How are you doing, New York?” asks British singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae, welcoming the audience to a December performance at Manhattan’s Hiro Ballroom. ”It’s good to see you after all this…” She pauses, unsure how to proceed, before settling on a throwaway ”…all this time.” Over the next hour or so, Bailey Rae and her band will perform songs that are often full of yearning, heartbreak, and desolation. But none of them are quite as poignant as that initial pause, that brief catch in the throat, during which Bailey Rae, 30, faced the impossible task of summing up what she’s been through since her husband, Jason Rae, died from an accidental drug overdose in March 2008 at the age of 31. At a Manhattan hotel a couple of days after the show, Bailey Rae explains the emotion behind her onstage hesitation. ”[Jason’s death] is this massive crack, or fissure,” she says. ”It’s like my whole life is on that side, and there’s only been 20 months of this new life, of mostly just being crushed.”
It comes as little shock, then, that the singer’s new album, The Sea (out Jan. 26), is a rather different beast from her debut, 2006’s double-platinum-selling pop-soul disc Corinne Bailey Rae, which earned three Grammy nominations and won her a slot performing with John Mayer and John Legend at the 2007 ceremony. The Sea is full of tunes packing an intensity and musical adventurousness that might surprise those who know Bailey Rae only from her breezy breakthrough single, ”Put Your Records On.” ”I wanted The Sea to be more aggressive,” she says. ”I wanted to move more air.”
Corinne Bailey fell for Jason Rae when she was 19. They met at a jazz club in her native Leeds, where she was working in the cloakroom to support herself while studying English at the local university. Jason, a professional saxophonist, asked her out, but she demurred — she had a boyfriend. Later she agreed to see his funk group, the Haggis Horns. She was blown away. The pair soon began dating, and a few years later they got married. Bailey Rae had spent her teen years fronting an all-female alt-rock band called Helen, but thanks to her new husband’s vast vinyl collection, she started expanding her musical palette. ”He knows so much more about music than I do,” says the singer, who still often refers to Jason in the present tense. ”I was suddenly living in this house with rows and rows of records and getting to explore them. Like, I hadn’t heard Cannonball Adderley. I hadn’t heard much hip-hop. It was amazing to be around that kind of musical presence.”
Bailey Rae’s songwriting began to develop and absorb those new influences, and eventually she scored a deal in the U.K. with EMI. ”She played a show and just did two songs, but it was like, ‘Wow!”’ recalls Matthew Rumbold, the A&R executive who signed her. ”I remember thinking, ‘I don’t care if she doesn’t sell one record. This is a brilliant singer and a brilliant performer.”’ In fact, 2006’s Corinne Bailey Rae topped the U.K. charts in its first week of release and sold just shy of 2 million copies in the U.S.
In November 2007, Bailey Rae started working on a follow-up album. She recruited Roots drummer Ahmir ”?uestlove” Thompson and his producing partner, James Poyser, to oversee some early recording sessions. ”She said, ‘I really want to push the envelope,”’ recalls ?uestlove. ”I was like, ‘You sure? You’ve got a good thing going.’ She said, ‘Yeah! Let’s go for it!”’ Bailey Rae’s determination to stretch herself was evident in what would become the album’s title track, an epic, grief-laden ballad that was the first song she wrote for the CD. ”The sea, the majestic sea,” Bailey Rae sings on the chorus, ”Breaks everything/Crushes everything/Cleans everything/Takes everything from me.” It would not be long before those words took on a new and terrible meaning.
On Friday, March 21, 2008, Bailey Rae went out, leaving Jason at the house they shared in Leeds. When she returned later in the day, he wasn’t there. ”I just thought he’d gone out and stayed at this friend’s house,” she said. ”Which is what had happened. But, of course, there’d been this other fact as well.” Jason had made the tragic, drunken error of sampling methadone belonging to his friend, a recovering heroin addict. ”He’s really curious like that,” says Bailey Rae. ”It’s like, you’ve had some wine, and then you sort of think, ‘Oh, I wonder what this will do.’ All our friends were like, ‘It doesn’t seem like enough to [cause his death].’ It’s just so unbelievably simple to die.” The coroner ultimately ruled Jason’s death a ”misadventure.” ”I spent a long time obsessing about that day, over and over and over and over,” she says. ”You can’t really accept that it’s happened. You’re like, ‘How can I get into that day and fix it so it doesn’t happen? How can I tell him not to do that?”’
Bailey Rae put the half-completed Sea aside, unable to contemplate a musical future — or a future at all. ”I didn’t write anything for ages,” she says. ”I couldn’t think of anything. Everything was just a total blank. I didn’t think about, obviously, my career. All of that seemed pointless, meaningless.” But she did find some comfort in playing guitar around the house, and by the end of 2008, she realized that she had begun to ”narrate” her strummings. Eventually, she found herself writing full songs. One of the first was ”Are You Here,” in which the narrator’s partner ultimately returns to ”lay me down” in a bed of tuberose flowers. ”I’d gone into this posh flower shop and there was this massive bunch of tuberoses,” she says. ”It was so intoxicating and really sensual. There is that experience of this overwhelming, sensual, sexual thing that’s part of love. It’s all-consuming. And I just thought, ‘That’s the song.”’
At the start of 2009, Bailey Rae returned to the studio to record ”Are You Here” and other songs she’d penned following Jason’s death. She finished the album last fall. While The Sea is undoubtedly intense, Bailey Rae thinks it is also ultimately hopeful. And today, the singer does seem generally upbeat. Still, she admits she is on a ”very long” journey, and there are times when she seems overwhelmed. ”Before, Jason would be on tour and I’d be on tour, but I felt connected to him,” says Bailey Rae, whose late husband played with producer-performer Mark Ronson, among others. ”So there is a part of it that’s like, well, why is this any different? I guess the main difference is you don’t have any future,” she says, wiping away a tear. ”I’m really trying to work out what it means. I’m really, really trying to work out what it means.”