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Corinne Bailey Rae's new album 'Black Rainbows' is unlike anything she's done before

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

About a decade ago, an old bank on the South Side of Chicago was at risk of being demolished, but artist Theaster Gates decided to save it.

THEASTER GATES: This building could be a repository for the cultural lives of many Black and brown people.

RASCOE: He led a restoration of the space and transformed it into what's now the Stony Island Arts Bank, a museum filled with objects representing moments and eras in Black music, politics, dance and writing. The collections of art and music are exactly what the musician Corinne Bailey Rae found when she visited.

CORINNE BAILEY RAE: When I was moving around this space, it was this absolute kaleidoscope of all this Black information.

RASCOE: And what she saw transformed her. She saw objects that represent problematic aspects of culture, too.

BAILEY RAE: They've been dubbed Negrobilia. They're kind of Black knickknacks. They're white-imagined Blackness. They're derogatory objects fizzing with a very present kind of pain.

RASCOE: Gates invited her to perform her music in the arts bank, but she said her earlier music didn't feel like the right thing to sing, so she started writing new music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEACH VELVET SKY")

BAILEY RAE: (Singing) We gave ourselves into the night. And we counted time a painted illusion. And my heart was an empty box.

RASCOE: And now, six years later, Corinne Bailey Rae has a new album called "Black Rainbows." I asked her if there was a specific piece that prompted her to write this music.

BAILEY RAE: It was a sculpture that I saw standing on, I think, the third floor. I could see all these different layers of paint, but it looked like somehow, they'd been pulled off or stretched off or scraped off. And it had these windows in it. It reminded me of these adobe temples, you know, Malian adobe temples. It's made from the floorboards of an abandoned police station in Chicago. For me, straight away, I thought about objects and what they are witness to. There are incidents that happen where the human witnesses either have passed away, or they have a particular agenda where perhaps the truth that they communicate isn't the whole story. I thought, who was walked on these floors? What have these floors seen? And so I felt in this - I was writing this poem, and it was called "You Who Have Walked These Floors In Fear." And I thought about the narrative around Sandra Bland's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORINNE BAILEY RAE SONG, "ERASURE")

RASCOE: What song on the album exemplified that?

BAILEY RAE: Yes, the song "Erasure" is an example of that when I'm looking and seeing the erasure of Black femininity. I'm seeing the erasure of Black children. I'm seeing the portrayal of Black children as not innocent, as criminal, as the erasure of Black personhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ERASURE")

BAILEY RAE: (Singing) They Typex'd all the Black kids out of the picture. So when they pictured that scene, they wouldn't be seen. Baby girl in the front row with the cornrows, smiling at the band. They made a cartoon of you.

I wrote this song, and it came out with fire. It came out with rage. And I was talking to a friend saying, this is such a difficult song. And they said to me, yes, but the chorus says, they tried to erase you. They tried to eviscerate you, hide behind the curtain, make you forget your name. They tried to. So although it's a reflection on the erasure, it's also recognition that this was an unsuccessful attempt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ERASURE")

BAILEY RAE: (Singing) Hide behind the curtain, make you forget your name. They took credit...

RASCOE: And that sound sonically is very different from your earlier work. Are you worried at all because it is different from what you've done in the past? Or are you at peace with what you have put out?

BAILEY RAE: I mean, I love the work that I've already made. And thankfully, when you make new work, it doesn't wipe out the old work, right? So the old work is all still there. You know, I've played those songs all around the world since 2005, and I love them. You know, I love playing "Put Your Records On," "Like A Star" and "Green Aphrodisiac" and "Breathless." And - but I am thrilled right now to be on tour playing this new music and telling these stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YORK TRANSIT QUEEN")

BAILEY RAE: (Singing) New York transit queen. New York transit queen. New York transit queen. Little over 17.

RASCOE: There's a fun moment on the album that comes on the song "New York Transit Queen." It seems like you really like New York because you have that song "Paris Nights/New York Mornings" from your album "The Sea." But who is the New York transit queen?

BAILEY RAE: The New York transit queen is Miss Audrey Smaltz, who was the winner of Miss New York Transit in 1954. And she entered this beauty competition and won. I think she was the third or fourth ever winner. And I found out about it from reading the copy of Ebony magazine from 1954. When I saw this picture, I thought, who is she? She was staring out of the photograph, wearing this bathing suit. She was hanging off the back of a fire truck. I wanted to know more about her. The Ebony Fashion Fair, which went round many cities in America, over 100 cities - and it presented couture fashion in Black neighborhoods all over the US. Audrey Smaltz was the announcer for the fashion fair. So she would tell people, you know, what - she would describe what was being worn. Or she would say things like - she's very hip. She'd say things like, what to wear on Sunday when you don't get home till Monday. She was super hip, and I love her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YORK TRANSIT QUEEN")

BAILEY RAE: (Singing) New York transit queen. And she rides, rides, rides. New York transit queen.

RASCOE: The last song on "Black Rainbows" is called "Before The Throne Of The Invisible God." Where does it leave us?

BAILEY RAE: The last song on the record sort of leads back to the first song on the record. It's kind of circular in that there's a big focus in the album on spirituality. Is it possible that the things we do in the present shape the future? You know, we all believe that, but is it also possible that the things we do in the present somehow affect the past, like there's some connection between us now and our ancestors? Does it give them a flash of joy in the past to know what we're doing here in the present?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEFORE THE THRONE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD")

BAILEY RAE: (Singing) Before the throne, before the throne of the invisible god, of the invisible god.

The record has these moments of transcendence. That's the best thing about music for me - that it lifts you out of where you are and puts you in another space, another world. And there were lots of moments on the record that talk about space and the psychedelic and the spiritual because they've been so important in Black art, the weirdness and the strangeness and rejecting the things that hold us down and the rules that ultimately will not last forever. And thinking more about a new place, a utopia and the eternal. And they're interesting ideas to think about with the record for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEFORE THE THRONE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD")

BAILEY RAE: (Singing) Kneel.

RASCOE: That's musician Corinne Bailey Rae. Corinne Bailey Rae's new album, "Black Rainbows," was released on Friday. Thank you so much for joining us.

BAILEY RAE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.