4 to Watch: Corinne Bailey Rae

The student becomes the teacher

Music Features Corinne Bailey Rae
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Hometown: Leeds, England
Fun fact: Rae trades in tales of heartbreak on her eponymous Capitol debut, but she’s been happily married to a professional sax player for four years. “So my songs aren’t strictly autobiographical,” she clarifies. “It’s not like I’m secretly saying, ‘By the way, it’s time to pack your bags!’”
Why she’s worth watching: Her laidback, soulful album just hit #1 on the U.K. charts. Even mega-buzz band The Arctic Monkeys have sworn fanboy allegiance.
For fans of: Madeleine Peyroux, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu

It was a quirky path to fame for 26-year-old ex-English-lit major Corinne Bailey Rae.

She didn’t hone her craft on Britain’s requisite pub or coffeehouse circuit like most young artists—instead, she learned the ropes working shifts as a hat-check girl. How did she swing it? Easy, chortles Rae, who was fortunate enough to get hired by one of Leeds’ hippest jazz/blues nightspots.

Rae had already attempted a music career (with ill-fated alt-folk combo Helen) when a lounge crooner invited her onstage that first fateful night. She waffled, then timidly accepted. Rae only knew a few standards—she chose “God Bless The Child.” The experience was transforming. “I just loved it and I didn’t want it to end,” she says. “I didn’t even give the band enough space to do a solo—I kept racing into the next verse, the next chorus. I had a lot to learn.” Which she soon did, from countless jazz and R&B acts passing through—“people who were just leagues ahead of me, musically, but who didn’t have a massive ego and were happy to put aside some of their time for me.” Quick-study Rae became the club’s main draw.

In her own songs—lilting ballad “Like A Star,” midtempo groover “Put Your Records On” and the Teitur-cowritten “Choux Pastry Heart”—Rae now employs a new space-conscious restraint, giving her fluttery vocals and delicate guitar-work room to breathe. And just like her anonymous tutors, she remains unusually humble about her chart-topping coup. “I’ve been naturally limited by my own lack of skills,” Rae describes her allure. “And the only songs I can really play on guitar are my own.”