She has been in music for long enough to see the industry evolve – but not enough. We speak to the Irish singer about unfinished business
Imelda May: As a woman, you can’t possibly be considered intelligent or talented
Imelda May knew it was time for a change. By 2014, even before the release of her fourth album, Tribal, the Dublin-born singer was growing weary of the punky rockabilly style that had defined her for more than a decade. “I realised that I had contained myself,” she says. “A label had been put on me, which I seemed to be playing up to.
“All of a sudden, I felt claustrophobic. I just had to write and not know what was going to come out,” she continues. “I found that really exciting and beautiful. That’s how it should be all the time.”
The result of this newfound clarity was last year’s Life Love Flesh Blood, produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett. It’s a gorgeous, occasionally devastating album of soft rock, soul, jazz and blues, which reflects on the breakdown of May’s 18-year marriage to guitarist Darrel Higham, and her attempts to rebuild her life.
The record, which reached number five in the British charts, unspools gently, the slower tempo and mellow acoustic sound allowing May’s pillowy vocals to assert themselves. It is not soothing exactly – the subject matter is too raw for that – but it often has a contemplative, melancholic quality, like watching rain pitter-patter against a window as you pull your knees tight into your chest.
“I’ll never blame you and I always will / I can’t explain it but it hurts like hell,” she sings on Should’ve Been You, the third single from the album. It can’t be easy for May, who is performing at Dubai Opera on Friday, to play such an intensely personal set of songs night after night. “It was definitely cathartic, but it’s also strange because you go back to where you were when you wrote the songs,” she says. “This time, though, you have an audience and you can see in their eyes whether or not they’re connecting with you.”
She is adamant, though, that Life Love Flesh Blood is not a break-up album. “I’ve never claimed that,” she said in an interview last year. “It seems to be [about] the full-spectrum of life: breaking up and all that that brings – your sorrows, regrets and hopes. And then you meet somebody and there is that joy, but also that guilt for being happy.” Sure enough, there is optimism here, too. Levitate is a sensual ballad, swimming in sultriness. It could easily double up as a Bond theme. “It’s about that lovely moment when you feel reawakened,” says May. “You can feel the fire in your blood.”
While the 44-year-old artist is happy to discuss the new direction her music has taken, she bristles slightly at the suggestion that a change of appearance – that trademark blonde quiff has gone, replaced by a black fringe – is symbolic in any way. “People went on about that a lot,” she says. “But it didn’t really matter to me. I just got a haircut.”
May was born in 1974 in the Liberties area of Dublin, one of five children in what she describes as “a crazy, noisy house”. Her father was a dance teacher, who later became a painter and decorator, while her mother worked as a seamstress. “There wasn’t a lot of money,” she says, “but there was culture and characters in abundance.”
And the musical education her parents provided was flawless. David Bowie, The Carpenters, Madness, The Specials, Thin Lizzy – these were the artists who accompanied May’s childhood and inspired her to make music. “I used to sit with my ear to the record player and try and copy how Ella Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin sang,” she says. “I’d mimic them over and over again and drive the whole house mad.”
May and her siblings were encouraged to pursue the things that made them happy. “My parents would never say: ‘Get a proper job.’ Whatever we wanted to do, they’d think it was a brilliant idea.” And so, at the age of 16, and with no formal training, she set off on the road, playing gigs around Ireland. After one particularly painful teenage break-up, her father allegedly said to her: “Is your heart broken? Excellent. Now you can sing the blues.”
In 1998, she moved to the United Kingdom, where she performed vocals for a swing band called Blue Harlem, while continuing to write her own songs. Five years later, May released her debut album, No Turning Back. Then, in 2008, came her breakthrough record, Love Tattoo, which went straight to number one in the Irish albums chart. Three more acclaimed albums have followed, as have sold-out arena shows and appearances or collaborations alongside everyone from Jeff Beck to Jools Holland and Smokey Robinson to Sinead O‘Connor. In 2015, May supported U2 in Dublin, with Bono introducing her as “the queen of Ireland”.
May has been working in the music business for nearly 30 years. I ask what’s changed. Is it a better place for women now, particularly in the wake of the recent #MeToo movement? Or are things as problematic as they ever were? “There is still this feeling that women should just look pretty, sing a nice song and smile,” she says. “I produced my first three albums and hardly anyone ever mentions that.
“As soon as you co-write an album with a man, people come up to you and say: ‘He wrote that really, didn’t he?’ I’ve had interviews where people have asked if my husband helped write my songs. It’s just that vibe: as a woman, you can’t possibly be intelligent or talented.
“And as for sexual harassment, that just needs to stop. A man I know said he was afraid to put his arm around women anymore. He said: ‘Define sexual assault.’ That horrified me. I think deep down, most people know. It’s really simple; it doesn’t need to be defined.”
Bleak as this sounds, May is not without hope. She believes that progress has been made with regard to the lack of women working in the music industry. “I’ve seen more female technicians, as well as musicians, [in recent years] and that’s great,” she says. “Behind the scenes, there are a lot more women, tour managers and stuff like that. It creates a better balance on the road I think.”
May is one of that rare breed of celebrity – she’d hate that term, I’m sure – who is actually prepared to give an opinion during an interview. On Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as the Supreme Court Judge: “It’s terrible, an absolute sham.” On Brexit: “It’s the worst thing to happen, an awful decision. There is an undercurrent of racism in the world, which almost seems to be acceptable again.” On climate change: “The news is we have 10 years to save our planet, so it’s time we stopped thinking about gender and race and started working together. Because if we mess this up, we haven’t got anywhere else to live."
And if we really do only have a short time left on this planet, one thing is certain: Imelda May is going to make the best of it. She already has a stack of new songs competing for a spot on the next album and she is also working on a collection of poetry, as well as a screenplay. The idea that anyone could ever have constrained her – have put her in a box – seems ludicrous now. “I’ll never go back to that place again,” she says.
Imelda May is performing at Dubai Opera on Friday. For tickets, visit www.dubaiopera.com