audience in the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall.

Corinne returned to campus in November to talk about her life and work and perform extracts from her new album. “I feel a strong connection to Leeds,” she told the audience in the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall.

Nearly two decades after Corinne’s breakthrough first album, her latest work is a massive departure from the sound she was best known for. Her fourth album Black Rainbows is guitar-powered, distortion-heavy, and politicised. One reviewer said: “She’s not whispering, she’s roaring.”

The new direction was inspired by an exhibition at Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago exploring black history through a vast collection of books, magazines, objects and photographs. “It helped me understand how racialised thinking was so widespread and normalised in the US. It was almost like seeing the civil rights struggle from the inside.

“On this record, more than ever, I've been able to use the critical thinking and analysis that I learned on my course at Leeds to respond to that collection in writing the songs. It has been great to go back to the States to perform them, including in Chicago. It felt very relevant to be in those spaces.”

Corinne returned to campus in November to talk about her life and work and perform extracts from her new album. “I feel a strong connection to Leeds,” she told the audience in the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall.