Imelda May at Cornbury Festival
- Credit: Archant
Which is Imelda May’s favourite festival? Cornbury, of course. Candia McKormack chats with the rockabilly rose about the joys of rehearsing with baby on hip, and of being chased all the way to Ireland
It was my son who first introduced me to Imelda May’s music. I guess I’ve now reached an age where, though it’s possible to flaunt my I-was-there-first-time-round Punk and Goth credentials, it’s not always the cool thing to do; listening in wonderment through shared headphones to your teenager’s MP3 playlist is now the way to go. Our first shared gig experience, too, was seeing Imelda perform at Cornbury Festival in 2011 – three rows back, me singing along enthusiastically, Leon smiling self-consciously the way 13-year-olds do when their Mum’s way out of order.
You can imagine, then, my excitement at the prospect of chatting to the lady who had initially bonded my son and I together sonically (we’ve now extended our shared musical tastes to French Electro Swing and trip hop, by the way, with a soupçon of Gorillaz and Billie Holiday thrown in for good measure, but Imelda’s presence on our shared playlist is an enduring one).
Born Imelda Mary Clabby in 1974 in The Liberties area of Dublin, Imelda started playing guitar and singing at a young age. After being in various bands, she formed her own in 2002 and shortly after released her debut studio album, No Turning Back, relocating to London with husband and guitarist Darrel Higham. Two other albums followed – Love Tattoo and Mayhem – with a fourth on the way. With her manager being none other than music impresario and Cornbury Festival founder Hugh Phillimore – but not solely for that reason – Imelda is often to be found on the line-up.
“Oh, it just has such a fantastic atmosphere with a really nice bunch of people. It’s normally blessed with good weather too,” she says, us both ‘touching wood’ in order to placate the weather gods, “and it’s way up there on comfort levels, compared to other festivals, for me and for my family who go there. Both backstage and out front: it’s not as smelly, the food is nicer, and the drink is nicer. You think, God, this is the way festivals should be!”
Known affectionately (and, at times by those who haven’t been initiated into the mysteries of Cornbury, derogatively) as ‘Poshstock’, the festival is a haven for music lovers with eclectic tastes, who are able to bring their children and, hell, even their grannies, and know that they will have an equally good time. The website describes it as ‘a magical local carnival with a classic contemporary soundtrack’, which works beautifully for me as a means of summing up the experience.
“When you’re doing a tour of festivals,” says Imelda, “travelling from site to site, you really see the difference; Cornbury is big enough so that you get to see some great big acts, but it’s small enough to enjoy the quirkiness of it.” It’s true that Cornbury really does seem to have cracked it: with four stages showcasing a diverse range of music, a Comedy Emporium, Kids’ Zone, fairground, Disco Shed and, new for this year, the Festival of Words featuring names such as Alan Davies, Hugh Cornwell, Katy Brand and Julie Burchill. It’s also an extremely family-friendly event, which is useful as Imelda gave birth to her first child, Violet, last August. So, will the young ’un be making an appearance this year?
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“Of course, yeah, she’s on tour with us… wherever I go, she goes.” As Imelda’s still breastfeeding Violet, then the two are currently inseparable – well, for more than a few hours, anyway. Many new mums find it a challenge, fitting in those little things that need doing while the baby naps, but Imelda has earned her Supermum wings by writing her new album as Violet snoozes. Visions of baby in papoose while vacuuming with guitar slung over her shoulder spring to mind.
“I’ve had to let the house fall apart around me and crack on with the album,” she admits, though. “You only get little snippets of time so you have to do whatever you need to do. I started in January and was finished by March.” Well, that’s writing out of the way in an impressively short period of time, but what about recording?
“I’ve had three weeks of rehearsing with her on my hip – she’s been really good and is perfectly used to it all – and I’m starting recording next week.”
While playing Cornbury and the other dates she and the band have lined up, Imelda’s cousin is flying over from Ireland so that she can babysit while Imelda’s performing. All her family are still living over there, but she finds time every couple of months to go back and see ‘the gang’. In fact, either side of the Cornbury date, she’s playing a series of Irish dates and is only flying back to Blighty for the one show. “I wouldn’t miss it. My parents went to Cornbury; it was their first festival and they had a great time. Unfortunately it gave them the wrong impression of festivals and they were saying ‘We want to go to another one’, and I had to tell them that they’re not all as nice as that.”
Imelda moved over here from Dublin in 1998. The move was down to her wanting to be with guitarist in the band and father of Violet, Darrel Higham. “I came over here for the weekend, met him and heard him playing guitar. I went back to Ireland, he chased me and brought me back!”
Imelda went on to join various bands, including Blue Harlem and, more notably, Mike Sanchez’s band (who was to prove to be a huge influence on her – “he’s given me great advice and confidence, you know”). It was only when she formed her own band that she asked Darrel to join her on stage. “At the time I was in a swing band, but before that I’d done a bit of country and rockabilly, but it was missing something – the songs were good and everything, but they were missing the raunch of that growling guitar. He’s the best guitarist I know, so I asked him to join, and he said ‘yes’.” Interestingly, some previously unreleased recordings of Imelda performing with Mike Sanchez have been unearthed and are being released later this year. He phoned Imelda to ask her permission and, though she says she sounds like a ‘chipmunk’ in the recordings (hard to believe), she gave her blessing.
Music has always been in Imelda’s blood – she plays a mean bodhrán, and started playing guitar when her sister taught her aged 13, but says she’s been put off playing since she met Darrel as he’s so good. “I work on my own songs by myself, with my guitar, but I don’t play very often as I’m shamed!”
Yes, but can Darrel play bodhrán, I ask?
“No, he can’t,” she laughs. “I love the bodhrán and often play when I go back home. My brother’s in a traditional Irish band and I sit in with them for a session when I’m back there.”
You wouldn’t necessarily think that a traditional Celtic instrument such as the bodhrán would sit happily in a rockabilly mix, but Imelda certainly makes it work. “Well, the rhythms are quite similar, actually; traditional Irish music and rockabilly are kind of linked in a way, because rockabilly is based on hillbilly and American country music and much of that came from Ireland. A lot of the hypnotic rhythms and the pace of it can be quite similar. I love the percussion and the ‘chk-a-chk-a’, almost train-like rhythm of a lot of rockabilly and traditional Irish.
With her talents and roots, it’s no surprise that Imelda has been asked to play with Irish legends such as The Chieftains and The Dubliners. She has few regrets, but one is that she wasn’t able to perform with the late Barney McKenna of The Dubliners, who died last year. “I was asked if I would perform I Wish I Had Someone to Love Me with Barney and I immediately said ‘yes’, but unfortunately he died and I never got to do the recording. I would have loved to have sung with him.”
Imelda’s roots are most definitely still in Ireland. In December 2011 she sold out two nights running at Dublin’s O2, playing to 24,000 people, and was joined on stage by U2’s frontman Bono. Many others, too, are queuing up to join Imelda in the spotlight: she’s also duetted with Jools Holland, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Meatloaf, Sharon Corr, Shane MacGowan and Lou Reed.
“The duet with Lou Reed was through Tony Visconti,” she explains. “Tony had done a beautiful string arrangement for the song Kentish Town Waltz and he said that Lou loved the song and wanted to do it, so he turned up and we had a great day.” While remaining completely grounded about such fantastic collaborations, you can tell that Imelda is still pinching herself at her good fortune – the girl from inner-city Dublin is now in demand with the finest artists in contemporary music.
As I’m chatting to Imelda, the beautifully-behaved Violet is feeding quietly (surely the most contented baby in rock’n’roll) and the two are having some time to themselves as Darrel has just headed off for a gig in Portsmouth with his other band The Kat Men, pairing up with Imelda May bassist Al Gare and Stray Cats’ Slim Jim Phantom. It’s early days yet and Imelda hasn’t wanted to leave Violet, but she’s hoping to get out to gigs to support her man in the near future. “I would go mad to go out and see him play, but I haven’t had a babysitter yet. Once I have, then I’ll be there.”
The Imelda May band is made up of a ridiculously talented bunch of individuals, but one of the best things about watching them perform is the wild and wonderful force of nature that is bassist Al Gare – his infectious energy and furious double-bass-slapping antics are enough to make the most hard-hearted break out in daft smiles and impromptu foot-tapping. He strikes me as someone it would be great to share a pint with, so I ask Imelda if he’s as much fun off stage as he seems on it.
“He’s a lunatic, yeah!” she says. “I made a video of the song Roadrunner and asked him to be in it, so he announced that he was going to be a marathon-runner which we thought was hilarious… he’s more a beer and chicken wings type, you know. We made the video in New York and had a fantastic time – we laughed all day – and lo and behold he’s now run a marathon. He’s got the bug. I’ll have to kick him off the tour bus and make him run to the venues.”
Before flying back to Ireland to play the rest of the dates on the tour, will Imelda get a chance to see any of the other acts at Cornbury, I wonder. “I love to go to the acoustic stages to try and find people that I’ve never heard before, and I love that they always run a competition to find a local band to open up the festival. What a brilliant idea, to give someone such a great chance.”
Imelda’s come a long way herself from her early days playing guitar in The Liberties, and I – and Leon, of course – can’t wait to stand shoulder-to-shoulder at Cornbury this year, singing our hearts out.
• Cornbury Festival runs from Friday, July 5 until Sunday, July 7 at The Great Tew Park, Oxfordshire. Imelda May is performing on Friday night. www.cornburyfestival.com