Her U.S. tour with Jeff Beck already in full swing, the
songstress prepares to move forward into “Mayhem”.
BY NANCY DUNHAM
It’s difficult not to love Imelda May. Forget the
rockabilly/blues she sings with such abandon, the Irish woman is truly one of
the most exuberant, energetic, friendly people you’ll likely meet. Remember
seeing her on the Grammy Awards and thinking how nice she seemed? She really is
just that way – chatty, happy, and very forthcoming.
Let’s face it – anyone whose music has caught the ear of
Jeff Beck not to mention the ears of music fans in her home country and throughout
the U.K. – has the right to sport a huge ego. But even after the guitar legend
tapped her to sing “Lilac Wine” on his album Emotion & Commotion and perform with him at the Grammys, May seems
willing to talk about the musical sensation she has generated as almost a
matter of Irish luck and some perseverance.
Of course everyone knows that it’s May’s incredible talent
that brought her music to the forefront. Get prepared for lot more buzz when
her new album is released in the U.S., most likely later this year
or early 2001.
But just who is Imelda May, really? To find out, BLURT spoke
the woman about her influences, career and how a crow named Dave helped her get
the career break of a lifetime.
BLURT: How did you
discover that you wanted a career in music?
MAY: Funny enough I was already doing it before I realized
what I wanted to do. I was 16 when I started singing in a blues club in Dublin. They used to sneak
me into these places and the security man would turn a blind eye because he
knew I was singing in there. I was at that teenage age trying to figure out
what I wanted to do with me life. I was already doing it. It had just never
dawned on me that it was something you could do as a career. It was something
that I loved and I was doing it trying to get gigs, sitting in on jam session
with fantastic musicians on Monday evenings, and we’d play late. I’d be there
’til four or five in the morning. My poor parents would be tearing their hair
out wondering where I was and I’d be sitting in front of a band or jumping up
That’s great that the music community was so
open, that they welcomed you in.
I was probably a
novelty to them, because I absolutely loved it.
I went to college just for one year, for a foundation. And you get a
little bit of everything. I loved that but it wasn’t something I wanted to do.
It felt like a chore. So I rarely did my work and then I thought, “Hang on a
second. I’m doing the wrong thing.” I was about 17 when it dawned on me what I
wanted to do. I was already in deep. I am glad I got into music because I
absolutely love it. It definitely is a calling. Sometimes I wouldn’t get paid
at gigs and I’d find a way to make it work.
It’s nice to be paid though.
Next week is my uncle
Patty’s 80th birthday and I’m flying back to Dublin for It. It was him that gave me words
of wisdom when I was 17. I was sitting in a newspaper van — he sold and
delivered the newspapers around – and he asked me if I was busy. I said, “Yeah,
I’m really busy.” And he asked me what gigs I was doing and I said, “I’m doing
this gig and that gig and this one.” And he said to me, “Are you getting paid?”
And I said, “No, no, no I’m just really glad to be on.” And he looked at me and
he said, “If you’re that cheap, you’ll never be idle.” That was when I started
to think about asking some kind of a fee.
Tell me about your first gig
My brother-in-law was
a musician and he had me singing a bluesy number and I went down where he was
doing a gig in a little pub, downstairs in this pub in Dublin. I was there with my sister and my
brother to see my brother in law play. And then he called me up to sing the
song on the stage, and that’s when I was about 16 and I never left.
Were you nervous?
I remember my knees
were literally knocking. And it was a really long song with six verses in it
and I forgot them all and I just sang one verse six times, and everyone in the
pub cheered really loudly. I went down every week from there. They had jam
sessions so it was a great way of learning and seeing lots of different styles
and I was just addicted then. And from there I’d meet people and they’d say, “I
have a gig; why don’t you come to that and sing a couple of numbers with us?” I
figured out the keys to the songs and I’d write them on me hand and then I’d go
to the gigs with all these keys written on me hand.
there used to be jam sessions in a little café and my other brother used to
bring me. He’s a taxi driver so he’d bring me and then come and collect me. My
family was very supportive. They come down and keep an eye and make sure I was
Is that when you started to write music?
I was 14 years old
when I started to write. Rubbish I have to say. They weren’t fabulous songs I
have to say – “Walking hand in hand in the sand.” They were real rubbish. I
started at that age and it was just from listening to all kinds of music and
just kept going and didn’t actually perform me own songs ’til I got this band
together three or four years ago. I was always in other people’s bands but I always
wrote. Sometimes I gave my songs to other people to do but I never did them
myself. I wanted to write songs for somebody and give to them to do. Then I
started my own band and I never looked back. I was so delighted. I feel
fulfilled to be able to do my own songs eventually, at last, and I remember the
excitement of it.
Why did you start your own band?
It was the right
time. I needed to do my own thing. I really, really wanted to do my own songs.
One night we were in France and I was signing with [a band] and I was back
stage with the bass player. I sang one of my songs to him after I told him I gave
it to someone else. He said, “What are you giving that away for?” I said, “I
don’t know. I wrote it and thought a man
should sing it, not a woman.” He told me I was wrong. So I left the band I was
in and asked some friends would they be interested in joining and they said
yes, and I never looked back. It’s grown wings and taken flight, if you will. I
wish I had done it years ago.
How did you begin to work with Jeff Beck?
My husband had worked
with him before. Later we were doing a gig and Jeff came to the gig. I had a
pet crow that I rescued from local pack and we were raising him. He needed
somewhere to go because he was starting to fly and I wanted him to go back to
the wild. And Jeff Beck’s wife was there and she rescues animals and they had a
crow and came to have a look at Dave, our crow. She said, “Funny enough, I have
an aviary space available at the moment. I would love to take the crow off your
hands. Come down to the house and see if you want to give him to us.”
So after the gig we went down to their house
and then they took Dave and we ended up staying there for the weekend and had
lots of tea and drank lots of gin and sang songs and Jeff said we have to do
some stuff together and before we knew it we were recording.
I can’t even imagine working with someone like
He is a genius. One
night he took the comb from my back pocket and played a song with my comb and
it sounded fantastic. He tried to show me some chords [on the guitar] but I
have normal human fingers and he has these magic fingers that can fly all over
the place. I laughed my head off because one thing he was showing me he said
was really simple. It was easy – for him. It breaks your heart some of the
songs he plays; they are fantastic. Oh my God. On his new album he asked me to
sing “Lilac Wine.” With “Lilac Wine” I wanted to keep it simple and sweet so
people could just hear the song as it is.
You knocked them dead at The Grammy Awards.
The Grammys were amazing. It was almost like I had dreamt it
all. Jeff had mentioned it before but
you don’t want to let yourself believe you might actually get there and you
think that’s too good to be true. A week before Jeff said yes, you’re going.
You’ll be on.
I tried to
scramble and get my dress together. When we got there we went straight to sound
check and then to the hotel to sleep. Then the next morning they were getting
camera angles and stuff. Then we did loads of interviews, rehearsals, watched
the Grammys, then I was on, then we did the Red Carpet somewhere in the middle
of all that. We went back to the hotel to sleep, went to bed, got up early in
the morning, hopped on a flight home and the next thing I know I’m lying in my
own bed. I think, “Did I just dream all of that?” It was so fast! But it was
fantastic. It was weird looking back. I think, “Did I really do it?”
I was glad in
the way the day was manic because I didn’t get to think about it. If I had
thought about it I would have gotten myself in an awful knot. Someone told me
how many million viewers and I thought, “Oh my God.” But this way you just do
what you do and enjoy it without thinking too much on it and just enjoy it with
the music really and to play with Jeff is magnificent really and to get to do a
Les Paul tribute for me — and I know for Jeff — was a huge honor.
Your album Love
Tattoo has been out for a while. When can we expect your next album?
I’m sitting in the
studio now waiting do the last couple tweaks of a couple songs [for the next
album]. In England and in Ireland it will be out in September but [released]
later in the States. You know, we like to tour when an album is released.
That’s more fun for us anyway. As soon as we can get over there we’ll get it
Can you tell me about it? The title and how
the music perhaps differs from your other albums?
I’m going to call it Mayhem. It still has a lot of the same
influences [of past albums]. It has a little bit more rockabilly and lots of
blues — because obviously I started singing the blues so I’ll always have that
— little bit of jazz, little bit of country. It has the same diversity the
last album has.
Those different influences are what make your
music so rich.
Actually I used to
get knocked for that. People said you couldn’t do all that styling; you have to
pick one or the other. I’m glad I am stubborn and I’m glad I didn’t listen to
anybody. I was also told by a few people get rid of the rockabilly, it’s the
kiss of death.
And once again
I’m glad I’m a stubborn, fiery Irish woman who completely ignored everybody and
did my own thing because I’m absolutely loving it to bits. I’m really enjoying
what I’m doing with the next album. It
does have a few more influences like a bit of Blondie and The Pretenders and
that kind of sound. So there are a few songs like that [but] the rest is blues,
jazz – and loads of rockabilly.