Corinne Bailey Rae Brings Neo-Soul To Memorial Hall Next Week

The Grammy-winning musician brings her new album to one of Cincinnati’s legacy venues just days before it releases.
Corinne Bailey Rae's new album "Black Rainbows" releases September 15.

Because Corinne Bailey Rae’s September 12 concert at Memorial Hall comes just three days ahead of the release of her Black Rainbows, attendees will get a preview of a musically inventive and daring album that the British singer-songwriter hopes will be a conversation starter about race in America.

Bailey Rae is best known for her expressively jazzy voice; with its seemingly relaxed fluidity, she turned 2006’s “Put Your Records On” into an international hit. For Black Rainbows, the Grammy winner’s first studio album since 2016 and just her fourth overall, she has collaborated with Theaster Gates, one of the U.S.’s most important contemporary artists. Gates is well-known for the Stony Island Arts Bank, his museum and library in Chicago’s South Side that houses archival collections related to Black history.

“I had never heard of him before but I saw a photograph of this Black man staring out, and around him were his objects of contemporary art,” Bailey Rae says during a Zoom interview.

She remembers well her fascination with the collection of objects around Gates: a pile of bricks on the floor; a shaggy goat that, instead of having legs, had spindles and was going around a circular train track; a big store sign for Harold’s Chicken with a chef chasing after a chicken with a meat cleaver.

“He was staring at the camera with this confidence and calm self-possession as if saying, Yes, this is my art,” she says. “And I thought, I don’t understand this work; I don’t know who this man is. So, I looked into him.”

When she played Chicago in 2017, she invited Gates to attend the show. He, in turn, invited her to see the Stony Island Arts Bank and, after her initial visit, spend more time there. She was fascinated by its various collections relating to Black culture—books and periodicals from Johnson Publishing Company, owner of Ebony and Jet magazines for the African American market; the 5,000 or so vinyl records collected by Frankie Knuckles, a champion of Chicago’s dance-oriented house music, and the stereotypical and racist images collected by Edward J. Williams.

“I was inspired especially by the narratives of enslaved people, and thinking about my own history,” she says. Although born in Leeds, England, her father was from Saint Kitts and his father from Antigua—both of which are islands in the West Indies where the British enforced slavery.

All this influenced her music when it was time to start writing and recording the 10 songs on Black Rainbows. She’s excited by what she created while working to translate her thoughts and feelings about Gates’ Arts Bank into her own compelling vision.

The opener, “A Spell, A Prayer” builds slowly with spare, isolated chords interacting with hypnotically methodical rhythms that sound like footsteps. She starts singing slowly, softly; her voice cushioned by back-up support. Tension soon develops as other instruments join the mix and start to convey a spacey feeling. Then the band chimes in with it a triumphant punch.

“It was inspired by my reading in the Johnson Publishing library, especially the narratives of enslaved people and thinking about my own history,” she explains. “I thought, what would it mean to remove the pain or trauma from a particular ancestral limb—what would it mean for the descendants of those people?

“I thought I’d write a song about the extent that a person held in captivity could experience freedom. I thought for enslaved people there must have been transcendent moments, and those were things that kept them hopeful. I think that idea sustains me when I think about the trauma and suffering.”

The mid-tempo “Red Horse” is tender, with Bailey Rae’s voice conveying empathy for the song’s subject. The gorgeous melody, holding steady amid a wash of synthesizers, builds toward reverie as voices repeat, “You’re the one that I’ve been waiting for.”

“That came from a photograph I saw of a Black girl wearing a white dress and she had on a straw hat,” she says. “She’s with a family, a white family, and the mother, I think, is sitting on a horse and has a baby in her arms. They’re a pioneer family going west just before the Civil War. I thought about their lives and I was looking at the weight of responsibility on this little black girl. She’s going to be looking after a one-year-old and she herself is 13 or 14 or 15. Who will she meet on this journey? I was imagining a sort of romance for her.”

“New York Transit Queen” is a departure from some of the more lushly arranged and produced Black Rainbows songs. It’s a rush of fast-paced, clangorous excitement. As her voice shouts the lyrics, the sound comes close to being pure slamming punk.

“That came from a specific moment looking at Ebony Magazine,” Bailey Rae says, explaining that in 1954 it ran a photo of a black woman who held that title.I researched Miss Transit and I found out that Miss Subways was a beauty competition run by the New York Subway and these Doris Day types were winning. It wasn’t open to Black women. So the Black workers in the transit authority got together and made their own competition, and this is what Audrey Smaltz won in 1954. She was 6 feet tall, in a bathing suit, hanging off the back of a fire truck with a fireman’s boots on.”

Finding and interviewing Smaltz, who’s now in her eighties, Bailey Rae came to realize the woman’s 1954 photograph set the tone for the “incredible” life that followed, and tied in with part of her past, too.

“I saw from [the photograph] that she was just this rebel girl and a hellraiser, and it really made me think of the Riot Grrrl sound,” she says. “In the 1990s, I was in an indie band called Helen and they would often use these cheesecake images on a poster and put a feminist slogan on it inviting you out to an all-girl band night.”

This interview occured before Bailey Rae’s Black Rainbows tour started, but wants the songs to sound different live than they do on the album, and has already planned out how to do so with the four other musicians joining her on tour. “We want the show to be expansive and cosmic and improvisational, as well as to play elements of all the songs on the record,” she says. “We’re working to include some technologies so you get to hear strings, and get some things that start with Beatboxes or use prayer bowl or choral arrangements. Of course, we want it to be live and to be able to stop on a sixpence and repeat something or do extra choruses. We want to make it grand but also make it fluid.”

Corinne Bailey Rae will appear at Memorial Hall at 8 p.m. September 12 with opener John Muq. Her new album, Black Rainbows, releases on September 15.

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