Cape Town International Jazz Festival headliner, Corinne Bailey Rae, speaks to Helen Herimbi about writing grown-up love songs

A few days after her 39th birthday, Corinne Bailey Rae hops onto the phone to tell me how she celebrated. “I went out on Sunday actually with a really big group of friends,” she shares. “We went to this vegetarian restaurant in Leeds. It was a big party. And so on Monday, I just chilled and went for a walk and it was just before this crazy snow happened. It was nice to be able to get that.”

The British singer-songwriter-producer is, of course, not just ringing me up to catch up about birthdays. She will be one of the headliners of the 19th annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival, taking place at the Cape Town ICC on March 23 and 24. Other acts that will perform over those two days include Louis Moholo-Moholo Presents 5 Okes and 1 Doll, Mulatu Astatke, Incognito, R+R=NOW, Amanda Black, Jordan Rakei, as well as Blinky Bill and Sibot’s Afrofunk Spaceship, among others.

Rae was last in South Africa to perform at a 46664 concert in 2007. With a multi-award-winning eponymous debut album (2006), The Sea (2010), The Love EP (2011) and The Heart Speaks In Whispers (2016) under her belt, Rae is looking forward to sharing her life’s work.

“I wanted to do a sort of retrospective, really, of all my music to date,” Rae tells me. “It’s been a really long time since I was in South Africa and I want to play some of my old songs to catch up with people who have been supporting me from the start. And then I want to take people on a journey to where I am now.”

Rae’s latest album introduces us to a more mature artist. My favourite song on The Heart Speaks In Whispers is a guitar-driven slow jam that intersects between hope and melancholy: Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart.

“With all of that record, so much of it came in images,” she explains. “I have this idea of this person standing on the street, waiting for their date and they’re all dressed up. Just that sense of anticipation when you’re about to start something new. I also have a sense of this person that they knew the person who was picking them up – that they’d had a relationship before and it was like they were starting over.”

“It is quite a grown-up love song, really,” she continues. “About something that’s been broken and being fixed. It’s got this fragility which I really wanted to celebrate in the song. Forgiveness is an important part of love when you get older and you’ve been hurt before. I wanted to write a love song which was about that experience.”

On the song, Rae’s signature sing-whisper crescendoes into a declaration: Hey, I won’t break your heart like you broke mine/This time around I won’t cling to those paper crowns/I won’t tear you down. The impermanence of a paper crown jumps out of the lyrics.

“When I was thinking of that line, I was thinking about pride and how sometimes, when you’re in a relationship, you have these arguments that have to do with you just holding your position and defending your position when really, you could just say: ‘It doesn’t matter,’ or ‘I’m sorry,’” Rae says. “But you wear it like it’s this important thing but really, it’s just made out of paper and it’s this really flimsy thing and is inconsequential. You shouldn’t hold onto things unnecessarily.”

Rae knows about the difficulty of letting things go. In 2008, a coroner’s report claimed death by misadventure as the cause of her then-husband, Jason Rae’s death. In 2013 – two years after she released The Love EP – she married musician and producer, Steve Brown. Three years after that, The Heart Whispers was born.

I ask her if those years inspired the music and she says: “A lot of things were happening for me personally. I felt like I was going on a transformation and was coming out of sadness and grief and hopelessness, and was coming into a new feeling of possibilities and hope.”

“I think I was also feeling more confident and was thinking there was a lot of strength coming from listening to yourself and listening to your heart. I guess that’s really where the title came from. The idea that the heart is speaking to you through your dreams and subconscious and intuition, and through your body and through your instincts. I felt like I was following that within those years.”

The heart as a theme comes up often in Rae’s music. One of the standout tracks from her debut album is Choux Pastry Heart. She laughs then says: “It’s almost like it’s something that can be permeated. Things can come into your heart and go out of your heart. The thing that is you doesn’t have solid walls around it so you can affect events and you can be affected by them. So going from a choux pastry heart– which is a fragile, precious, sweet thing – my heart is more robust, but maybe because it’s more supple now.”

Rae’s most popular song is possibly her first single, Put Your Records On. Twelve years later, she still loves performing it.

“I never get tired of it because I love the recording of Put Your Records On,” she says. “We spent so long in the production and a lot on the swells of the horns and the BVs (background vocals) and we really wanted it to be this joyous and fresh thing.”

“It’s definitely always a challenge to play it live because all of our band – we play completely live so we don’t have a backtrack. That can sometimes make it challenging to recreate things from a record. So, with Put Your Records On, I feel like I’m always trying to get it right and get that joyous, bouncy feel back.”

“You can see people’s faces light up in the audience at the start of that song so I always want to do a really good job of it.” You be the judge at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival this month.