When Imelda May started recording her music after years of playing live, she brought the hotch-potch of styles that she loved into the studio. The one that attracted the most attention was rockabilly – slap bass, wailing guitar and that driving drum beat that makes you want to dance.
Think Gene Vincent’s attitude with Eddie Cochran’s guitar riffs, topped off with the nasty wail of Wanda Jackson. It didn’t exactly go down a storm. “I was told to get rid of the rockabilly and I’d be fine,” she says, still sounding incredulous. “I could not get my head around that and, being the stubborn Irishwoman that I am, I decided, to hell with you, I’m going to put more in.”
And there you have it – cracking the music business according to the inimitable Ms May. And who can argue? May’s first album, Love Tattoo, went triple platinum in Ireland and her second, Mayhem, is selling by the trolleyload. She’s supported everyone from Meatloaf to Jools Holland, sells out her own tours, plays to audiences of thousands at festivals and has a stellar reputation among some of the best musicians around. Jeff Beck’s description is simple: “She’s amazing”.
But it’s not been easy.
There have been false starts, an endless list of day jobs to help make ends meet (her favourite was as a carer in a nursing home for the elderly because she’d get everyone singing), and a bit of bailiff dodging when money got really tight. But ask her if she ever thought of giving up and the chattiness disappears and she becomes almost monosyllabic. “No. I didn’t.”
May was born in 1974 and grew up in the Liberties area of Dublin. The youngest of five, singing was all she ever really wanted to do. Her mum loved showtunes and started a group for local kids which May joined. And then, at 13, she heard rockabilly. “I was brought up with beautiful music – Nat King Cole and Glen Miller from my dad, and my mum loved Judy Garland and Doris Day – brilliant stuff. Through my brothers and sisters I heard David Bowie and The Specials, The Carpenters, Meatloaf and The Rolling Stones. Then I heard Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent and I went wild. I was only 13. It was really hardcore stuff. I loved it.”
So she got herself a quiff and turned up her jeans. “I got my first leopardprint coat when I was 15. I nearly got beat up but I was happy with it.” She laughs.
May’s look is still as distinctive as her music. Her silhouette is straight from B-movie pin-ups, all cat’s eyes, bright red lips and boned dresses to emphasise her hourglass figure. It’s no stage costume either, it’s May’s off-duty look too. “I’m not in high heels and pencil skirts all the time. I’ll be in my jeans and biker boots. But I love all my vintage stuff.” She describes the cardigan she’s wearing, which she got the last time she was in America. “It’s from the 50s and it has ice skaters embroidered into each side and a big skater on the back. I love colour, it’s good fun.”
But in 21 years of touring, trundling about in rusty vans, getting changed in draughty clubs, it’s not exactly the most low-maintenance look to maintain. She laughs. “But I’ve done that most of my life – sleeping in the back of a van on top of the amps in a sleeping bag, then getting changed in the toilets. I could tell you what the toilets are like in so many venues. It’s great having nicer venues now that things are moving along. I like having a nice dressing room. It makes life a lot easier.”
Still, there are some skills you never lose. May can put on liquid eyeliner in the back of a cab going over speed bumps. “I do my nails like that too. I laughed once when I did an interview for a paper. As I was on my way I realised I hadn’t done my nails, they were chipped to bits, so I did them in the back of the taxi on the way. You know, you don’t like to let yourself down. They were almost still wet as I went in. The interview started with ‘Imelda May is perfectly groomed with perfectly manicured nails …’ ” She laughs again.
After moving to London and developing a loyal but niche following, it was only in 2006 that May started her own band. At first husband Darrel Higham, a well-respected rockabilly guitarist, wasn’t in it. “When I asked him to join he said ‘I wondered when you were going to ask’,” she says, but she knew it was a risk.
“It was great for us both when it worked but it was bad when it wasn’t going well,” she admits. “It was a big gamble for us because when there were no gigs, there were no gigs for either of us. Times got really, really tough. Anytime my mam hears that she throws me dirty looks because I didn’t tell them how bad it was. But we knew we had to go for it because if we didn’t do it then, we never would.”
May’s family have always supported her. “I never had my mum and dad saying, get a proper job. They were the opposite. My dad would be like ‘keep going, girl. Chin up, keep going’. They’re delighted with how it’s gone. During some of my bigger gigs they come up onstage. I got them onstage in front of about 35,000 people once. My dad got right into it and started throwing his glo-sticks out to the crowd.” She laughs. “He loved it. He had his arms up in the air. I had to tell him to get off so we could continue the gig.”
The support extends beyond May’s family. In the Liberties, May is the local girl made good. At one of the first big gigs May did in the area, staff at the venue, unaware that May was a local, warned her to be careful because there was a very strict curfew due to the neighbourhood. “I said don’t worry, I know them all. They’ll all be here.” She laughs. “We carried on for ages and there was wasn’t one complaint.”
It’s clear when May is onstage that she’s having a ball. She loves her band, she loves her music and having spent more than half of her life playing live, she knows exactly how to connect with an audience. Such is May’s following in her hometown, an extra date has had to be added in December. “The neighbours, the fruit and veg man, the people from the chippy and the church, they’re all coming,” she says. “I have a convoy of about five cars and that’s the family. It’s full of kids and my mum and dad and sandwiches and everything. We always have a great party afterwards. My mum loves the lads in the band, it’s like she’s adopted them. We sit up having sing-songs all night with my family.”
May’s happy with her success now because it’s been, as she says, “bit by bit”. It’s an added bonus rather than the reason she writes and performs songs. In fact, she nearly refused to sign her record deal when they explained what might happen if her career went really well. “It freaked me out. That’s not what I was after. Most normal people, if you’re told about the realities of what it’s like if it all kicks off, most normal people would say ‘I don’t know’.
“When I was a teenager I had a record company after me. They wanted me to be a pop act. They said they wanted me to be the next Sonia.” She doesn’t pause to laugh, but I do. “I was 16 at the time. I said, no thank you. I just knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I went back to the little underground club where I played because I loved it. All I wanted to do was to make music that I loved. That’s never changed. Even making albums, what I’ve always wanted to do was make albums I was proud of and hopefully it would go well. I’m glad I stuck to my guns. It’s going well, very well now, and I’m enjoying myself. I couldn’t think of anything worse than hating your own music and having to play it every night. It would be a nightmare.
“Things happen naturally. I’m a big believer in that, letting the way of the world happen. If you force it, it doesn’t work.”
She would know.
Imelda May plays Glasgow’s O2 Academy, 121 Eglinton Street, on Tuesday at 7pm. Tickets, £22.50 from the O2 ABC Box Office at 300 Sauchiehall Street, or see www.ticketmaster.co.uk