Imelda May has gone through a gamut of emotions these last few years but she’d rather not talk about it. She’d prefer to sing about them. Earlier this year, upon the release of Life Love Flesh Blood, an album of blunt honesty, May was bombarded with questions about the nitty-gritty of the songs, something she wasn’t exactly expecting. “I don’t know how I’m going to go out and sing these songs,” May said back in the spring. “I can hardly talk about them.”
The Irish singer known for her rockabilly rhythms and sassy charisma wrapped herself in a cocoon of psyche hibernation and emerged as a darker, more straight-forward woman of substance on her latest album; something she had begun to toe-dip into on her last release, 2014’s Tribal. The transformation certainly becomes her, for the lyrics refrain from sugarcoating, allowing sad to be sad and angry to be angry. “I could tell you all these things I do for you but you just roll your eyes and say, here we go again,” from “Should Have Been You” are a perfect example. These are words we have all either said or heard, giving these songs that stinging reality. As her friend Bono has said, “She makes truth telling an invitation to intimacy.”
May began performing in her teens, playing with local bands in Ireland before relocating to London and releasing her first record, “No Turning Back.” Winning over many in the music world with her vocals and spunk, May has performed with everyone from U2 to Robert Plant to Jeff Beck, who adds guitar on the track “Black Tears” from Life Love Flesh Blood. “His solo just breaks my heart every time I hear it, it’s phenomenal,” May told me during our interview last week.
This week, beginning on Tuesday, June 20th, in Richmond, Virginia, she will be opening some select dates for Elvis Costello, as well as playing a few solo shows while in America. “Hopefully, if I sweet talk him enough, I’ll get to sing with him again,” May said with a laugh about one of her favorite artists. “I’m only doing this so that I can get to see him perform every night.”
With a new directional path, the once girl with the curl is finding herself in a new arena of singers, where voice and heart and naked upfront emotions give her a whole new relationship with her audience. “When I first happened onto her music, she was a punky Irish Rockabilly singer with a great band,” stated famed producer T-Bone Burnett, who worked on Life Love Flesh Blood. “When I ran across her several years later, she had gone through a change of lives and was writing about it with a wild intensity and singing about it in the most open-hearted way.”
“Life changed,” reiterated May. “I love the albums I made before. They were honest to the person I was. But that was then and this is now.”
I wrote them over the course of a year so it’s kind of a synopsis of a year in my life and a lot happened then. Writing for me is an outlet, kind of like a diary in a way. I always wrote honestly before and autobiographical but I found a way of hiding things in there, or sugarcoating them as you say, maybe hiding things and making an uplifting chorus so that people wouldn’t know what I was saying. I just did not want to do that on this. I didn’t feel like hiding anything. I felt like saying what I wanted to say and not bite my tongue anymore. And it felt good, you know. Looking back on it now, singing it, performing it, the only thing I find difficult, honestly, is talking about it. Not so much in a normal interview but with newspapers and magazines that dig away and they’re looking for something juicy. I find that rattling a little bit. It upsets me a little sometimes but the reason that I write is like a lot of writers – so you don’t have to talk about it (laughs). You get it out of you by writing and you don’t have to speak about it cause it’s cathartic, you know. That’s the only side that I find unusual, complete strangers asking me about the most personal details. Other than that, I loved it, I found it very liberating.
Since you’re performing these songs live, is there one that has been the most emotional to perform?
They all are! They are all emotional for me. Everyone keeps asking me how I’m going to perform all these. When I started this tour I was wondering how it would be and I find it good to go there. It’s like exorcising a ghost in a way. Not hiding things is good in a way and I’m finding the connection with my audience is fabulous. People are singing back these songs to me with such conviction and I’m thinking, the album has only been out a little while and people seem to know every word already. At that point, the song becomes theirs, so I am singing it for them, for that person singing it back to me, because that song is now their song, if it resonates with their life in any way and I love that. You get a small connection with somebody for a short period of time and hopefully, I get to articulate in a song what they’re feeling or going through, whether it be happy or sad or hopeful or grateful or whatever it is. I’m happy to be able to do that, my small role to play in a period of their life.
Tell us about the actual writing and recording of this record?
Well, when I write I hear what way I want a song to be in my head. I can hear it all. I’m not formally educated in music but I’ve been doing this for like twenty-six years, since I was a teenager, this is what I do, so I hear exactly what way I want it to be. When I recorded the demos, I sent them to T Bone Burnett, who produced it. I had finished writing at that point and he said, “I want to hear some stuff.” So I sent him some pieces. Normally, the songs are almost finished by the time I finish a demo, then I go in the studio to record it. So I sent him some that I had worked on with some musicians and he said, “No, no, no, no, no. I want to hear the original, I want to hear the grit, I want to hear the raw bones of it.” So I had to send him me, embarrassingly, playing really bad guitar and singing my songs (laughs).
Then I had that awful moment when I was in the studio and we were about to record and he got a great bunch of musicians together for me to work with – there’s Zach Dawes on bass, a fabulous bass player with the Last Shadow Puppets and Mini Mansions and I think Lana Del Rey now, and Jay Bellerose, who worked with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and all kinds of people, Marc Ribot on guitar and he’s known for Tom Waits and loads of other people; Marc Ribot is a guitar god – And I nearly wanted to die when they said, “Oh yeah, we were listening to your demos.” And they played it back and it was me playing awful guitar. I know enough to write on it but I’m not a guitarist and I wanted the ground to open and swallow me up when I had these people listening to my guitar playing. I was so embarrassed. But I knew T Bone wanted that, he wanted the bones of it. He wanted to see where it would go and where it would flow to and I think that was the right decision. That was T Bone’s decision and he wanted it right from the bones and that was a great decision on his part.
Do you remember which song came first?
“Call Me” was the last song I wrote for this album but it was the first one we recorded. We had no rehearsal. I just met the band that morning and we went straight in and just sat down and felt the right vibe and recorded “Call Me” in maybe three or four takes, which felt so beautiful. We recorded all fifteen tracks in seven days, just like that. We just went in and felt it. “Leave Me Lonely” I almost dropped because it wasn’t feeling right. But once it rocked up then I was happy. I was getting rid of it but T Bone said, “Keep going, keep going, change it, do what you want, get it right.” I said I wanted it plugged in and rocked up and then I was happy and we kept it.
You have Jeff Beck playing with you again. Did you know when you were writing “Black Tears” that you wanted him to play on that song?
I wrote that song with Angelo Petraglia. This is the first album I did some co-writing on and I wrote with three wonderful writers on probably about five songs of the fifteen on the album. I normally write alone and I wanted to try co-writing cause I wanted to see how other people wrote and I maybe wanted to get some discipline in my life for writing rather than just letting it come to me and going back to it another day. There’s a starting point and a finishing point when you’re meeting somebody to write with. And Angelo played the most beautiful riff and off we went. It just took off and I wrote the lyrics, which just flowed really well, and I thought I really wanted Jeff on my album because he’s been instrumental in helping my career to do well. He’s been so supportive and I love singing with him. He’s just a genius and such a magical guitar player. It was such a personal album to me and Jeff is such a great friend – and Jools Holland, I asked them both – and I asked Jeff if he would play on it and he said “Absolutely. Send me some tracks.” So I sent him about three tracks, hoping that he would pick “Black Tears,” and he did. He said, “That is the song I want to be on.” I was like, Yes! I wanted him to feel whichever one was calling to him and that’s the one and I was just so thrilled and he did an amazing job. His solo just breaks my heart every time I hear it, it’s phenomenal.
How have your Irish roots infiltrated your music the most?
It’s part of my culture, it’s in my blood. I was brought up with music everywhere in the house. My parents encouraged music, which is everywhere and it’s great and it’s very much encouraged, certainly in my life. I think it all makes sense. Music is all linked. We love to put things in boxes but it doesn’t work like that. Music is all interlinked, as it should be. It has no walls, it has no barriers, and for me I love roots music. When I started singing when I was sixteen I was singing blues and it spoke to me. We haven’t got a lot but we had everything, great neighbors and people who made the most of what they had and a lot of those songs spoke to me. When I looked into music more, Irish music went to America and influenced country and bluegrass and rock & roll and punk. It’s all in there. T Bone and I talked about that a lot, Irish music and American roots music, and about how the Americans brought all their roots and blues back to us and it goes round in circles and it’s a beautiful dance.
I cannot wait to open for him! I love Elvis. I’m only doing this so that I can get to see him perform every night (laughs). I just want to see him every night. I’m just like a crazy fan and I’m actually stalking Elvis (laughs). But I’m delighted to be opening for him. It’s an honor for me. I think he’s a genius songwriter and I’ve gotten to work with him before, in London at the Royal Albert Hall for the Irish President and the Queen of England. He asked me to join him on “What’s So Funny Bout Peace Love & Understanding” for the celebration for a hundred years of Irish freedom and it was just the most amazing night. It felt like a little piece of history was being made and I was honored to be a part of it and I was honored to be a part of it with Elvis. So the next time I was in Nashville, I was with T Bone and he said, “Let’s go and see Elvis,” and I got to see him and hung out with him again. I hadn’t seen him since that performance but we got on really well cause he’s such a cool guy and exactly what you’d hope he’d be. So I can’t wait to hang out with him and watch him perform again. Hopefully, if I sweet talk him enough, I’ll get to sing with him again (laughs).
Aren’t you doing something with Tony Visconti as well?
I’m doing two days of filming with Tony Visconti. He’s asked me to get involved in a project of his with unsigned bands and I’ve come to Dublin to find some great unsigned bands for Tony. Then we’re going to have a concert at the end with Tony and Stewart Copeland and Bob Geldof and myself and the unsigned bands. We’re going to have a concert singing songs of Tony Visconti, songs he worked on, as a tribute to him.
What is the rest of your year looking like?
Well, I’m doing the shows with Elvis and I’m doing another few shows around with my band, a full set. When we’re opening for Elvis, we’re only doing thirty or forty-five minutes, but I will be doing a full gig on my own shows. Then I have other stuff to do in Europe and then I’ll be going back to the States as soon as possible, probably at the end of the year or beginning of next year. We’ll have a lot of shows hopefully lined up and some TV shows are calling so it’s looking good.
I am really happy that I’ve made the album I wanted to make. I’m happy that it’s all going well so far, cause I’ve put my heart and soul into it. I’m really delighted so far, over here anyway, in England and Ireland and Spain, all over Europe, that shows are sold out and people are demanding to come to more gigs so I hope that happens in the States as well. I think they’ll get it, you know.
I think so, it’s a very honest album and I think we need more of that in our world.
We need honesty 100%. Have you looked at the video for “Should Have Been You”? I’m very honest in that video and I brought a whole other meaning to that song. I brought it to somewhere else, probably because I was spending a lot of time in the States. I was recording over there and I have a lot of fans over there and they’d be ringing me going, “Oh my God, are you watching what is happening over here?” So when I came to make the video, I wanted to speak for all of us, and for women in particular. I hope it relates to men too but I’m a woman so I see it from my perspective and I wanted to say something bigger with that video. So if you watch that, I am certainly honest. It will probably get me into trouble but who cares. I’ve got to say what I want to say. I am not biting my tongue anymore.