Imelda May: ‘A lot of people chase after fame but I wasn’t doing that’

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Irish singer-songwriter Imelda May did when she discovered that record label executives wanted to market her as a Britney Spears-style teenage pop princess. That self-assurance would serve her well in the notoriously fickle music industry. Instead of instant (and possibly fleeting) fame, she patiently waited until her thirties to rise to prominence. And when she did, it was entirely on her terms. “When I heard what it was they wanted me to be I refused, it wasn’t for me,” she says today. “A lot of people chase after fame but I wasn’t doing that. I wanted to be fulfilled, enjoy myself and love what I was doing. I was going to stick with it.”

Now 45, Imelda’s principles have served her well throughout her three-decade career. She has lost none of the steeliness she displayed when, aged just 16, she first played with Ronnie Wood on the club circuit in her home city of Dublin.

That sort of exposure, coupled with her raw songwriting talent and natural charisma, guaranteed interest but, after Imelda turned down the record deals she had been offered, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

“TV’s Michael Parkinson ‘discovered’ me and put me in his son’s pub, singing every other week,” she explains. “He tried to get me into a few places but that fizzled out. Then along came Jools Holland – the musician and TV host.”

After years of playing the club circuit in Ireland and the UK, polishing her songs and performance, she was finally invited to appear on the BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland in 2008. Until that point, despite the early promise, she had begun to think “maybe nothing is going to happen”. But her appearance was life-changing.

Her subsequent record, Love Tattoo, was a hit and she has since worked with a series of major names, picking up famous fans including Jeff Goldblum, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Not yet quite a household name in Britain, Imelda has sold out the Royal Albert Hall three times and her third album, Mayhem, went triple platinum in Ireland, where she is a huge star and friends with U2 star Bono.

“He’s a bit of a magician, he talks in riddles and has a beautiful way with words,” says Imelda. “He’s an artist through and through but he makes a mean margherita. He’s a party animal that’s for sure.”

All in all, it’s been quite a journey

“I started with blues at 16 and then went into jazz, it’s just no one knew me doing those things,” she explains in her soft, lilting south Dublin accent. “I did punk, rhythm and blues. I was experimenting and going through different types that moved me, which is exactly what you should do.

“Rockabilly was what I got known for but that’s not who I am and so I constantly evolve. It’s not a commercial plot, it’s just me following what I want to do.”

Since her 2008 breakthrough, Imelda has toured with the Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck and jazz-pop musician Jamie Cullum among others.

“I loved working with the late Lou Reed, I was a huge fan of his for a lot of my life,” she says.

She is thankful to her record label who gave her a two-year break following her last tour when she felt burnt out mentally and creatively.

It provided space for her latest reinvention as a poet on her sixth album, Slip Of The Tongue, a spoken word EP accompanied by ethereal strings.

Imelda’s sensual voice has a natural melodic cadence to it making every one of the nine tracks a gorgeous listen. She had written poems for years at the behest of friends and family to celebrate the milestones in their lives. They urged her to share them with fans.

Then, last year, she had an idea for a piece of performance art, which she named Hallowed, for Latitude, the annual Suffolk festival. “I wrote poetry inside a glass box live each night for three nights and would come out with a different poem at the end of each one, it was beautiful,” she drawls.

“I was in a gorgeous white marquee in the forest and this glass box was lit up in the middle of it. Everybody sat around on cushions and church pews and there were candles all over the place.”

At the end of every 45-minute set she would read the finished poem aloud.

“I found it really uncomfortable, which made me realise I was on the right path,” she says. But the break from recording worked to everyone’s advantage because not only did Imelda write Slip Of The Tongue, but also a new music album and a poetry book.

“My record company were a bit taken aback about how busy I had been,” she laughs.

“They just thought I was sunbathing or something.”

Slip of the Tongue interweaves female sexuality, love, heartbreak and Covid-19 isolation. One of the poems, Liberty Bell, is an ode to The Liberties – Dublin’s historic working-class neighbourhood where Imelda grew up, the youngest of five children.

“It’s a proud area,” she says. “That is partly why I wrote that poem because so many people are moving into the area and are loving it but I wanted them to know who she is.

“I saw her as this woman who had really tough times and raised her children and came out the other side of it.”

Her boisterous, loving childhood was “full of music and laughter and disagreements and fun”. As the youngest sibling in a home where space was tight, she slept in her parents’ bedroom until she was 14. “That was normal, I didn’t know any different,” she laughs.

“That’s the magic of kids for you. I didn’t question it and in fact I liked it. A lot of children with their own bedrooms are creeping in with their parents – not until they are 14 of course – but they end up in your bed at some point.”

After leaving school at 16, she worked “every job you can imagine”.

In her early twenties she spent more than two years as a carer in a nursing home, an experience she has previously described as “an honour”.

She grafted with bands in pubs and clubs, all the while “writing ferociously at home on my own”.

Many people presumed her last record, Life Love Flesh Blood, released in 2017, was about the breakdown of her 13-year marriage to the English rockabilly guitarist Darrel Higham.

“There were two songs about that and the rest was about another relationship that blossomed afterwards and ended,” she says. “It wasn’t a heartbreak album.”

She hopes her integrity resonates with audiences.

“Personally it might not be great for me when it gets out there but I get so many messages from people saying that I said what they felt but couldn’t say. Maybe that’s my job? What I’m supposed to be doing in life.”

Home is now Hampshire where she lives with her daughter Violet, seven, and her new partner, a musician she describes as “supportive, hilarious and talented”.

Sadly her beloved dog Alfie died in the early stages of lockdown. “People have lost their parents and children so I’m not comparing it to that at all, but he was a family member for 13 years,” she says.

“I loved him and he loved me. It’s only three or four weeks ago that he died and I miss him deeply. I still have his toys around and I’m still hoovering his hair off the carpet.”

She recently revealed her beloved pet saved Violet’s life when she was a baby.

Imelda said the dog, who died in May, alerted her when Violet pulled a plastic bag over her face. Alfie kept whimpering until she ran to find her child unable to breathe.

Despite such sadness, like many in lockdown, she has relished the chance to slow down in recent weeks and hopes this quieter period can introduce poetry to new readers.

“You don’t have to commit to a whole book, you can get a beautiful story, feeling and description in one page,” she says. “It’s almost like you can read a whole life in one page and it will stay with you for a long time.”

Before we say our goodbyes, I apologise for massively over-running on our allotted time. “You’ve done me a favour,” she quips in a reminder of her honesty.

“I was doing home-schooling and I bloody hate it so I’m like the narky child hiding in the bedroom doing anything except that. We’re doing fractions, that’s why I have loads of time.”

Maybe, that will mean lots more poem-writing too.

Imelda May’s new EP, Slip of the Tongue, is out now on Decca Records

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