Music Notes: Irish-Born Siren Imelda May

by Steve Houk

Singing for a president, selling millions of records, and getting critical acclaim? You could say things are going well for Imelda May — just ask this hard working Irish-born siren.

Imelda May is causing quite a stir in the music world with her major release “Love Tattoo,” which has gone triple platinum and her much anticipated album “Mayhem.” 

Saying that “alot” has happened to Imelda May since the last time she and I talked a year or so ago might be the understatement of the year.

Let’s see. For starters, how about singing for the President of the United States and the First Lady in her home country of Ireland? Or going triple platinum there and gold in the UK with her first major release Love Tattoo? Or garnering “best new artist” and “best breakthrough artist” awards?  Oh, and lest we forget getting rave reviews for her long-awaited follow-up out next week, Mayhem.

Yep, it’s clear things are going pretty darn well (another understatement) for this super cool Irish-born songstress, who’s embarking on a string of summer dates in the US, including a July 26th date with Wanda Jackson at DC’s 9:30 Club. After a whirlwind 2010-11 tour with her buddy, guitar legend Jeff Beck, playing Beck’s and other classic tunes, May is ecstatic to be out on the road playing her own songs that blend rockabilly, jazz and blues into her own unique style. And she conveys her excitement with her typically effusive, refreshing enthusiasm.

“It was great playing with Jeff of course, the genius that is Jeff Beck,” she told me on the phone from England in her uber-charming Irish brogue. “But that gig with Jeff was a one-off, we knew we weren’t going to be doing that for a long time. I can’t wait to get back over there (to the US) and do me own songs with me own band. It means more when you’re singing your own songs. We have such a great time on the road and I love getting to do me own stuff. And it’s brilliant to see people singing back. It feels great and we can’t wait to get to America again, I love gigging in America, the audiences are terrific, and they get the music immediately.”

The cover art for Imelda May’s album Mayhem.

Imelda May’s stratospheric rise to success has not been an easy one, it took years of odd jobs and playing small gigs in small clubs, plus some some lean, mean, hard-working times for her and her band, which includes her husband, revered English-born guitarist Darrel Higham, as they begged, borrowed and built their way to where they sit today, on the cusp of superstardom.

“I hadn’t had a record contract, I wasn’t signed to any label. I’d talked to some record labels, and they said we don’t know where to put you, we don’t know what genre to put you in, maybe rockbilly or more jazzy. I never heard from them again, but I wanted to make the album so I begged and begged, and I finally got into a studio thanks to my husband and his friends, who built the studio literally with their own hands, and I made Love Tattoo. It was a great way to start, because I got to make the album that I wanted to, with no pressure and nobody watching.  Then afterwards thanks to Jools Holland, he put us on his TV show, and everything kicked off, and a record company rang up and said, ‘Well we get it now, can we talk?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely!’ ”

After scratching to put out that first major release, making her latest album Mayhem was another labor of love for May, and even with a record company’s eyes now upon her, she was again able to do it her way, making the calls she wanted to make.

“Making Mayhem was greatly different because then I was signed to a record label and they were very interested in supporting the album. But I really enjoyed making Mayhem, it was slightly different making the record, it was a bit more produced, I wanted it to be a bit better….with anything you do, you always want to improve as you go along, but I didn’t want to lose the charm of Love Tattoo either so I wanted to get a good balance of it.  It’s an amazin’ feelin’, I’ve put me heart and soul into it, into this album, and all the music that we do, I put me heart and soul into it, I didn’t compromise it for anybody.”

Imelda May shows off her unique style for the camera.

So, of course I had to ask: Just what was it like to sing in front of the leader of the free world, in her home country to boot? You could feel the sincere tittilation in her voice as she recounted this once-in-a-lifetime experience; not bad for the little girl born Imelda Mary Clabby thirty seven years ago this month in Dublin.

“I nearly fell over when they asked if we’d do that, perform for Mr. and Mrs. Obama! It was a terrific day, I felt that it was a piece of history. The crowds were as far as the eye could see all the way down the street. I really felt very very proud to represent me country, and welcome the president and the first lady. And me parents were very proud, it was wonderful. To get to meet both Barack and Michelle Obama afterwards was an absolute joy, they’re lovely people, and she was a wonderful, lovely woman, very classy lady. I was chatting with them about Washington and about Chicago, I asked them if they knew about (a well-known recording studio in Chicago)  and they said they did, and then we got a photograph taken. It was a thrilling day. And when the president and first lady left, they gave us special edition M & M’s with the presidential seal on them! How weird is that? I thought that was the coolest thing ever. They said here are some commemorative presents and it was M & M’s!”

For Imelda May, the sky and beyond seems like the limit. And when they say good things happen to good people, the adage never seemed more apropo for this sweet, engaging Irishwoman, who clearly is thrilled that she’s been able to do things her way so far.

“I’m really glad that it’s all happened on me own terms, that everything has gone well with the music. It’s close to me heart, it’s me own music, and I completely feel passionately about it. I think people get that, people can tell, they’re not stupid, they can tell when things are true and real to the artist. I didn’t do all this just to be successful — I obviously want to be successful, but I ‘m happy with the songs I’m writin’. I can’t tell you how happy I am that it’s gone well, because it means I get to sing the music that I love every night, and with a band that I’m passionate about.”

lives and breathes music, and has ever since his days as a baby bouncing around his family’s music-filled converted barn in Wilton, Connecticut. Even though he lives by day as a TV executive in Washington, he comes out at night in his cape and cowl as an accomplished music writer as well as a blogger on Some of his most memorable interviews can be found on his blog, chats with the likes of Yoko Ono, Buddy Guy, John Mayall, Robin Trower, Peter Frampton, Luther Dickinson, Joan Armatrading and many others. Steve is also lead singer for Northern VA classic rock cover band Second Wind, and invites all to come out and rock with him and his band of brothers-from-other-mothers. Check out Second Wind’s website.

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