The Irish-born songstress has taken the world by storm with her palpable cool over the last couple years or so, with a sound that is one part Irish rockabilly, one part be-bop-smoky-lounge, one part Patsy Cline-ish crooning, and one part something very much all her own.
May’s debut album Love Tatoo reached Number One on the Irish version of the Billboard charts and is doing quite well elsewhere around the globe. She calls Jeff Beck a close friend and among other collaborations dueted with him in a stirring Les Paul tribute on this year’s highly rated Grammy telecast. And she hits the states for a tour this month, including an opening gig for Jamie Cullum at the 9:30 Club March 7th followed by some solo shows and gigs with Beck. Yes, life is going pretty well for this Irish dynamo with the honey bun swirl in the front of her hair.
But she’s not just some kid who got lucky, not some flash in the pan. She’s 35 and has worked really hard to get where she is. It’s been a long road from the Liberties section of Dublin to the edge of superstardom.
“I’ve been doin’ this a while, I started singing in little blues clubs in Dublin when I was 16”, May told me in her wonderful Irish brogue from her home in London. “I was always singing favorite covers or other people’s songs, but I’ve been writing me own songs since I was 13, and I’d given a few of my songs to other people to do but I just got itchy feet and felt I really needed to do my own stuff. So I broke away from other people’s bands, I thought now or never. It was quite a gamble, at the time I was only beginning to make a living, I was always doing shift work to keep the money up. I was a waitress, I worked in a laundress cleaning other people’s laundry, I did some face painting, and I worked for a couple years in a nursing home looking after the elderly…I actually enjoyed that job the most, I met some wonderful people, we used to sing all the old songs…and then I’d go do my gigs at night and nearly kill meself to get up at six o’clock in the morning and go back to work.”
“But then I quit all that to start with me own band and do me own songs, and it was quite a struggle because there was no other money coming in except for my husband who’s also a musician (he’s fellow band member & well-known rockabilly guitarist Darrel Higham) so that was tough. But within a short period of time, it all turned around and went very very well. And then I wished I’d done it years before! But I’m glad it happened when it did, because it all felt natural, you know.”
Once she had made the decision to set out on her own, May’s connections from years of playing in other bands made getting her own gigs that much easier, and things really started to happen.
“It all went crazy, because I’d been gigging for such a long time, I knew a lot of people in the little clubs, and the different bands I was in had a decent followin’, and so I’d go to say, the 100 Club (in London), and I’d say ‘Listen, could you give me new band maybe a Monday or a Tuesday night, could you give me a night to try it out’, and they said yeah, and then people came out, and bit by bit more people came to each gig, and it kinda took off when Hugh Phillimore, my manager, he was an agent at the time, and he started to get more requests for us, and then I asked him to become me manager and it really started to take off quite quickly.”
Imelda May is someone that comes off sounding at times very familiar, and at other times strikingly new, and it’s clear her passion for music since she was a wee tot in Dublin helped shape her distinctive, oh-so-cool sound. But when asked how that all came to be, her characteristic candor and charm comes shining through.
“I have no idea!”, she says with a hearty laugh. “It’s all just stuff I love, really. The rockabilly, the blues, the jazz, the country, the skiffle, all kinds of stuff. It seems to have all merged. I’m just so passionate about music, I suppose it has a lot to do with they way I learned music, and the way I started. I was completely obsessed with music from very early on, I was always singin’ and dancin’. But once I got into those blues clubs…I suppose it was quite odd to be so young and singin’ blues…but my brothers and sisters (May is the youngest of five) used to smuggle me in because I was way underage, so through them I got into it, and my parents were OK with it because they knew my brothers and sisters were looking after me.”
“But I really learned from these old blues guys that were playin’, and similarly with the Irish traditional stuff, you learn by watching somebody and listening very carefully, and you mimic and you take up, and that’s the way I learned how to sing, by watching them and taking it all in. And over the years, people would give me pointers and tips, it was certainly the best musical education I could have ever gotten, because it gave me a lot of experience, and it gave me a huge love, the passion, the obsession I suppose. It also gave me a lot of laughs, and memories and great times.”
Sheer talent has clearly been the driver for May’s success, but some big names in the music industry also took a shine to the Irish siren, which surely can’t hurt a burgeoning career one bit.
“Jools Holland (former member of Squeeze) gave me a big break…we did a support tour with him, one gig, and then he asked us to tour with him, and he was watching us from beside the stage and he said he couldn’t believe we had no record deal, he said ‘Who you signed to?’ and we said ‘Nobody’, and he said “My God, I have to get you on my show (his well-known British music program, Later…with Jools Holland) and that was amazing, what happened because of that.”
And guitar legend Jeff Beck is another musical luminary that May thoroughly impressed, and that relationship has opened the door to some amazing experiences. And yes, it even involves a totally unique story she’s never told anyone before about an injured crow that May found in a London park. Yes, a crow helped Imelda May get extra-noticed by Jeff Beck. Who knew?
“Well, Jeff knows my husband from before we were married, and he came to see us and Jools play and we ended up going back to his house that night, and well, there’s a crow involved…I had saved a crow, and I was going to give it to Jeff’s wife, she rescues animals…I’ve never told anybody this before actually…you probably think I’m a lunatic. We had the crow with us at the gig, I found it at a local park, it had fallen out of a tree, and it was absolutely bruised. But I’d been bringing it to gigs, and I didn’t know what I going to do with it because it was getting huge, it just sat on me arm, me shoulder, but I wanted it to go back to the wild, so [Beck’s wife] said she had a spare place for it back at their place, so we ended up going back to their house. And before you know it, they have the crow, and we’re sittin’ jamming away at the fireplace, and singin’ songs all night. And Jeff said “Oh my God, I love your voice.” And then before you know it, we’re workin’ on his album.”
That opened the door for other incredible experiences with Beck, seemingly one after another: first, May had the rare opportunity to get up onstage with Beck and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour at Royal Albert Hall.
“I was in the middle of the song (the 60’s classic ‘ Hi Ho Silver Lining’) when I thought, ‘Hang on…what the hell am I doing here? This is mad, it’s crazy, how did this happen?’ Then Jeff asked me to sing with him at the O2 in London, that’s one he was doing with Eric Clapton, and I sang ‘Lilac Wine’ with them, and he just asked me to record that, and he’s putting it on his album. We did record [Howlin’ Wolf’s] “Poor Boy” as well, it wasn’t a shiny, polished version, it was just one of those recordings where we were jammin’ and somebody pressed ‘record’, and as far as I know that’s going to be on the album as well. Jeff is a jaw dropping, fantastic, world class player, and at one stage I was askin’ him about this chord and he was trying to show me how to play it, and he said ‘Oh you just do this’, and he made it look so easy, but my fingers were contorted and almost breakin’, and of course I couldn’t manage it. ”
But the pinnacle of May’s collaborations with Beck so far has to be their highly lauded performance of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High The Moon” on this year’s Grammy awards.
“It was lovely and unbelievable to do the tribute to Les Paul, I mean, I was so honored to be doing it with Jeff, I couldn’t have asked for more. I was so nervous though to get it right, because I thought ‘I can’t get this wrong’, it was just too important, as a tribute to somebody like Les Paul who we owe so much to. I thought ‘God, I can’t mess this up.’ I’d never forgive meself. It was magical. I’ll never forget it.”
And even with everything going her way, having her husband right beside her in the band, well, that pretty much makes it extra special for Imelda May right now.
“Not only is he the best guitarist I know, to get to travel the world with your husband as well, it means we can kinda share the highs and lows together, which is nice too. Like last night, we both came out of the studio at five in the morning, we were so exhausted. But when you do the things together like the Grammys, you both can be thrilled, that makes it all the better for me.”