Being touted as pop music's Next Big Thing can be a curse of expectations. But as nearly the entire pop firmament appears to constellate around Corinne Bailey Rae, the bright yet wide-eyed 26-year-old from Leeds does not seem blinded by the marketing lights. Advance radio play, Internet preorders and, most strikingly, being voted the "Sound of 2006" in a BBC poll of experts have left her unspoiled, at least for now.
"I don't feel much like a product at the moment," she insists, "because I've made sure the songs don't fit neatly into one camp or another. I've been allowed a lot more free rein. Nobody has ever said, 'Oh, Corinne, you have to do dance routines.' They're trying to promote me as me."
Last month, she launched her current single, Put Your Records On, with a five-track, showcase gig in a central London store. At least 150 people came to see her, and to queue for signed CDs. A week later her self-titled album charted at No. 1 in the U.K. Hearing Bailey Rae livewarm, unaffected, joyfulis like a beam of sunshine through London's gray March sky. In contrast to certain singers she may be bracketed with, such as Norah Jones or Dido, there is nothing anemic or insipid about her style. Bailey Rae is pure Vitamin D.
"For me, the songs are really honest and intimate-sounding, and so is the way I sing," she explains, after the performance, curling into a fireside chair at the Charlotte Street Hotel. "I haven't got the sort of voice that can just belt out Aretha Franklin. It's more like having a conversation. When I was writing Put Your Records On, I was thinking back to myself as a younger girl, and saying, 'Don't be afraid of not fitting in with the crowd, or looking different.' I wish someone had said that to me when I was a lot younger, because my mum's white and my dad's black, and we lived in quite a white area, so I did feel quite separate for that reason."
The uplifting, beat-driven Put Your Records On is a potential sorority anthem. But it's only one facet of an album that is tender and sometimes tremulous. She can strum a semi-acoustic, soulful balladnowhere more touching than on her personal favorite, Like A Starwhich should impress fans of folksy guitar popster Jack Johnson from Hawaii and Scotland's KT Tunstall. But, like Tunstall, her rockier roots (the B-side of the single is a cover of Led Zeppelin's Since I've Been Loving You) are the grit in her oyster. While she has caught the ear of Burt Bacharach, the master of turtleneck pop, when they appeared on a TV show together last year, an indie spirit keeps her from the dreaded Middle of the Road.
"The record will speak for itself," she maintains. "Some songs would fit comfortably onto a chill-out album sold at [supermarket chain] Tesco, but others are quite edgy and unusual. They're more rambling, with more of a mantra: like a Stevie Wonder thing. Taken together, they're a journey, from this more cozy end to something more adventurous, heavier even."
Perhaps Bailey Rae's musical confidence grows out of a relatively stable personal life. She has been married, to a jazz and funk saxophonist, for four years. Her husband's band, The Haggis Horns, play on her album, though Bailey Rae adds that they couldn't be in the same group, as both would want to lead. "He's seen me work in bands, and music generally, for ages," she adds. "When you're into someone you're like, 'I wish other people would get what she does, and hear her songs.' So he's really pleased. And I'd like to make a conscious effort to remain the same person. I mean, I don't really wear makeupexcept that now I've just been on stageand if people see me looking rough, and they don't like it, that's their problem."
Following the speed of Bailey Rae's ascent, it's inevitable that some critics want to shoot her down. One early album review dismissed it as "the aural equivalent of chick-lit"edictable put-down, as if there's something wrong with giving the Bridget Joneses of the world something soulful to listen to. And Bailey Rae, a Lauryn Hill brewed in England's plain-speaking north, has a broader appeal anyway. The coming months will prove whether success can be sustained. Between television appearances, a tour and more interviews, she will read Toni Morrison novels and try to live "normally."
"I know loads is happening now," she acknowledges. "But, for me, it's early days. I'm not, like, a virtuoso or anything. I just want to improve as a songwriter. Seeing full rooms at gigs will show me that people enjoy the music. Melodies are the most important thing. A tune can invest simple lyrics with so much more meaning." Spoken like the true pop star she's already become.