By Bill Thompson
Corinne Bailey Rae’s self-titled first record debuted at No. 1 in her native United Kingdom in 2006. That is a high bar to maintain, but the singer-songwriter from Leeds has lived up to those expectations with two Grammy Awards and high-profile collaborations with the likes of Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Herbie Hancock.
Seventeen years later, however, she faces what might be the biggest challenge of her career with “Black Rainbows,” her new album that is the centerpiece of a project that began with a visit to an unlikely location – a former savings and loan building on the South Side of Chicago that houses the Stony Island Arts Bank founded by artist/entrepreneur/community activist Theaster Gates.
“I first saw a photograph on a friend’s Pinterest board,” says Bailey Rae, who plays the Longworth-Anderson Series at Memorial Hall on Sept. 12. “It was a photograph of a Black, male, contemporary artist, who was staring out from the photo and behind him was this goat, this big wooly goat and he had these wooden legs, these long tripod-like legs that was on a track, like a train track, and he was going round and round. Then he had a pile of bricks next to that, and behind him was a sign for Harold’s Chicken, and it was a picture of a chef chasing a chicken with a meat cleaver.
“And I thought, “What is this? What kind of image of contemporary art is this.” I had never seen a male, Black artist with a highly conceptual contemporary art. Just this expression, he was looking out with so much such sanguine confidence. And I thought, who is this person? Then I found out he was called Theaster Gates and I found out he had this building in Chicago, and this foundation, the Rebuild Foundation that had bought (buildings) on the South Side to allow artists to stay there and people who were living there were now in places where the rent wouldn’t get hiked up and they would have a fair landlord.”
That one image set in motion a six-year journey that culminates in the Sept. 15 release of “Black Rainbows,” which she will perform in its entirety at Memorial Hall; “Refraction/Reflection of the Arts Bank,” photographed by Koto Bolofo; and a series of lectures and exhibitions.
Bailey Rae says she knew when she walked through the doors of the Arts Bank that her life changed.
“This bank building was almost a hundred years old (built in 1923),” she says of her first visit in 2017. “He (Gates) had all the books from the Johnson Publishing library, everything that had been submitted to ‘Jet’ and ‘Ebony’ magazines for review plus the books they had collected. There was just thousands of books and these incredible subjects pertaining to Black history and Black contemporary culture. Then there were these objects, these kind of unusual and problematic objects that had been taken out of circulation.”
Bailey Rae says there is nothing like the Arts Bank in the UK, where whatever Black archives exist are unlikely to be open to the public. When she stumbled into this treasure trove in Chicago, she was gobsmacked.
“Theaster invited us back for an artist’s residency,” she says. “I went back with a producer I work with and we stayed in the neighborhood. We were in the Bank every day. We played music and we visited adjacent buildings, the listening house where all the Frankie Knuckles (a famous DJ) records were kept, and the other places that had all of the magazines, leather-bound from when they began in the 1940s. It was really immersive.”
Ten years after her debut record, Bailey Rae says making “The Heart Speaks in Whispers” in 2016 was “difficult.” There were meetings with label executives and voices in her head that questioned whether there was a song that would be an “international mega radio smash.” She realized that she should have just done what she wanted to do and block out the noise, even her own.
“So with this record (‘Black Rainbows’), I thought just let me make it,” she recalls. “If this does or doesn’t sound like anything I’ve done before, it’s OK if it’s weird, it’s OK if it’s stylistically diverse. You can pull out something that’s punk rock, or something that’s a synth track, or a future soul track, or something to dance to or a piano ballad. I really wanted to fly and be free. In a way, making this record has been a reaction to being in board meetings, second-guessing and feeling so much about everyone’s feelings.”
Bailey Rae might have navigated the recording process her own way this time, but that doesn’t mean she won’t feel trepidation when she takes the stage to perform songs that people haven’t heard.
“My shows are quite broad and this has more kind of indie music and will rock out more,” says the woman who fronted an indie rock band during her college days. “For people who have seen me live before, this will be familiar-ish. I feel like I can’t tell the difference between nerves and excitement any more, they are just two halves of the same thing. I’ll be horrified and excited about the tour. I’ll wake up in the morning and before the day is half over, I’ll be thinking should I do this particular gesture at this particular moment or not.
“But this is new, which is great for me, although I do play songs from the old records. I’m very, very happy that I can play the songs that people know, but there is a particular challenge about playing new stuff. You have to put so much into it because you’re really trying to connect and you’re really giving your all. It’s going to be exciting for me and hopefully people will feel that.”
Tickets and information at MemorialHallOTR.com or 513-977-8838