Corinne Bailey Rae was on a train from London to Leeds as she was handed a phone to answer questions from a reporter she'd never met. Yet as we spoke, she had such an easygoing warmth that, after a few minutes, it was as if we were sitting next to each other, chatting. She didn't sound like a woman who has been on a roller coaster of highs and lows. She had a breakout hit with her breezy, self-titled debut recording, which reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 in 2006 and scored three Grammy nominations. (She's been nominated for a total of four.) In 2008, along with Herbie Hancock, Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, she won the album of the year Grammy for Hancock's River: The Joni Letters.
But all those kudos were overshadowed when her husband died in 2008 from an accidental overdose. The recording that followed in 2010, The Sea, was darker, detailing her roiling emotions as she rebounded from her husband's death. Yet now, on the phone at least, Rae projected a sunny outlook.
She was heading home after a promotional event for her new disc, The Love EP (Capitol), a collection of covers ranging from Bob Marley and Prince to Paul McCartney and Belly. "A business trip," as she described it, with a much thicker British accent than her singing voice betrays. She sounded happy to be heading home. En route, she spoke to The Root about music, food, home and her new iPad.
TR: Why an EP of covers, and why now?
CBR: It arose from the tour I did last year after the release of The Sea. We played in the U.S., all over Europe and Southeast Asia. The band was wonderful! We chose a different tune to do as a cover at different stops on the tour. I wanted to document our work together, so we recorded these tunes.
TR: McCartney's "My Love" took me back; that was kind of a crossover slow jam back in the early '70s.
CBR: Oh! I really wasn't familiar with the song until I heard it at the White House when he did it with a string quartet, and I was really moved by the melody. Then I heard him perform it with Dave Grohl in Liverpool. I really started thinking about how to make it distinctive.
TR: Did you choose "Low Red Moon" by Belly to reflect your early, pre-"Put Your Records On" days as a rocker, when you led the band called Helen?
CBR: Absolutely. [Pause.] Absolutely! Belly! [Pause.] I so loved that group when I was younger. I learned so much about guitar playing from that album [Star]. It's such an amazing song. It's an indie song, so simple, yet so poetic. It's very sophisticated in a unique way.
TR: Does the lighter tone of these covers mark another chapter in your moving on after the death of your husband?
CBR: Definitely. It helps mark the passage of time, and I wanted to communicate a lighter and more playful tone. It is kind of a balance to The Sea, which is very dark and heavy and intense.
TR: You've remained in Leeds rather than moving to London; do you feel more grounded there?
CBR: There's a more genuine bohemian experience in Leeds. London is so expensive that it would be hard to have that there. In Leeds, all my friends from college are still there doing plays and art shows and other things that we've always wanted to do. It's a town like Manchester, a good place to be.
I like London, but I feel like you have to know people to do things and it's always about business. In Leeds, I get to have a big house and cook for all my friends and carry on the same way we all did right after we graduated college.
TR: So when the TV cameras come to your home in Leeds and show Corinne Bailey Rae in the kitchen, what are you going to make to prove your mettle?
CBR: [Long pause.] A stew or something involving an elaborate sauce. I love that kind of cooking where you spend a lot of time meticulously preparing something, then you walk away from it and let it cook slowly for a couple of hours, then eat.
TR: Do you spend much time on the Web?
CBR: Yeah! I have my iPad all the time. I'm always looking at photography. I love it in general, and I'm looking for photographers to work with on album covers and things like that. I love looking at all the fashion sites and seeing all the collections from different designers. And, of course, I love many music sites. I get started, and then look up and it's hours later.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.