Interview: Imelda May

Imelda May plays Edinburgh and Glasgow this week. Her new album Life Love Flesh Blood is out now. Picture: Geoff Pugh/REX/Shutterstock
Imelda May plays Edinburgh and Glasgow this week. Her new album Life Love Flesh Blood is out now. Picture: Geoff Pugh/REX/Shutterstock
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A lot has changed for Imelda May since her 2014 album Tribal. Gone is the Irish singer’s trademark blonde quiff and punky rockabilly, replaced by a dark fringe and sound that can’t be straitjacketed into one category; a mix of blues, soul, gospel, folk, jazz, rock and beyond. After her divorce from husband of 13 years Darrel Higham, guitarist with her band and father of her four-year-old daughter Violet, it’s as if May has shed a skin and revealed her true self, finding voice in a new album, the honest, raw, visceral, Life Love Flesh Blood.

Imelda May at the V Festival, 2015. Picture: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Imelda May at the V Festival, 2015. Picture: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Covering a year in May’s life, the highs, the lows and the everyday bits in between, the title of this, her fifth album, could have included her bad retail therapy habit, or the time that Bob Dylan bigged her up, but Life Love Flesh Blood Maxing the Plastic and Bob Dylan Likes Me! doesn’t scan so well.

She’s in fine voice the morning after her Graham Norton Show appearance, back on the road with a gruelling tour that brings her to Scotland this week and is loving it so far.

“Yeah, the UK, Ireland, then a bit of Spain and then off to America, and then all of Europe, and festivals and then back to America [supporting Elvis Costello]. I haven’t counted how many dates it is, but it’ll go on all year and I’m raring to go. I want more! I want more!” She laughs.

Produced by the renowned producer T-Bone Burnett (responsible for the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack), who does “a beautiful, classy sound with a good chunk of badass” according to May, the album includes contributions from Jeff Beck and Jools Holland, artists May has worked with in the past. A solid lineup of backing musicians such as guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, David Lynch) bassist Zach Dawes (The Last Shadow Puppets) and percussionist Jay Bellerose (Elton John, BB King) bring out the range and versatility of May’s voice. So far it’s been going down a storm, to 42-year-old May’s relief.

“You make the best album you can, but you don’t make it for everyone else, so when it comes out you hold your breath and hope. And they came back with four/five star reviews all over the place, and the response to the gigs has been fabulous, fantastic. So I’m glad people are coming along with me changing things. They seem to be coming with me, which is what I was hoping,” she says, her warm Dublin accent rendering “with me” as “wit me” and her laugh when it erupts, ready and raucous.

May didn’t set out to write a particular album and in contrast to the previous ones, had no idea where it would go. Asked to describe her change of direction, she can’t.

“No, I can’t and I’m glad I can’t. That was the whole point for me. I didn’t know what I was going to write, didn’t want to have a plan. I knew I wanted to change, because I felt I’d hit a glass ceiling, creatively, and felt I had the rockabilly label stamped on me forehead. And as much as I love rockabilly I’ve never been pure rockabilly and never wanted to do only one type of music for the rest of me life. I think for any artist it’s nice to have freedom to do what you want to do, to not know what you’re going to do next, to see what happens, follow the songs, and see where I went.”

Freed from the constraints of swing and rockabilly May is able to give full voice to her influences, although she has always sung across the musical spectrum, collaborating and performing with everyone from Jeff Beck, Meat Loaf, Smokey Robinson and Elvis Costello to Jamie Cullum, Lulu, Paolo Nutini, Sinead O’Connor and Marc Almond. Fellow Dubliner Bono is a long-term friend and helped her choose the album songs from more than 30 possibles, asking May whether she wanted to make hits or art. May chose art.

Born Imelda Mary Clabby in Dublin in 1974, she started singing at 16 in local clubs. In 2002 she formed her own band, released the No Turning Back album a year later and moved to London with Higham. An appearance on Jools Holland’s 2009 Hootenanny then another album Love Tattoo, made her name with the Irish number one slot and Female Artist of the Year at the 2009 Meteor Awards, pushing third album, 2010’s Mayhem to the top of the charts too, followed by Tribe in 2014, before this year’s change of direction with Life Love Flesh Blood.

As well as forming part of the lyrics from the album track How Bad Can a Good Girl Be, the title summed up an album into which May has poured her heart, soul, gospel, rock...

Life Love Flesh Blood … it just seemed to fit right because the album is about the year I was writing it, and a lot of things happen in a year. It’s about my life and it’s predominantly about love – I’m definitely one of those who’s ruled by my heart, fortunately or unfortunately I don’t know which – and all the ups and downs that love brings. It’s about flesh, the desire and lust and all those fabulous things about being human, and then blood, it’s about my family, my daughter, my parents, the blood that’s running through my veins.”

So while the heartache is there, there is also new love, and laughter and nostalgia for the girl she used to be growing up in Dublin’s Liberties neighbourhood, with its cups of tea and chips, and songs about motherhood and hopes for the future.

“I’ve been told by everybody it’s a breakup album, but I’ve never claimed that,” she says. “It seems to be the full spectrum of life, you know, breaking up and all that brings, your sorrows, regrets and hopes, and then you meet somebody and the joy… but the guilt as well for being happy, and trying not to let yourself go, and then the joy of letting yourself go, and then desire… all the things that come with that.”

So can we take it from the lyrics about longing and lust that there’s a new relationship in her life?

“Ah, that would be tellin’” she says. She’s not saying, but she doesn’t need to. it’s all there in the album, her emotions laid bare in tracks like Call Me, capturing the trepidation of waiting for the phone to ring.

“I just wanted to say it how it was, not to hide anything, to put it out there. I think that’s a nice way to connect with people, trying to capture feelings they maybe can’t put into words, because everybody’s been there at some point. It’s just an awful willing your phone to ring, it’s just… terrible.

“And then there’s all the lovely things that you remember, that I have of my parents, all those lovely memories, just little normal things, not big fancy things, of when you’re a child, just a random day and you don’t know why you remember that day, or that moment, but you do. And I just hope I can recreate that for my daughter and wonder what they’ll be, you know, for her.

“And then I wrote a song about spending way too much money, as we all do, and... so it’s just a year, a synopsis of that one particular year, and it feels good for me.”

Since the album was written, life has moved on, and songs about a particular situation came to take on a wider meaning for May. With Should Have Been You, the personal became political and a year and a half after writing it, she recorded the video for the single in Brixton, with an army of female fans of all ages and religions, bearing placards.

“I wrote all of the songs on a personal level, but a whole year and a half after I was in a different head space. A lot of things had happened in the world, lots of major things had changed around me, and I found that I wanted to make a video that had a bigger say, covered more, and represented the song.

“I’m not wanting to be politician, but for me and I think most people I know, I’ve never talked about politics so much with my friends... Brexit and American politics and French politics, and I think most people are the same. We’re watching the world unfold around us and people are talking about it.”

And May talks a lot. And fast, her voice still full of Dublin after more than a decade in London and being based these days in Hampshire where she lives with her daughter, her ukelele, bodhran, tambourine, Gretsch and Martin guitars, when she’s not on the road.

“So when I was making the video I wanted to represent that, and make it positive. There’s a women’s movement going on at the moment, which I definitely feel involved in, maybe because I have a daughter, and I feel it’s about the next generation. So I called a lot of fans who got involved in making the video with me, and there’s a tonne of women in it – although it’s not anti-men – and we’re just saying, who takes care of me? It should be you, the leaders. We’re half of the world, we’re all working hard and paying our taxes so come on, make sure you don’t forget about us!”

As for the future, who would May like to work with in a dream scenario?

“Bob Dylan,” she says, in a heartbeat.

Ah yes, Dylan’s reported comment of “Imelda May, I like her,” caused the Irish singer no end of delight.

“He does! So I think I’m in with a little bit of a chance,” she laughs. “And maybe PJ Harvey, and Paolo Nutini, one of your own.”

Which brings us to Scotland and the Scottish dates on the tour, about which May enthuses. “I love Scotland, can’t wait to get there.” But in the meantime she has to go and “record a song and do a gig”, taking on board the advice she says she would give to her younger self: “Work hard and enjoy the journey, don’t aim for the destination. Enjoy it and you know, have loads of fun!” n

Imelda May in Concert, Tuesday, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, £38.50 and £31.35, www.usherhall.co.uk and Wednesday, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, £25-£99, www.glasgowconcerthalls.com

Life Love Flesh Blood is out now on Decca Records