Interview with Imelda May

Imelda May by Roger Deckker / Courtesy of the artist

Imelda May by Roger Deckker ©

Imelda May is an Irish rockabilly musician who placed several of her albums in the top 10 in many places; her second album Love Tattoo reached number 1 in Ireland and entered the Billboard Heatseekers Albums chart at number 12 in the US, her CD Tribal was number 3 in the UK in 2014, her intimate Life Love Flesh Blood was number 1 in New Zealand in 2017 and also scored a Silver record.

Her sixth studio album 11 Past the Hour entered the top 10 in Ireland and the UK in 2021 also thanks to duets with rock legend Noel Gallagher on vocals and the illustrious Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones on guitar.

The Dublin-born singer is not new to high-profile collaborations: over the years, she also performed with the likes of Lou Reed, U2, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello.

She is for an interview about the various activities in the fields of music, poetry and the arts.

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Imelda, what achievements are you most proud of?

Oh, wow, God. I’ve been lucky that so many achievements have meant a lot to me. One of my songs was added to the school curriculum, so I landed in schools, and that sounds good. But just being able to make the music that I love, really is my big achievement. Because I used to have to do so many different jobs in order to pay my bills, and all I ever wanted to do was to be able to be an artist and be able to just do that alone. And that’s my biggest achievement really, to be able to just be an artist in every way and not have to do other things.

Which one of your songs are you most attached to?

So many. It’s like asking who your favourite child is or something! It’s funny how you’ve known them all since they were young and helped to nurture or create them and then there’s a point where you have to let them go. I think I’m most proud of 11 Past the Hour as an album. For sure, I think I also love Human and Sixth Sense of my other album Life Love Flesh Blood – and in this one, I love Solace, which originally started as a poem. I wrote a lot of poetry, and I didn’t mean to turn it into a song, so I’m very proud of that one.

How would you describe your 6th studio album 11 Past the Hour?

I started this album like I did the previous album, and I didn’t put any restrictions on myself. And I didn’t have any idea about what it was going to be like. I just wrote how I felt at any particular moment. So I think that’s why the album has so many different moods on it and many different emotions, which I think works well because went through so many emotions every day with the lockdown. So the album has a lot of movement on it and means a lot to me. I think this is my favourite album out of all my albums.

How did Ronnie Wood and Noel Gallagher contribute to the album?

Oh, well, for Ronnie, after I wrote the song Just One Kiss, I thought I really needed an amazing guitar solo. And so I have just been working with Ronnie, and we did this amazingly. I’m a fan of him, he’s an amazing guitarist. And I knew he would bring pure rock’n’roll and the wildest solos. So I asked him to do it, and he totally delivered that. And then Noel, I wanted it to be a duet. And I really, really wanted it to be known for sure. I love his voice – his songwriting is stunning – but his voice is amazing as well. So I think he has a perfect sound for the song. He sounds so cool. I’m delighted that they really made this sound for me, the two of them, and I’m lucky they’re both friends. So it was a nice vibe. Also, regarding the album cover, I ended up having lunch with Pattie Boyd [George Harrison and Eric Clapton’s ex-wife, photographer], and she gave me one of her books with all of her photography in it. Pattie Boyd took most of the most famous photographs of The Beatles and Eric Clapton. She was married to George Harrison and then she was married to Eric Clapton. She’s famous for being married to people, but that’s not all she is. She is this wonderful woman, a fabulous character, and she’s an amazing photographer. There’s no way that they all fought to marry her unless she was an extremely talented and interesting woman to inspire all those songs. And a lot of people don’t realise that the images that they see and know are from her. So I saw one of her photographs, it was a self-portrait. It blew me away, so the cover of 11 Past the Hour is an old Pattie Boyd’s, and it’s inspired by her. And I asked her if she minded that I did that. And I sent a photograph. And she said, “Oh, my God, I love it”. So, she gave me her blessing for the cover of the album.

What do you think of the current state of rock?

Of rock music today? I think it’s brilliant. Music changes and it should, it should always change, it should always move – if it’s ever stuck in time, then it’s just a distant memory of itself. It needs to be alive, I think there’s so much good music out at the moment, there are so many amazing bands, and this is healthy, because you cannot live in the past of rock music; once rock’n’roll was created, it changed its forms and it’s all brilliant. Whatever you’re talking about Elvis Presley to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or Oasis, it all moves and so we should, too. As for me, I listen to everything, a lot of different artists. I’ve never listened to one particular type, it’s just anything that moves me. There’s a great guy called Joshua Burnside I’m enjoying very much at the moment. Also, I love Blake Mills and Fontaines D.C., The Last Shadow Puppets, Marilyn Manson and Inhaler.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Love. That’s it, that’s all that inspires me. Love of all kinds. Not just romantic love, I mean – love of everything and trying to behave lovingly and accept everything and people… it can be a challenge, but it’s worth it. And so that’s what inspires me, and all the music that I listened to. And the fact that I am sitting, looking through my books and sketching birds and trees – just beauty inspires the things that interest me and inspire me. Differences inspire me. And poetry. I write a lot of poetry, and I read poetry every day. My house is just books, books, books all over the table – it’s like I don’t even see my kitchen table. It’s just books piled upon.

What sort of books?

Everything from Charles Bukowski to Kae Tempest and Sylvia Plath, the more I have time to, the more I read. That’s just what inspires me. It’s good writing as far as you know. I’m also writing haikus, an old Japanese way at the moment, that’s my new challenge. It is very interesting and brings in wonderful results.

What was your dream job as a child?

When I was a child I wanted to join the circus and be an acrobat, I knew exactly what I was going to do, haha. And then I went to art college, and I was going to be an artist. And then I discovered music and that kind of took over my life and writing, but I still got back into drawing lately, which has been nice.

What kind of art do you enjoy the most?

I like the abstract and surrealism. I love Marina Abramović, she’s my favourite performance artist. She does the most amazing performance act and she makes you think. She did one act once some years ago, where she stood in a room with the table beside or with different things on like scissors, a gun, a feather or whatever on this table. And she just stood there and she invited people to come and do her whatever they want with these items. She takes these crazy chances with people, there is so much trust in it, and this is to observe people’s behaviour. She does this other thing where you enter the room for the exhibition, and she has a man and a woman standing naked and everybody has to squeeze past to get into this room through these two naked people. And within a split second, you have to decide which one you’re gonna face or tear, and you question why: why does it make you uncomfortable? It’s just two people standing naked. It’s just human bodies. So she makes you think, if you let her. She’s wonderful. I also like Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo, Tracy Emin, and Grayson Perry – and I love Marc Chagall so much. One day, I was talking with Bill Wyman [the former Rolling Stones’ bassist]. And we were discussing Chagall. And he said to me: “I knew Chagall very well”. And I said: “No way. Are you crazy?!” And he said, “Seriously, I knew Chagall very well, I did this book, Wyman Shoots Chagall”. And he gave me this book. And it’s the most beautiful book, he took these beautiful photographs of Chagall in his personal life: Chagall let him come in in his old age. And this book was beautiful, full of his paintings and beautiful. I was very glad to get that.

Are there any artists you would like to collaborate with?

Patti Smith. She’s a goddess, a wonderful poet, and a wonderful musician. A few friends of mine know her and she seems amazing – I met her briefly only once. But yeah, I think she’s amazing. I’d love to do something with her. She’s great. And Debbie Harry is another amazing woman. And Shirley Manson from Garbage, she’s amazing.

All women.

I like to work with great artists. I think I admire a lot of great women. I think it has changed now for women in music, and in order to be great, you have to be extra great, so I think when you see a great woman, you know, she’s through the roof, she’s phenomenal. As women, we have to support each other. Please look at your record collection, or look at your book collection over there, will you? Can you tell me who is there?

George Orwell, Oscar Wilde, J.D. Salinger, Roald Dahl, Walt Disney, Mark Twain and David Nicholls.

All men.

Yes.

And mostly white men.

All white men. So what?

And then you realise that you’re not getting a balanced story, because songs are stories. You’re not getting a balanced view of the world because, for a long time, women couldn’t write and weren’t allowed to write. But also, women were told that they had to stay home. And so the men would get to travel and do these things while the women had to stay home, but it doesn’t mean that while the women were home, they weren’t thinking. You’re not carrying a balanced view because you’re only seeing the world from a man’s point of view.

As long as it’s a great point of view, I don’t mind.

And I have nothing against that either. But I do think that if you ask any of those men in those books that wrote those, I bet they will tell you that they were probably inspired by a wonderful mother or a strong grandmother. So it’s not women against men, it’s just that all we see is the man’s point of view. Both have great points of view, but it’s more balanced if we hear both.

Let me check again. You’re right. No women whatsoever.

See? It’s crazy when you notice that.

Shirley Temple Child Star book cover

Child Star by Shirley Temple

Wait, wait – I’ve just found something. It’s the official Shirley Temple’s autobiography, Child Star. Does it count?

Hahaha! You know, I don’t say that this is a battle of the sexes. Both men and women are equally as creative and have their opinions and their magic, and we should see each side. Why only see one side if you can see two? And I can almost guarantee as I said, it’s a woman that influences a man, so let’s hear from those women! Instead of just the men, it would be lovely if we could all hear their stories and their wisdom and their insights, I think it’s beneficial to all of us to hear all the stories. I noticed for men and women things change when they have children, and especially when they have daughters – if you have a daughter, the idea that she won’t be heard is not a good idea, this is why you need to teach children that they all have something to say. And I think we also need to learn from children because they don’t have those limitations. They listen to each other. I think we can learn a lot from children, they haven’t been affected by the world and they’re just interested in it… interesting things and interesting people.

You are Irish, so what are your views on Brexit? 

Brexit is a mess. Yeah, the worst idea ever. Oh, no. A terrible, terrible idea and it’s not good. It comes from a very negative place. Not good. No, not at all.

Is there any difference between Irish and British music, in your opinion?

Well, it’s not just the difference between British and Irish music, it’s to do with Irish and English culture. I think it’s very different. The culture is very different. It’s a totally different way of being. In Ireland, we have songs and music and poetry and storytelling as a very normal thing in our family life, while in England that’s not so normal. You might get one or two talents in the family, but it doesn’t turn into like a crazy party when they get together, it’s more organised. I think English people are more reserved – obviously, you have exceptions to everything, but overall, I find the culture very different, even though we are so close.

How do you cope with that?

Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. It’s funny that a lot of the English musicians that I like are second-generation Irish. Oasis are from Irish parents. Ronnie Wood has an Irish family. Morrissey – his mother is Irish, The Sex Pistols, they’re half-Irish. So it’s very strange that so much of the English music comes from Irish families in England. They must have felt the need to create music. I say they were probably brought up with music in their family life.

What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?

I think they don’t have much to do with music. I think they are fun TV shows but I don’t think they’re anything to do with music at all. And I think they’re mostly to do with the judges and less to do with the contestants. It’s a good career move for a judge. I’m not blaming anybody for doing it. That’s okay. But I do think for the contestants to think that they’re gonna go on there and have a music career is naïve. Maybe one out of every hundred might do, sometimes that happens. But I think mostly, it is to do with making throwaway TV, easy-to-watch TV. And it’s entertaining. But I think it doesn’t nurture creativity and I certainly don’t think it does nurture the contestants.

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