Interview: Imelda May

Imelda May at Cornbury Music Festival, 2013 (c) Ben Phillips Photography

Imelda May at Cornbury Music Festival, 2013 (c) Ben Phillips Photography - Credit: Ben Phillips

The girl from The Liberties is returning to Cornbury Festival for its ‘Fabulous Finale’. Candia McKormack caught up with Imelda May

Cover photography for 'Life Love Flesh Blood', by Max Dodson

Cover photography for 'Life Love Flesh Blood', by Max Dodson - Credit: Max Dodson

Imelda Mary Clabby – known professionally as Imelda May – was born in 1974 and grew up in the historic Dublin city centre neighbourhood called The Liberties. The youngest of five – her father was an old-time dance teacher and her mother a seamstress – it was a lively, loving upbringing. She has said, “It was a tough place to grow up, but it was a great community, and my family were the most colourful and creative I could have hoped for.”

Imelda’s breakthrough came on Jools Holland’s ‘Later’ in 2008, and she went on to support him on tour. In 2002, she married her guitarist and band member Darrel Higham – who famously chased her to Ireland and brought her back to England with him – and they had a daughter Violet in August 2012.

I last spoke to Imelda four years ago, and in those few years a lot – an awful lot – has happened. In the summer of 2015, Imelda and Darrel announced their split, and he also decided to leave the band to focus on his solo career with rockabilly act Kat Men. What followed was the emergence of a new, powerful yet introspective Imelda – sans trademark bi-colour quiff – and a return to her soulful blues and jazz roots. Gone is the rockabilly queen; here we have the sensual vocals of a tender torch-singing chanteuse.

Her latest album ‘Life Love Flesh Blood’, released at the end of April, is a powerfully raw offering that shows off her incredible vocals to great effect.

The track ‘Call Me’ has shades of Van Morrison, while ‘How Bad Can a Good Girl Be’ – which includes the line ‘life, love, flesh, blood’ – feels like a more grown-up version of ‘Wild Woman’ from her 2014 album ‘Tribal’. Imelda has clearly done a lot of living – both joyous and heartrendingly painful – in the intervening years.

“I wasn’t trying to do anything on the album except be honest, and use all the influences I’ve picked up,” she says. “It’s probably going back to my roots more than my rockabilly style; I started singing blues, jazz and country, and that’s what I love. I’m not trying to be a retro queen; I’m just writing from my heart.

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“When I wrote this album, I wanted everything to stop and start again. I let the songs lead me as opposed to decide what I wanted the album to be. It’s probably the most honest album I’ve written.”

Imelda did an incredibly powerful performance of ‘Black Tears’ from the album on Jools Holland’s ‘Hootenanny’ on New Year’s Eve. Sitting at home with bottle of fizz to hand, I hadn’t been anticipating her performance, and it was a case of goosebumps, hairs standing up on the back of the neck, and slack-jawed awe.

Imelda May (c) Roger Deckker

Imelda May (c) Roger Deckker - Credit: Roger Deckker

“Oh, thank you!,” she says. “I loved performing on the Hootenanny, and I love Jools. It was a sad song to write and a sad song to sing, but when I wrote it I saw myself in the mirror with mascara running down my face, and it looked like I was crying black tears, so that was the inspiration. It was just how I was feeling at the end of a long relationship, and I hope people can relate to it.”

It does feel like a very brave album to write, I suggest. “Brave or stupid?” she laughs, “Definitely one or the other; I’m not sure which yet, but I’ll let you know!”

Production on the album was by the astonishingly talented T Bone Burnett.

“T Bone brought his beautiful, velvet touch with a badass kick to it – it’s the perfect mix that I love. It’s just so classy – the sound he produces is classy and cool, and I wanted some of that!”

There are shades of Phil Spector to the production on songs such as ‘Should’ve Been You’ – an immense, treacle-rich wall of sound that others have attempted and failed to reproduce…

And I’m angry, and I’m sad

I’m the best thing that you ever had

All I wanted was your touch

Imelda May at Cornbury Music Festival, 2013 (c) Ben Phillips Photography

Imelda May at Cornbury Music Festival, 2013 (c) Ben Phillips Photography - Credit: Ben Phillips

But you told me

What I wanted was just too much

Tell me who takes care of me?

Should’ve been you

She praises the skills of the musicians who performed on the album, such as Jay Bellerose (drums), Marc Ribot (guitar and uke) and Zach Dawes (electric bass). As well as of course her regular band members, currently comprising the fabulous Al Gare who was in her previous band – he plays the most astonishing double bass – as well as Dave Priseman, Oliver Darling, Steve Ruston, Donny Little, Gavin Fitzjohn, Ryan Aston, Chris Pemberton and Petur Hallgrimsson. When the stage is big enough to accommodate them all, she’s also joined by backing vocalists Emma Osei-Lah and Ulrika Uma. Phew!

“My guys are fabulous on the road; we’re in rehearsals and feeling good,” she enthuses. “I can’t wait to get out and see what the reaction is. You know, I can make an album and do a million interviews, but you don’t really get a sense of things until you meet your fans and I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.”

You can tell Imelda has a soft spot for the Cornbury Music Festival. When I mention that we’re all looking forward to her returning to play the Fabulous Finale, as organiser Hugh Phillimore has decided to go out with a bang in 2017. “I know, isn’t that sad!” she says. “Hugh Phillimore used to be my manager and I know how Cornbury is his baby. I opened up the very first Cornbury – I think it was on the acoustic stage – so to be performing at the last one is going to be quite emotional. I was so delighted to be asked to do that.”

I mention to Imelda that, when asked by Hugh whom I’d like to interview from the 2017 line-up, I tell him that I’d love to chat with her again and he says, “Well you should really; Imelda played the very first one and has since played more times than anyone else.”

Imelda May (c) Roger Deckker

Imelda May (c) Roger Deckker - Credit: Roger Deckker

Imelda laughs: “He used to say to me ‘Do you want to do another one?’, and when I’d ask whether he should give it to someone else, he’d say ‘No! You’re part of the furniture now.’ I thought that was such a lovely answer.

“I love Hugh; he’s put his heart and soul into the festival so it’ll be sad for him, I’m sure, but I haven’t seen him in ages, so I can’t wait to catch up again… I’m sure he’ll get emotional at some point.”

A glimpse into life backstage shows how impeccably the artists are treated when performing at a Phillimore event. “I have to say this: as Hugh’s been in the business for so long, and taken care of artists for so long, everyone’s treated brilliantly. I remember Debbie Harry of Blondie saying ‘This is amazing’ when she saw the backstage hospitality.” It would seem that most promoters think about the audience and their experience, but overlook what it’s like for the performers. “When people try to gatecrash the VIP area at festivals, thinking it’s going to be great,” she laughs, “they soon realise that it’s waaay better out front!” It’s a credit to Hugh that he likes to do things a little differently. “You feel valued,” says Imelda, with obvious fondness.

“Every time we went there the crowd was so fabulous,” she continues, “and I’d recognise some faces that would be there every time. It’s a fabulous festival. I remember one review that made Hugh and a lot of people laugh; they awarded just two stars, wanting to give it a bad review and said, ‘This isn’t a real festival – there’s no muck, there’s nobody vomiting at Cornbury. Everyone’s drinking Pimm’s and champagne, eating posh hotdogs and homemade ice-cream.’ Of course, everyone thought that sounded amazing, and there were even more visitors afterwards!”

As testament to Cornbury being an inclusive, family-friendly affair, Imelda’s dad’s very first gig was at the festival and she had to point out to him that not all festivals are like that: “This is the life; you’ve started off on a good foot and you’ll probably never go to a festival as good as this.”

When I last spoke to Imelda, Violet was a mere babe in arms, but now she’s four-and-a-half, with a strong character, and a mother who obviously dotes on her.

“At the moment she wants to write and sing like Mammy. She also wants to be an acrobat, a fashion designer...or a mermaid.”

And as a female role model, Violet is lucky to have this strong but warm-hearted Irish woman with the ready laugh.

The video for ‘Should’ve Been You’ was inspired by the Women’s March in Washington, DC, and features a group of Imelda’s fans, all shot in one continuous take, marching through the streets of Brixton in London. “I wanted to ask the question, ‘Who takes care of us?’”, she says. And although the song is a personal story of heartbreak and eventual empowerment, she used that energy to reflect current feelings of solidarity among women.

“Being a mother has made me a stronger person,” she says. “I need to be strong for her in the way that my mother was for me.”

And family remains as important now to her as ever. When asked on ‘Saturday Live’ on BBC Radio 4 recently who had given her the best piece of advice, she said, “My mother’s cousin who was a monk. I remember when I was about 13 we went to visit him in the abbey in Clonmel. I was a typical teenager with headphones constantly on listening to music insanely. I was always crazy into music. He said, ‘Take your headphones off and let’s go for a walk and have a chat’. He said to me, ‘It’s all well and good but if you’re constantly listening to other people’s ideas, when do you create your own? You need to take some silence.’ After that I took them off and then I started writing my own music.” Another piece of sound advice being from Jools Holland who said, ‘Always buy a house you can’t afford as it’ll make you work harder!’

Imelda has collaborated and performed with so many great names, we’d need another couple of pages to list them here, but they include the likes of Lou Reed, Smokey Robinson, Tom Jones, Sinead O’Connor, The Chieftains, Jeff Beck, Meat Loaf, Jools Holland and Bono. So, when I ask her who she would like to work with but hasn’t had the opportunity yet, she doesn’t miss a heartbeat when she says emphatically, “Bob Dylan. I think he’s a phenomenal writer. He did an interview a while back and, when asked about the artists he liked he said me, and so I have a very small chance of possibly writing with him… So, let’s send it out there!”

Imelda May is performing at Cornbury Music Festival on Sunday, July 9. The festival runs from July 7-9, with other confirmed artists including Bryan Adams, Kaiser Chiefs, The Pretenders, Jools Holland and Jack Savoretti.