In what starts off like a scene from Ballykissangel, a man and a woman meet to discuss their visions of an Ireland untroubled by past, promise or papacy. The only difference is, there’s no hunky priest to mediate the conversation, and I doubt Imelda May is especially interested in discussing the secular within her spiritual oeuvre. She is, of course, one of the most accomplished blues singers of her generation, but at her heart is a person every bit as true to the spirit of Dublin as the myriad of characters that waltz in and out of Roddy Doyle’s eminent Barrytown Trilogy.
“Irish [people] always bond when you travel, and you hear another accent,” May says. “You’re the same; we’re all the same. When you hear another Irish accent from the other side of the room, you go, ‘Oh, hello!’ I think we’re really good at being a community, aren’t we?”
May’s career started just as the BBC show started to wind down, but there’s a fire to her that makes the sordid liaison that made up much of Ballykissangel’s runtime feel quaint in comparison. It only takes a garbled mention of her 2020 poem You Don’t Get To Be Racist and Irish to spark off the passion that tends to elevate a strong blues track into a superlative blues recording. “It came from watching events unfold, like everybody else,” she sighs. “Watching George Floyd murdered, and the Black Lives Matter protest… I was incensed: I was furious! Because I saw…”
May takes a breath before plunging herself back into the memory that created the anger in the first place: “It’s been rising for a while, you see, this Far Right Movement in Ireland gaining momentum. It doesn’t make sense in Ireland. You see it in other countries, but it really doesn’t make sense in Ireland. It doesn’t make sense in Ireland at all for me. And I saw, after travelling a lot around the world, I saw the American Irish were flying Trump flags alongside Irish flags alongside The Southern Cross. And I thought, ‘What?’ I went online and saw there was a lot of Irish Americans that were being really racist. I didn’t sit down and think, ‘I’m going to write a poem today’. It flew out of me. I couldn’t stop meself, I was full of emotion, just like a lot of other people were, I thought.”
“We’ve been oppressed all of our lives, for a huge amount of our history,” she bellows. “We don’t get to become the oppressors, we’re supposed to have empathy and understanding. We know how it feels to be oppressed, so surely that should make us.”
Realising that she’s on camera, May elects to take this as an opportunity to pause before constructing her next barbed sentence. As if searching for inspiration, she looks up to the ceiling. It won’t be the last time she does so during the interview. “We know how it feels to be oppressed. Surely we don’t get to be the oppressors. How does it work out that we expect as a nation to be welcomed when we’re in need, and if that’s what the case is when we’ve emigrated all over the world? And the famine – which we all know was genocide!”
She slows herself once more: “You use mass emigration to escape the horrors from home, and to be accepted in with open arms, and create a new life, and then not to be able to do that for somebody else who is in the same boat confused me.”
May turns once more to her drink, just as the etchings of a smile are forming: “Lastly, a lot of people I saw were – certainly abroad – harking back to an Ireland that just doesn’t exist anymore. They were talking about an Ireland that might have existed in their Great Great Grandfather’s time, but that’s not the Ireland that’s there now. You know, we were one of the first countries to have almost unanimously, almost a majority, for gay marriage in Ireland, which a lot of other countries don’t know. We’re fighting for human rights all the time… We’re becoming a more diverse society, which is ultimately healthier for us. They were talking about Ireland like it was that Wild Thyme movie, where they’re all going around in tweed on us, and talking in this crazy. We’ve become the movie version of what Ireland is. And I was saying, ‘That’s not what Ireland is: that’s not who we are!’ Welcome to the Ireland that we are; it’s wonderful. Come on in!”
Here in her living room (we’re communicating over Zoom), May demonstrates a side to herself worlds away from the decor that serenades her live shows. She’s sitting in what I can only describe as a woolen jumper, sipping down the remnants of a clean, crisp brew. Whatever stylistic quirks audiences expect from their doyen of rockabilly is nowhere to be found in this scenario. Instead, she’s sitting comfortably, juggling between the whims of her growling pet, and the drink she very much wishes to finish. And yet somewhere between the mug, the mirror and the sofa sits the chanteuse whose purr, poise and growl endeared her to blues savant, and television impresario, Jools Holland.
“Jools is amazing,” May says. “Jools is a very personable man. Definitely, when I went on his show, that kick-started my career onto another level, for sure. And that was a last-minute thing. Natalie Cole got sick. Jools called me to step in; course I jumped!”
Having just completed her second album, Love Tatoo, both May’s songcraft, and shrill, singular vocal style was already gaining traction from those in the music industry. But she’s not wrong when says that Holland’s endorsement elevated her to greater heights: Her third album, Mayhem, deservedly hit the UK top ten when it was released, while no less a luminary than Bono stepped in to “mentor” her through the creative process that led to the 2017 meisterwerk Life Love Flesh Blood. But whatever the trappings of fame, or the breadth of her fanbase (which now includes everyone from the idiosyncratic Elvis Costello, to the braggadocious Van Morrison), she still raises her cup to the man who gifted her the big break.
“He knows everybody, and he gathers people together,” she adds. “He’s such a lover of music, and has such a knowledge for music as well. You could talk to him about anything from any era, and he’ll just know ‘Who was on it; who wrote it’… He’s one of those amazing fountains of knowledge, and I found him extremely interesting. He’s just so much fun to be around, his joy for music. It spreads.”
She chuckles knowingly to herself: “I always think he’d make a great character. A wizard in a movie. He has magic about him.”
She’s not here to talk about the past, but to talk about 11 Past The Hour, her most recent endeavour. The project, to this listener, is her lushest and most sophisticated yet, certainly from a sonic point of view. From the piercing title track to the thunderous ‘Made To Love’, the record conjures a world where the sexually liberated and the intellectually constipated drink from the same well of thought. It’s an album of shadows, spirits and silhouettes. One guitar lick ends before another barrelling pattern begins, and the audience is once thrust headfirst into a maze of apocalyptic echo. Riddled with colloquialisms, constructs and crossfades, the album is arguably May’s acme as a sound artist. “I love producing. I’ve co-produced almost all of my albums. In fact, my Love Tattoo, I did on my own. I produced it myself, and I’m hardly ever asked about it, so thank you!”
She’s smiling but gets more serious as she discusses the work: “It was more difficult because ‘Lockdown’ had set in. Luckily, I’d almost finished all recordings, almost finished all the writing. I always over-record, and I’d done all my backing vocals, and I’d done everything that I want. I got all the takes that I knew out of everybody, I’d gotten every vibe that I needed. So, I knew [corrects herself]. Tim and I knew that we had it. We had it in the bag. But when it came to mixing, it was ‘Lockdown’. Normally, we get into the studio…
She turns to ask me a question: “Do you mix and record?”
This isn’t the time for the usual ‘I play with heart strings, not guitar strings,’ so I shake my head. “Normally, when we get into the studio, it’s so much fun to mix,” she adds. “You have all the pieces of the puzzle that you need, and it’s trying to figure out what can go together, and for me, I find it quite…electrifying, you know? I find huge excitement in it, that you can get all the pieces…That you can get them together, and get the different arrangements that you want and sort out, and sounds, and you can play with it.”
She searches for the perfect metaphor: “It’s like being in a toy shop – just brilliant.”
That’ll do it!
“A lot of that was taken away from us, because we were at home. We had to find a new way of doing it. So, we were sending links back and forth. We did get the vibrancy from it, we did get the joy, but it just took a little bit more time.”
Amidst the backing vocals comes one direct from the world of stadium rock. It’s Noel Gallagher, the venerable guitarist from Oasis, who has proven one of the more polymathic artists of his generation. And no wonder: he’s ostensibly Irish!
“[Noel]’s brilliant. He’s a great guy. I find him a very interesting man and a very interested man…. He knows his stuff. He seems to be always creating something, anytime I meet him. Yeah, he’s fun to be around. He’s very witty. So, I was delighted that he wanted to be on the album. I love his writing, but I love his voice as well. I love his vibe, and he definitely brought a most amazing vibe to [Just One Kiss].”
I prefer his singing style to Liam, I tell her: “He’ll start the war,” she snorts! “I was a fan of Noel’s both in Oasis and Noel & His High Flying Birds, so just before asking him I just went to see him and The High Flying Birds in The Palladium not that long before. I had it in my head, ‘I’d love to ask him,’ and watching him on that gig I was thinking, ‘God: he’d sound so good on that song!’ I was over the moon when he said yes!”
Similarly ecstatic when she was pencilled in for The Graham Norton Show, May duly appeared with the Clondalkin born presenter on March 5th. May’s performance was among her finest ever, achieving spectacularly dexterous leaps from guttural growls to the soaring, show-stopping falsettos that were heard on ‘Made To Love”s chorus. There, caught in the density of the song’s troubled spiritual journey, the song captured a blood that could only have come from a place of tremendous security.
“.I found that I was excited,” May admits. “I was very grateful because so many shows are not having live music anymore, and musicians have nowhere to play. I was very grateful for a chance to be on the show, and to play live. But when I got in the studio, my nerves hit me more than I think they ever had. I think it was ‘Sensory Overload’ after lockdown. To have people there, and lights flashing and twirling…cameras whizzing past…even to be in a dress in high heels, and see some of me band. It was amazing, but also overwhelming….I felt like I went from a really quiet library to a rave.”
“WOAH: it just hit me,” she continues. “So, I had to take a minute, and regroup myself and then I decided.”
Again, she searches for the words: “I thought, ‘I need to take this from my head into my heart’. ‘Cos I love the song, I’m happy with the song. I’ve written it how I want it to be; the lyrics. I thought, ‘Ok, I’m proud of this, so let’s feel it, let’s just feel the song.’ So, I went from there to there, and [feigns the sound of an aeroplane taking off]. I went for it. And I have to say I felt I levitated a little bit, as it went along. It felt so good.”
Apropos to form, May has nothing but compliments for her fellow ex-pat: “Graham’s a great guy. I call him, ‘Beautifully irreverent.’ I love him!”
And what of Ronnie Wood, the garrulous guitar player who was recently the subject of the sprawling Someone Up There Likes Me? “Have you seen that film?” May asks. “Isn’t it a great film! It’s such a gorgeous documentary movie: I’m glad he [Wood] made that [film]. He’s such a character. He’s a great guitarist, but he’s made such a great contribution to music, and when you see that documentary, you see how…the movements between his bands and The Faces, and when he was with Jeff Beck. He’s gotten around a lot, so he has, and he’s worked with amazing people, and then with him…when you hear him play..”
She stands up straight: “Everybody knows that Ronnie’s great. You hear him, and you know he’s a great guy, and a great character, and if you’re not mad about Ronnie, then I don’t know if we can be friends. He’s one of those: he’s just brilliant. I don’t know anyone who’s not mad about him. But when we’re in the studio, and he starts playing that solo, a lot of studios see amazing people come in and out all the time. It’s not unusual. I can tell you that the whole place stopped when he starts playing. Just ‘WOOAH!’ That moment [draws breath] when he started playing that solo, he just has a magic about him. He has just such a distinctive sound of his own. You just go, ‘Oh, my God! That’s the sound: that’s Ronnie’. Just as it starts echoing through the halls, everybody just stops. People were knocking on the doors…[smiles knowingly]. He just killed it!”
Wood’s guitar has rarely sounded finer, wailing across a relentless Delta blues number that harkens back to the golden days of Zeppelin. 11 Past The Hour is an excellent work, but for all her rapier sharp-wit and glorious self-confidence, it’s her ability to recognise the importance of the here and now that endears both as an interviewee and a stadium attraction.
“I made [the album] with Tim Bran and Davide Rossi; we wrote most of it together. I recorded two with Cam Blackwood,” May adds. “I just saw my first butterfly of the year,” she chuckles. “It flew right past the window. That’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
“Cam Blackwood, I did two with…but Tim Bran and Davide Rossi and I did the majority of it.”
Her mind is clearly still on the animal, fluttering across the vicinity of her home. But much like the butterfly that bounces across the doorway, May’s creative energy is one of focus and finesse, as much as it is about emotional impulse. But does emotion form an integral part of her compositional muse?
“Good question. Yes, yes, 100%.”
Just as I think she’s finished, she elaborates on the sentiment: “I work on it… I’m very much heart-based. When I’m writing, it starts from the heart, 100%. Once I get a spark of inspiration, or an idea, or just something I want to say, I’ll fling it down on the page. It normally flies out of me quickly when the inspiration takes hold, and then I’ll work on it. Once I get the initial bones of it down, then I’ll work on it and try and…”
She looks up to the ceiling once again, as if waiting for the words to fall down: “…Make it more eloquent.”
Eloquence is an Irish trait (look at Yeats and Joyce), but so is filling the pubs at Templebar with mirth, music and laughter. And no matter that she lives in England, her heart truly lies with The Emerald Isle, and all of its people: “I love going home to perform. The audiences are the best in the world. I always tell people that they’ll enjoy playing here. Irish audiences are brilliant. I’ve already had about three tours cancelled. The new one is booked for next April, I believe.”
’11 Past The Hour’ will be released via Decca Records on April 16th.