Wisdom: Corinne Bailey Rae Tells Us To Expect The Unexpected With Life

How to dodge those curveballs.

BY Lestari Hairul | Oct 27, 2017 | Feature

Photograph by Ronald Leong, Grooming and Makeup by Sha Shamsi

Singer-songwriter, 38

I love singing my old songs and hearing how they fit next to my new work. But I don’t really listen to my own music. I always find it a bit embarrassing when I go into a shop and it’s playing, or sometimes, someone will put it on deliberately—I don’t really know why they do that, maybe to say, oh, we like you. I try not to react, because I feel like if I do, then everybody will be like, I knew it was her!

Inspiration just keeps happening and that’s because I like all the different phases of the work. I really enjoy writing—the phase where you’re starting from scratch and don’t know what you’ve got to say but different ideas come in. I also really enjoy producing, where I’m deciding how I want a song to sound. And then there’s the phase where I’m so sick of it as I’ve been in the studio moving high hats around for a month and I just want to do a version of it in front of people. So, that’s when I really like touring.

The start of a project is the most exciting time because it doesn’t exist yet and could be anything.

I’ve definitely had the experience where I’ve had an idea for a song, and then I’ll hear something similar a few months later. Sometimes, I think they’re in that idea of a collective consciousness that we are all thinking and experiencing similar things. The song idea taps in on different people’s minds and whoever reacts to it the fastest will be the one to get the song out before everyone else does.

When I was young, music helped me be more confident and meet friends. Now I find that it’s a massive source of self-expression, a way for me to order my thoughts and connect with others.

The best gigs are almost like if you died in that moment, it would be fine because you’ve had this amazing experience. It can be really euphoric. I live for those moments, I guess. You’re not expecting it, and then you’re totally tripping out.

It’s really hard because, sometimes, you make art that doesn’t sell well, but it’s still important to make the work. As an artist, you must separate yourself from the idea of what’s going to be successful. You’re not running a shop. The artist’s role is to do the work that comes to you, and honour and respect that work by making it exist. It’s really out of your hands as to what works well and what doesn’t.

I’ve learnt that the best way I can write is the quiet way of waiting for ideas to “intrude”. Part of being in the industry is growing in confidence and trusting in your own unique ability, and not trying to chase what’s happening at the time. It’s not really imaginative to try and make something that is liked by everybody else. By the time it gets out, it’ll sound so out of date anyway.

Life is full of incredible things, and terrible things. It’s just a ride where you have to expect the unexpected.

Life has taught me that it’s unexpected, that you don’t control it. I’m not one of those people who is like, oh, you just put it out into the universe and it will all happen. I don’t believe that. Obviously, you try and do as much as you can, but there are so many things in life that are beyond your control. Losing my first husband when I was 29 was a big lesson in that fact. I think what I’ve learnt is that it’s important to have a really strong sense of self and cultivate good relationships.

I was singing “Stop Where You Are”—it’s all about being in the present, and not thinking about the future—when I saw a man and his two- or three-year-old daughter. He threw her up in the air and caught her. I was like, oh, this is so incredible. During the same concert, I was playing “Like a Star” and there was this couple slow-dancing to the music. I thought to myself, this is a moment that’s happening between us all now and we will never all be in the same place again. That’s what I really enjoy about performing; there’s no past, there’s no future. It’s about moments that just happen.

I don’t mind if I am completely forgotten. I don’t feel like I’m building up a thing for history or anything grand like that. The benefit that I get from doing music is so present. Once I’m not here, it won’t really affect me whether people are like, oh, we love her or we don’t remember her at all. I’m not bothered about what happens after I’m not here. I feel like I won’t be connected to it. It’ll be someone else’s turn.

The advice that I really like is something that Patti Smith said: “Build a name and keep it clean.” You’ve got to think about your name all the time, what it represents, what it means to you, what it means to other people. And to me, that’s a really good way of helping me decide what things to do.

I’m getting to know myself over time. That’s the other thing about identity: it is constantly developing. There’s maybe a core that is you, but there are also layers that grow with new friends, new interests, and new concepts and beliefs. How I think about the world changes according to what I see, who I’ve meet, and what I’ve learnt.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, October 2017.