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.