Corinne Bailey Rae on Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank, festivals, and her latest album 'Black Rainbows'

Festivals Corinne Bailey Rae: Over The Rainbow

Having triumphantly returned with one of last year’s biggest musical curveballs, Corinne Bailey Rae is now gearing up to bring the full spectrum of ‘Black Rainbows’ to new stages and new generations.

When Corinne Bailey Rae initially announced her fourth studio album, ‘Black Rainbows’, in 2023, it had been seven years since her last solo outing (2016’s ‘The Heart Speaks In Whispers’). As well as becoming a mother and pursuing various other musical endeavours (she’s credited as a co-writer on Al Green’s 2022 ‘Soul Legend’ LP), much of this time was spent not creating, but consuming. More specifically, learning as much as she could about Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank - an expansive and hugely rich archive of Black history curated by the artist Theaster Gates. Such was Corinne’s connection to and fascination with the collections, they became the core around which ‘Black Rainbows’ was formed - a project which musically spans punky garage-rock (‘New York Transit Queen’; Erasure’), experimental jazz (the title track), synth-driven electronica (‘Earthlings’) and more. Meanwhile in practice, it’s incorporated a book, a series of lectures, and live performances everywhere from NYC jazz clubs to Ivy League universities. Basically, this is Corinne Bailey Rae as we’ve never seen her before.

And now, just over six months since the album’s release, Corinne is relishing the prospect of a new ‘Black Rainbows’-coloured challenge: festivals. With slots at Glastonbury, We Out Here, Latitude and more on the cards - not to mention a turn supporting Chaka Khan at Warwick Castle and a return to her hometown for Live At Leeds In the Park - she’s ready to don her wellies and get stuck in. Just don’t expect a 2006 tribute set: Britain’s unpredictable summer weather is perfect for rainbows, after all.

You’ve spoken about how you originally thought of ‘Black Rainbows’ as a ‘side project’. At what point in the years-long process of creating it did you realise that it was going to be the next Corinne Bailey Rae album?

It was really late in the day. The record is really different [to previous CBR albums], because it's all inspired by these objects and events from the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago - it’s not pulled from my personal experience, you know? And then musically, I knew that it was really diverse, or divergent; I knew that there were these sort of punk songs on there, that there was this ballad, and all this squelchy synthy stuff, and some more beats… they were just really different to what I had done before. And I think the reason I thought of this as a side project is because when I was making it, I didn't think about - or didn't want to have to think about - what people would think of it or how people would relate to it, based on what I have done historically. I wanted it to be really free; it really has been my obsession for the past seven years.

Another thing that made me realise it was my own record was when we got back the cover artwork. I had told the artist the record was called ‘Black Rainbows’, but I hadn't told him not to put my name on it. He had written it in this kind of stretchy, strange, hand-lettered way, and I saw my name and thought ‘you know what, this IS my record’. It’s funny, when you're an artist and you use your own name, you're so used to it being kind of frozen or ossified in a font that becomes your logo. So in my head, I'd almost become detached from it being my own name, but then when I saw it in this fluid writing I thought ‘it’s just my name, not a brand. It could be anything, in any way.’” That idea of the self as a brand is really uncomfortable to me.

Given you made that decision once the bulk of the album had already been created, was there an absence of pressure to keep active on social media with recording updates and the like?

Exactly - I didn’t do any of that. It sort of makes me feel like I'm hollowed out in my stomach. The creative process for me is really internal and so singularly focused; it’s not pretty. When you go out on tour, there’s the hair and makeup and clothes, and it’s a SHOW. When I’m working, my hair’s in a bun, I may or may not be wearing a dressing gown, I may or may not have had a shower. Because I just want to get straight on this thing, this idea that’s exciting; I haven’t got time for breakfast because I want to see if I can get this second verse right! I need to get to this building because I want to look through these newspaper articles!

Post-release, how have you found the reception to the record? Have you found that other aspects of the project - its accompanying book, and your lectures and live performances - have enriched people’s understanding of, or connection to, the music?

I think it's really helped. I was OVERJOYED with the critical response to the record, but [the project] isn’t done for me, because I’m still really interested in the subject matter. So the fact that I've got to speak - at Yale, Spelman, and Columbia - with academics in Black diaspora studies, or art history, or music… that’s so interesting, because I’m still processing all the stuff I saw in [the Stony Island Arts Bank]. There's still so much to read, and there's an essay I want to write; I’d like to keep being involved with it. In terms of how that helps people to understand [‘Black Rainbows’], I think it's just showing all these different aspects of the rich history in that building, and demonstrating how you can reflect on it in all these different ways.

It strikes us as a project that will perhaps never be completely finished - it’s ever-evolving, and an album whose meaning (perhaps more than most records’) is shaped by the listeners’ individual responses to it.

Absolutely. People see different things in it; because they're not my stories, and it’s more me interrogating [these stories], there’s so much more to respond to. So yeah, I definitely feel like it’s a life's project, really.

Corinne Bailey Rae on Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank, festivals, and her latest album 'Black Rainbows' Corinne Bailey Rae on Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank, festivals, and her latest album 'Black Rainbows'

“I was overjoyed with the critical response to the record, but the project isn’t done for me.”

‘Black Rainbows’ is obviously grounded in the past, but it also seems to draw a thread from these various historical periods to the present day, and reflects on how the themes and experiences it explores are still very resonant today. Was this something you wanted to make quite overt in the video for ‘He Will Follow You With His Eyes’? [A track inspired by 20th century beauty products aimed at Black women].

Yeah, it really was. When I first came across the bold nature of a 1940s advert linking a lightened skin colour or a straight hair texture with this direct benefit - like bringing you love or getting you a job - I realised those things were true, because you were more likely to be seen as attractive in the dominant culture of the time. But it’s so complex; it’s not like ‘oh, these people were sell-outs, why didn’t they just rock their natural hair in 1940 when they were going for a job as a secretary?’. It’s a kind of survival technique, that assimilation. So it’s not a straightforward relationship I have with [those beauty products] - I’m not just mocking or damning them.

With the music, I wanted to leap [between time periods]; it’s ‘50s and dreamy and bossa nova, and then has this kind of sonic rupture to beats and synths and a more stylised voice. And I really wanted to do this with the video too - we just wanted to be in our contemporary, diverse Blackness, which doesn’t have the same rules because there aren't the same social disadvantages that come from expressing yourself. It’s a really freeing sort of self-identification that just wasn’t possible 100 years ago.

Do you feel like the process of making ‘Black Rainbows’ taught you more about yourself as a person and artist, as well as about our contemporary society?

I think it taught me all those things. It taught me loads about myself as an artist - that I’m most comfortable and inspired when I'm left to my own devices, when I don't feel any particular pressure over what it's got to be, or when it's got to happen, or that it’s got to look a certain way. But it also taught me a lot about myself because when you’re looking through 6000 objects or 26,000 books, of course you're going to be led by your own eye. So I saw my own prejudices; I really wanted to hear about women's stories, about the lives of children and mothers. It was during that time that I was trying to get pregnant and then having these babies, so I was interested in questions of motherhood. I’m still learning about it all the time, and that’s why I think I’ll never be done with it.

Do you think that the reception to ‘Black Rainbows’ - both critically and commercially - has almost proved a point? That people have connected with it so much because of its authenticity, and because it's not necessarily chasing a chart number one?

I think the subject matter is just interesting to anyone who's interested in people, and I've been really heartened by that. When I first started doing the work, that was at the tipping point in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement; what that movement did was make a wider range of people more aware of systemic racism, and of the fact that we weren’t all hearing Black stories because whoever were the gatekeepers thought these stories were niche, or not relevant to everyone. So it's good to know that in this historic moment, people can hear these stories and think ‘these are people's stories; these are women's stories; these are children's stories’. Not ‘this is a specific area of Black history that has nothing to do with us if we’re not Black’. I also think it's good that people can see I'm not just trying to get a radio smash - although if a song came to me that sounded like one, I would happily bring it to the world!

“I’ve been away from home and learned lots and grown, and I want to bring it back. When you’re back in your hometown, you’re all the years you’ve ever been.”

Given that ‘Black Rainbows’ is so expansive and sonically diverse, how have you found the process of translating its performance to a live setting?

It's been so much fun. I'm really lucky that the person I produced the record with - Steve Brown - is running the live stuff as well, so he's been really keen on keeping the more wild, improvisational, live happenings. You should see what we're like at the airport - our excess baggage is crazy! But we're bringing so much on tour because we want to be able to make crazy synth sounds, or process the drums in real time so they sound distorted, like Portishead sampling an Isaac Hayes record. All the musicians in the band have this wide interest in music, and a lot of them are self-taught. I think that helps because we’re not institutionalised, you know? We don’t really believe in genre, which is really good for performing this record.

How will the ‘Black Rainbows’ shows feel different on a festival stage this summer, as opposed to, say, the intimate residency you recently did at Blue Note Jazz Club in New York?

Much as I loved Blue Note, it was very, very intimate. And sometimes when we’d get large, I’d think ‘gosh, this is quite a small room - are people getting deafened?’ So I’m loving the fact that we’re getting to do all these festivals - We Out Here, Glastonbury, playing with Chaka Khan. To just be on a big stage and be able to stalk around, to build these more immersive textures where we can let the guitars feedback and alter the delay and build up chaos… that’s really what you can do at a festival. Although, during the first song you’re usually still slightly sound-checking!

And you’re playing Live At Leeds In the Park - not only is this a hometown show, but it’ll also see you perform ‘Black Rainbows’ in full!

I think playing in my hometown is sort of contentious, because in this project I feel like I'm bringing a lot of mystery: ‘it’s me, but not how you’ve seen me before’. But Leeds are like: ‘we know you, we know where you buy your groceries, and you’re not mysterious to us’. So I have to remember to leave all that sort of thing at the door. And I also have to remember to not think that I should just be playing ‘Put Your Records On’ and all my best known music - I want to show people what I’ve been doing! I’ve been away from home and learned lots and grown, and I want to bring it back. It will be a more emotional show, but it’ll be good; when you’re back in your hometown, you’re all the years you’ve ever been, and you have to unite them in some way.

Live At Leeds tends to have a reputation for being a great festival for younger people too - how would it / does it feel to be introducing your music to a whole new generation, who perhaps didn’t grow up with your debut album?

We played a festival in Adelaide recently where the audience were all really young, and it became really clear that they didn’t know my first album at all. All they know is ‘Put Your Records On’, then they’re kind of open to anything else. So I think Live At Leeds might be a bit like that as well; it’ll be more fulfilling to just play the thing I’m really excited about… plus ‘Put Your Records On’.

Are there any other artists at festivals you’re playing who you’re particularly excited about seeing?

I never know who's on! Obviously, we're supporting Chaka Khan, and that’s so amazing. I like Noname - I think she’s playing on the same stage that we are at Glastonbury, so that would be good to see. But otherwise, the thing I love to do most is open up the programme and go ‘ah, this person’s playing!’. I always just turn up, find out where our sound check is, then go to shows. Or after [our set] is even better, because we’ve done our thing and I don’t have to worry about losing my voice by cheering!

‘Black Rainbows’ is out now.

Corinne Bailey Rae plays Live at Leeds In The Park (25th May) where DIY is an official media partner. Tickets are on sale now. Visit diymag.com/festivals for more information.

Tags: Corinne Bailey Rae, Live at Leeds in the Park, Festivals, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

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