Corinne Bailey-Rae on surviving unimaginable heartbreak, touring with kids and finding happiness

You might expect life as a double Grammy-winning artist to be endlessly glamorous, but for singer Corinne Bailey Rae, the reality can be rather different. “I’ve literally been wiping a bum or breast-feeding and then going straight on stage,” says the mum-of-two, whose daughters are four and six. “There are no boundaries.”

With more than five million album sales and a back catalogue that includes the smash-hit single Put Your Records On , Corinne spends much of her time on tour – alongside husband Steve Brown, who plays in her band, and their two girls. “There are different ways you can bring up children, right? Some artists maybe have their kids in boarding school or home with a nanny. But we decided we really want to see our kids, so they go with us.”

Believing the nomadic life boosts the girls’ learning, Corinne adds, “We’re really serious about their education. They call it world schooling, don’t they? If we’re in San Francisco, we’ll go to the Children’s Creativity Museum, or we’ll go to Niagara Falls when we are in that area. I think there’s a lot to learn from being around people and in new places.”

Now 45, Corinne was born to an English mother and Caribbean father in Leeds, where she played violin before discovering her gift for singing. “How I grew up was very different,” she says. “But everybody with kids is always just trying to work it out. You’re forever thinking, ‘Are we doing it right?’, and you don’t really know until they’re about 37.”

In the next few months, she’ll perform everywhere from Cheltenham to Glastonbury before reaching New York, Brazil and China. “It’s like a travelling circus, but I love the rhythm of touring,” she says.

“My mum joins us too, and on days off we could be on a beach in Adelaide or walking round a beautiful European city. We stay in cool places, and I like being in foodie districts so we can try new things and not just eat cardboard pizza.”

Having her mum along is handy for long days on the tour bus. “There’s literally nothing she can’t cook in a microwave. The band like to get the slow cooker going too, so in Spain we’ll put in different meats, or in places like New Orleans we’ll be like, ‘Look at the hot sauce I found in this backstreet!’”

But there are no extravagant riders for this band, and Corinne adds, “We don’t ask for puppies! I just get excited if there’s a juicer, or if there’s a way for me to make pasta. We’re fussy about organic food, so I like to know I’ve got my pita bread, hummus and juice. And we always have tequila and rum for a little party afterwards.”

Pre-gig, Corinne keeps the mood as Zen as possible. “The others might want to go up the Empire State Building or somewhere, but I tend to just eat, drink, rest and read. I save my energy for shows because I’m dancing on stage, and I’ve got my electric guitars on and off, which are heavy. That’s the closest I get to going to the gym, but it’s much more fun.”

She also has certain habits before performing. “I like to do my own hair and make-up – that’s my ritual. And I do Pilates, lots of stretching and balancing, and always have a hot drink with manuka honey.”

Inevitably, packing for weeks on the road can be a major headache. “It’s a drag. Right now, I have three unpacked suitcases, which is the worst. I pull out the laundry but get stressed about where everything else goes. One of the cases is full of outfits for a video and promo in New York, plus clothes for taking the kids round Central Park and getting covered in ice cream. There are lots of looks that need careful planning too, because you can’t be wearing a sparkly jumpsuit if it’s freezing cold or snowing.”

Known for rocking some impressive on-stage outfits, Corinne is a veritable fashionista. “My go-to is a British designer called Mary Benson, who hand-draws her fabrics. I saw one piece online with these butterflies with human eyes. It was psychedelic and playful, so I asked her to make me eight jumpsuits.

"I also love Alice Temperley for sequins, and there’s a Vivienne Westwood in Leeds where I often end up. I have two modes; one is super-dressed down, the other is my super-glam stage world. But it’s all me.” She also sneaks out shopping while on tour. “I end up with all sorts of trinkets and fabrics from around the world, which I love.”

Next year will mark 20 years since Corinne burst onto the music scene with her debut single Like A Star . Tragically though, her early career was marred by the devastating loss of her first husband, musician Jason Rae, who died suddenly in 2008 - at the time confessing that it was her fans that were 'keeping her going'.

Singer Corinne Bailie-Rae with a guitar on stage
Corinne says losing her first husband in 2008 makes her appreciate how 'precious' life is

A coroner’s report recorded an accidental overdose of methadone and alcohol, and Corinne called that period of her life “a bleak, empty, hollow nothing.”

Though she later found happiness again with long-time friend Steve and remarried in 2013, the pain still lingers today. “I think it’ll always be present, because it was such a big experience,” she reflects. “But it’s life-shaping, because right now, I feel so grateful for life. It makes you realise how fragile it all is.”

Just 29 when Jason died, Corinne adds, “You think you know everything at that age, but then you realise how it can all change. Rather than thinking, ‘I’m going to live to 100’, you have to try to do a good job while you’re here.”

Singer Corinne Baillie-Rae performing on stage in Cambridge in June 2022
Corinne with her sister, Rhea

Corinne says ongoing sadness helps root her in the present. “Instead of saying, ‘I’ll do that later’, you think, ‘I’ll do it now’, because you won’t necessarily get the chance again. There’s a shadow, just out of view, that I’m aware of all the time. The tinge of sadness and grief is in everything, but it also makes things more special.”

Music is ever-present at home, but her kids favour golden oldies over Taylor Swift. “At the moment we’re all listening to early rock’ n’roll and things like Great Balls Of Fire . I guess, eventually, they’ll work out that almost everyone Steve and I listen to is no longer on the planet, but right now, they love whatever we’re into.”

Corinne is also enjoying performing tracks of her own from her latest album, Black Rainbows , which received huge critical acclaim. “It’s been very liberating for me. Some of it is so stark and exposed, and it might be the biggest challenge my voice has ever had. But everything feels balanced. I’m getting to be with my partner and my kids and to work, and that feels good.”