THE GIRL I USED TO BE: A CONVERSATION WITH IMELDA MAY

 

PHOTOGRAPHY Eddie Otchere
WORDS Harley Cassidy


     Since the release of Tribal three years ago, Imelda May has been through her fair share of heartbreak, an ingredient that could be acknowledged as very necessary when singing the blues. It’s funny what a series of events can do to change you as a person. It’s no secret she’s shaken up her formula; the twisted, Dita Von Teese-esque updo that became so synonymous with her image has been replaced with a full face of fringe and her usual breakneck rockabilly has been toned down to a sultry, contemplative style that suits her beautifully. For her latest release, Life Love Flesh Blood, she’s kept her close supporters near in the form of Jeff Beck and Jools Holland but entered the studio with a whole new game changer - celebrated musician and producer, T-Bone Burnett. This fusing of minds has made for what could be Imelda May’s most poignant release ever. We picked her brains on Irish folk music, exorcising her demons and phoney rock star personas.

 

Harley Cassidy: So just to jump straight in, why have you called this album Life Love Flesh Blood?
Imelda May: I felt that it encompassed everything that I was writing about; I had lots of changes, and I felt it just sat right. I wrote about life, love, death, desire, sensuality and family and I kinda figured blood was family and blood rushing through your veins - it just all seemed to work. It's actually in "How Bad Can A Good Girl Be" and Gavin Friday was sitting with me hanging out and he asked me to tell him some of the lyrics I had written and when I did, he said - “I think you've just found your album title” - and he was right.


Harley: You’ve described the upcoming album as “therapeutic”. In particular, on "Black Tears", one of the lyrics state’s “how did it all go wrong, we seemed to have it all”. What demons were you exorcising on this record?
Imelda: All of them… it's what writing is about isn’t it?! "Black Tears" came from a moment when I had literal black tears running down my face and I saw myself in the mirror - I just tapped into all that when I was writing. There's a great Beatles song that I always loved doing called "Oh Darling" that I used to sing, and I love how it starts off so sweetly and then goes into this insane screech - I always loved that - and I seemed to, without meaning to, get some of that in the song.


Harley: Do you think having your heart broken is a requirement in singing the blues?
Imelda: I think it bloody helps! I think life helps. Living helps. I think roots music doesn’t frown upon people who have lived. Life happens and as a writer you have to write about that; anybody who writes honestly will put life into it. Roots music, rock and roll, blues… they are all great and encourage people to connect through songs that are written about real life. For me, blues made sense as I was singing that in Dublin as a 16 year old, and as life has gone on I’ve understood the words I was singing more and more ... I had a great family and had a great time and I lived in a really great community, but it was full of drugs and joy riding, 40 kids to a classroom, seven of us in a two bedroom house. Blues was something that worked for me, and I could connect to a lot of the things that were sung about. 


Harley: Jools Holland and Jeff Beck have always been big supporters of yours and they both also feature on the new album - what is it about them both that works with your music? 
Imelda: Jools is an optimist, he's a forward thinker. I love that about him. He's a lot of fun. He is very witty and very clever. I love his openness in embracing new things as well as the music that influenced him. He has his eye ahead but he's still playing the stuff that started it all. I don't know how he ever makes any money out of touring with 700 people on stage! He's introduced me to other artists and we talk a lot - I went to his house and he was playing me this old classical tune that he discovered was an inspiration for a later rhythm and blues track... I just love the history of music and he brought me right back to this really old record that he found. It was just fascinating. He's a very knowledgeable man - he reads. I'm so jealous of his arts collection and his books. He's such an artist and acreative open-minded guy. An international treasure! 

Jeff is a genius, it's as simple as that. I'm lucky he's become a great friend. He’s also one who has his ear to the ground; he'll turn up at little venues - he turned up to see me play at Ronnie Scots and it wasn't even an Imelda May gig - I was working with a friend of mine named Leo Green and his singer was ill so he asked me to cover - Jeff heard I was on and turned up. Jeff does that. Finds out about an up and coming band and he gets involved with who he likes. He's just done an album with Bones. Fabulous, fabulous powerful duo - a great band. Jeff just made one of his best album’s ever and that's the thing with him, I keep thinking it cant get any better and it does. I love that he's an innovator and when I sing with him I feel like I'm singing a duet with another vocalist.


Harley: People seem to have been asking a lot about the change in your appearance and sound and whether that is intentional. However, it seems like a natural progression to me, people always change as they grow and I don’t think you’ve necessarily planned out this shift in attitude. Would you agree?
Imelda: I'm just following my gut and doing what I feel like. It's not planned, I’m not trying to come up with any clever strategy. I've never done that. To stay the same musically and have the same haircut for the rest of your life… you can't live with yourself that way. You should be able to change your mind, change your way, change your feeling. I still love rockabilly, I love that it started off as rebellion and punk and it's responsible for a lot but it doesn't mean I have to be a slave to it for the rest of my life and the guys who made that music were innovators; they were rebellious and they changed and I just want to be what I feel like. 


Harley: The rockabilly genre you favour is synonymous with being a pure form of rock and roll and having the persona to match. Do you feel like it’s important to bring a certain level of attitude or style to your performances to enhance the experience of your music?
Imelda: That’s a very good question. I think a lot of people get that wrong. I think it's ridiculous to bring a certain level of attitude, that’s fake. Then you just completely miss the point. I think if you have an attitude, have it, and if you don’t, don’t pretend you do. I think you have to be true to yourself. Of course, when you’re on stage you have to be a magnified version of yourself - it's a weird situation being on stage, your standing there with lots of people, paying to see you, and looking at you - your kind of the vortex of the room, whether you like it or not. A lot of people don’t like it.


Harley: I’m from Irish stock myself and music seems to be a big part of every Irish person’s life, particularly the folk songs. What were some of your favourites that you were brought up on?
Imelda: That's true - in Ireland, music is a normal part of everyday life. At some point during the night, a musical instrument would come out and that's where the night goes. That's just my culture. Some people are brilliant players and others not so much, but in Ireland, people tend to love anyone who sings from the heart or plays from the heart. I love Irish folk - I love what people like The Dubliners did; I think Luke Kelly is one of the best and he was friends with Ewan Maccoll and he influenced and brought about a whole folk revival because he thought a lot of the stories would disappear. I love stories in songs and I love hearing about people lives in songs. Van Morrison - he's a fabulous man. I love the way he just closes his eyes and howls it out and his writing is just genius. I love Thin Lizzy and Horslips. I love Irish punk like The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers. Folk is a massive part of our culture, I love the percussiveness of Irish music - it gets me every time.

 
 

"I'm just following my gut and doing what I feel like... You should be able to change your mind, change your way, change your feeling."

 

Harley: Listening back to your older songs off of Love Tattoo, I sense that you have always had fun with your music. What elements of recording and performing are fun for you today?
Imelda: All of it - otherwise I wouldn't do it. I'm ruled by fun and I think boredom is my enemy. I like to have a good laugh. It's good to put every part of yourself into the songs, I find it all fun and I love every part of the process. I love recording, I love editing and mastering, I love producing - T Bone produced this one. The last one I co-produced with Mike Cross and the other one's I produced myself. You’re just so engaged and obsessed by it; I love touring, I love getting into the artwork… I love my job!


Harley: Music has obviously been such a huge part of your life for a long time. What sort of advice would you give the teenage Imelda May that was singing around the Dublin gig circuit?
Imelda: I wouldn't change anything… I was given great advice by all the musicians and I listened. I would say listen more, perhaps? I followed my gut and I'm happy I did. I’m not saying it was all easy and it all went well but I think that sometimes when it doesn't go well, the outcome ends up inspiring a song or an album and then you think, ‘well if I hadn't gone through that I wouldn't have written this.’ My advice would be keep doing what you’re doing and enjoy it and don’t get side tracked by people trying to wave empty promises. Also, savour the journey – don’t aim for an ending. I would also say, ‘yes, you can be a musician and that can be your main job.’ That was one thing I didn’t know. I just did it because I loved it.


Harley: You said that working with T Bone Burnett was great as he gave you space to be yourself. Is that something you have struggled with before in the past?
Imelda: I had a little trepidation before working with T Bone, yes. I had worked with Mike Crossey before and I felt like that was a joint effort and I felt like we were both in there working on it together. T Bone is a force and I wondered how it was gonna be; he's a big character. He has very strong ideas and I was wondering how that was gonna work, because I do too. I know how I want my music to be, so we met up a lot before I started recording.

But, he was an absolute joy to work with: we discussed things, he didn’t force anything, he wasn’t bullish in any way, he had fabulous ideas and great ways of putting them forward. He didn’t force my songs to go a certain way, he just let them evolve. He'd say, “let them find their own way babe, keep playing all of you, keep going…”


Harley: I wonder in general, do female fans respond to you differently compared to male fans?
Imelda: I think it's nice for women to have other women writing songs as they have a different experience. I write from a female perspective, sometimes just from a human perspective. Some of these songs will be different on the new album now I’m a single mother working my ass off, so I suppose that goes in there. I’ve been heartbroken and in love, discovering the joys of new love and lust and guilt and anger, so I don’t know if that speaks to women or not but I hope it does. I think women are great. I think we kick ass.


Harley: You have an upcoming tour in May which is very exciting, what are your favourite cities to play?
Imelda: Dublin’s my hometown and London’s my second home. I love LA, New York, Paris… Madrid, is vibrant! Crazy people!


Harley: Where is your favourite place you have travelled to with your music?
Imelda: I just love travelling all over. I love the different vibes from different cities and towns and countries. I’m very lucky to travel and I definitely have the travelling bug. I want to go to Japan, Cuba, Mexico, India…there are still actually a lot of places I’ve not been. I love America, it has a lovely vibe. I love Europe and the history. I love the Colorado Mountains. I love New Orleans - God, that place has magic in its bones!


Harley: You’ve met and worked with some incredible musicians over your career, whats the most important thing you have learnt from talking to these masters?
Imelda: To listen! Simple as that. Listen and learn, soak it all up and have fun - have a laugh. Don’t be another weirdo that they meet. Or do! Do be a weirdo! Be both!


Harley: Finally, what musicians are you impressed by lately?
Imelda: Wow, yeah there is so much good stuff… I love Mini Mansions. It’s Zac Dawes band, who is the bass player on my new album and he is also playing in The Last Shadow Puppets. I love Alex and Miles. Miles is a cheeky scallywag, I can’t even tell you the stories and he better not tell you any of mine! I think I’ve been the last person to get into Ryan Adams in the whole world… why am I so late? I’m obsessed with Blake Mills. He’s a genius songwriter, genius guitar player, has a beautiful voice and the production is just left of centre. You don’t know what’s going to happen at any given time, he breaks all the rules and I love it. I love Ezra Furman, Devotchka, Heartless Bastards, John Grant… I’m a massive fan of John Grant. I’m the crazy fan. We were at a gig in Iceland and he put the mic out to the audience to sing a line and I was the only one who sang back because it was in the middle of nowhere and they didn’t know him as well, so I sang back very loudly and the band just cracked up when they saw that it was me! Kate Tempest, I love her writing, I’ve not seen her live but I read her written word. I’m rediscovering PJ Harvey, which is quite nice because I’ve always loved her and haven’t listened to her in ages.