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Corinne Bailey Rae’s meteoric rise

British soul singer with sultry sound has roots in rock
MUSIC CORINNE BAILEY RAE
Singer Corinne Bailey Rae is photographed in New York on June 19, 2006.Jim Cooper / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

While most singers would give their right arm to be mentioned in the same breath as jazz great Billie Holiday, for British newcomer Corinne Bailey Rae, the constant comparisons to Lady Day — while flattering — can get a little frustrating.

"There was a really big backlash in the British press when my album first came out," the 27-year-old said of her self-titled debut, recently released in the United States.

"Someone reviewed the whole thing and was like, 'This does not sound like Billie Holiday! Billie Holiday would never sing a song like this!' And I'm kind of like, well, you missed the point, really!"

The point is that while the Rae's sultry, scratchy vocals may bear an eerie resemblance to the jazz legend, the singer-songwriter has her own identity, and her own sound — and it's made her a critical success, not only in her native land, but in the United States as well.

"I won this poll thing in England about predictions, and it was all these journalists and reporters trying to say that I was going to be big in '06," said Rae. "My name was at the top of their list. I was like, are you sure you've got the right person?"

They did. In March she became the first female British artist to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's U.K. album chart, and the album's worldwide sales already exceed 1 million copies, thanks to feel-good hits like the celebratory groove "Put Your Records On" and the sweet-nectared jam "Like a Star."

And now that she's conquered Europe, the United States is next on her hit list — or not.

"I don't really feel pressure to be a big success here," said the comely Rae, whose face is framed by an unruly mop of curls. "I don't think, like, 'I've got to sell so many records here, or so many records there.' That's the record label's job. They've got to worry about how were doing in Kazakhstan or Germany. My job is just to write and sing."

A natural musician
It's a job she's taken seriously since she was just a teen. Back then, instead of soulful pop with a jazzy twist, rock was her genre of choice. At 14, Rae — already classically trained as a violinist — created a rock band called Helen, a four-girl, one-boy grunge band deeply influenced by rock gods Led Zeppelin.

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Rae sang and played electric guitar with the group for more than 10 years. But when she took a job as a hat-checker at a local jazz-and-soul club while she was a student at Leeds University, she discovered a passion for rhythm and blues.

"I would just sit and watch the bands all day," she recalled, "and eventually I got to be really friendly with the musicians. Sometimes they'd say, 'C'mon, it's the last set, let's do something. So I'd get up there and do a Bill Withers song or an Al Green song," she said. "I began to pine for that kind of music where I could express hope and warmth and more love things (rather than) aggression, angst and melancholy."

A new soundUnder the tutelage of some of the clubs regular musicians, Rae began experimenting with the sounds of Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack and Nancy Wilson, which would shape her current sound, an alluring blend of soul, pop and jazz.

Then she focused on her songwriting, scribing what would become her first hit, "Like a Star," in 2002, the year after graduating from college (and marrying a fellow musician, saxophonist Jason Rae).

Still, she was dedicated to Helen — until the band lost a deal with a local record label due to personnel issues (the bass player got pregnant and dropped out of the band). It was then when Rae started shopping for a solo deal while recording what would turn out to be her debut album.

It wasn't long before Capitol Records snapped her up, and Rae released her debut in Europe in February. Almost overnight she watched her career skyrocket. Corporations ranging from Starbucks to AOL gave her music a big push, while she's drawn raves from the likes of People and Entertainment Weekly, which cited her album as one of the summer's notable releases.

"I didn't expect my popularity to be a mainstream thing, 'cause I'd only ever been an underground artist," she said. "I thought, I might get to the equivalent of a jazz cafe in a few different places. I never thought I'd get this far."

In June, she made her U.S. television debut on ABC's "Good Morning America." Karen Rhee, the GMA producer who booked Rae for the show, said of her album: "Six months ago I was out in L.A. and Capitol gave me an advance copy of her album. I stuck it in my car's CD player and never took it out. ... There's just something about her music that's addicting."

Rhee is not the only one who feels that way — Rae can even add rock legend Elton John to her growing fan base these days.

"I got to present him with an award. He said, 'Oh, I really like your album, we've got it in our houses.' That was surreal!"