When Corinne Bailey Rae was in college, she applied for a job as a hatcheck girl at a hip jazz and soul club in her hometown of Leeds, England. She swears her plan was to check hats.
The sultry-voiced 27-year-old responsible for this summer's laid-back anthem Put Your Records On maintains she wasn't gunning for the stage, even though she'd been in a rock band since her teens.
"No, it was just a really cool place," the singer-songwriter says with a laugh of the Underground Club, where she eventually abandoned her station to sit in with bands doing Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, and Curtis Mayfield songs.
"It was like the place to work if you could get a job there, just to watch the bands and hear the DJs play. It was like having a night off." She rethinks that last bit. "It was really hard work, but it was just amazing to be around music. So I went there because I liked being around music. Getting to sing, that was a real bonus."
It was a bonus that has turned into a career that is already off to a healthy start. Rae, who is touring the US, is already a major star in England. While her mostly female indie-rock group Helen developed a strong local following in the late 1990s -- until the bassist got pregnant and dropped out -- it is Rae's self-titled album of gossamer soul that has the British press aflutter. Thanks to that hype, the celebratory glow of Records, and the delicate first single Like A Star, Rae's album bears the distinction of being the first by a British woman to debut at No.1 there.
Rae is pragmatic about duplicating her sensational success in the US -- "it's a big place," she says -- but is heartened by the heavy rotation of Records in the contemporary jazz and Triple A (Adult Album Alternative) formats and a performance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. The album has sold in excess of 200,000 copies since its release in June.
Because Rae is a new artist, she's getting compared to every neo-soul singer of the past 20 years. Since she is identifiably black (her mother is white, her father West Indian), plays an acoustic guitar, and possesses an idiosyncratic voice that is by turns smoky and silky, names bandied about include Erykah Badu, Macy Gray, India.Arie, Sade, and, persistently, Billie Holiday.
While Rae shares a jazz-inflected, earthy sensibility with all of the above, her tunes reveal a songwriter's voice that is distinctive, and -- like most of the above -- refreshingly devoid of cliche, neo-soul or otherwise. She doesn't think she sounds like Holiday, but credits the jazz legend with broadening her vision of what she might one day accomplish.
"I'm definitely a fan of Billie Holiday. The first time I heard [her] I was about 14, and my mum played me it and I was just like `How come you've never played me her before?'," Rae says, the thrill of discovery still evident in her voice.
"It was a revelation to me to hear someone who was singing with that particular voice. The music I'd grown up hearing and been taught to hear a good voice in was something like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey or Madonna and Kylie Minogue," she says. Their music, she added, "was that sheeny pop stuff or soulful acrobatic stuff, and for that reason I never thought myself to be a singer. I had a voice that was more intimate and talky and a bit croaky, and when I got to Billie Holiday it was like a penny dropped, and it was like wow, I didn't realize there was room in the world for that kind of singing."