Corinne Bailey Rae

Bob Miller, manager for Corinne Bailey Rae, laments the singer didn’t get noticed by record companies when she was 17.

“That smile of hers was behind every song she sang 10 years ago,” Miller told Pollstar from his London office. “The music industry is so blind to those things.

They’re so obsessed with packaging, with direction. Nine years ago, a major record company should have gone, ‘You know what, Bob? Let’s get this first record out of the way because she’s going to be great.'”

Of course, for any Capitol Records employee reading this column, Miller was equally effusive of the label’s enthusiasm for his client. Now, unlike a decade ago, Rae can arguably be described as the biggest new artist on the planet. She debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. charts in February, making her the first female artist to do so in history.

And unlike so many U.K. artists from Robbie Williams on down, she’s made an immediate impact in the United States, with the self-titled album currently in the Top 20, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

The first singles, “Like a Star” and “Put Your Records On” – which she wrote and co-wrote respectively – are gems. But it’s her voice that is the star. She’s said that every country likens her to an artist from that region and she’s amused by it. Here in the States, the common comparisons are Norah Jones and Billie Holiday.

Rae gets compared to artists with distinct voices because, much like The Innocence Mission‘s Karen Peris, Anita Baker and Toni Childs, she’s instantly recognizable. That’s her is how people react. That’s Corinne Bailey Rae.

She recently prepared for her summer U.S. run by appearing on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” in Burbank, Calif., and during a break from soundcheck told Pollstar about her gig at the Troubadour.

The Los Angeles club always has an appreciative crowd, and she sang for it two nights earlier. Even on a Monday, the packed club was full of energy.

“They really shout out during the songs,” she said. “The American audience has more of a call-and-response culture, and I really love how they shout out between songs. It’s great.”

On house right, up the stairs in the private balcony, she had an audience member that kept all to himself.

“We had a surprise guest in the form of Prince. He came to watch the gig. I had a really good gig but aside from that it’s nice to know Prince had been there watching it.

He had one security guard and he left at the end of the set,” she said.

Rae was asked about her U.S. agent. She recently signed with Creative Artists Agency but “CAA” didn’t mean anything to her. “Agency representation” also got us nowhere.

Corinne Bailey Rae

“Oh!,” she finally said. “You mean Jon Pleeter! I know him by his human name.”

Which tickled her R.A. to no end.

“That’s the perspective we all have on it,” Pleeter told Pollstar. “We have close interactions and that’s how we keep this as real as possible, without letting any of the other things get in the way of that. We can communicate with each other as human beings. It’s just a great relationship.”

Rae is hitting roughly 20 U.S. markets through August. She returns for promotional events and further dates in December, Pleeter said, and there’s a full tour planned for February.

Rae may still be in her 20s, but she’s been around a while. She’s been a jazz singer, a pop singer and even had her share of heavy metal (and still plays Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You” at her shows).

She originally played in a pop band called Helen and remained loyal to it, much to Miller’s chagrin. The two share a common hometown in Leeds, and Miller had a recording studio there.

“To be absolutely frank, I did struggle in the first few years of knowing Corinne, wanting to pull her out of that situation,” he said. “She appreciates that I didn’t rip her out of it. But her bar was staying as low as the weakest person in the band and they couldn’t get any better.”

He shopped the band to several record labels. One was interested, but Miller didn’t think it was a good fit. Meanwhile, the band fell apart. Now, Corinne Bailey Rae has a platinum debut. They learned the good news during a Shepherds Bush Empire show, but that’s not what motivates Rae.

“One thing that gives an insight into her: She has no idea what a million records looks like,” Miller said. “I’ve actually stared at 1,000 CDs in the corner of a room that I can’t sell. We all have in this business. But there’s no perception in Corinne’s mind what 1,000 CDs might look like. But when there’s 2,000 people in the room, or 200, or 50, or playing to a few people at a radio station, her connection with those people is what makes her reality.”

From Capitol to Pleeter to U.K. agent Paul Franklin, it’s been nothing but good luck, according to Miller. Franklin came to Leeds one night from Helter Skelter’s London location after hearing the demo version of “Like A Star.” He said he’d help find the record deal and build Rae as a live artist.

“He’s done a brilliant job of that,” Miller said. “In fact, I’m looking at a gift he gave me in recognition of a sold-out U.K. tour.”