Four years after the release of her intimate 2017 CD Life Love Flesh Blood which reached number 2 in Ireland, number 5 in the UK and also scored a Silver record, Irish rockabilly musician and singer-songwriter Imelda May released her sixth studio album 11 Past the Hour in April 2021.
The first, powerful and glamorous single Just One Kiss is out now and will just be a breath of fresh air if the current state of music is making you miss some proper and seriously good rock’n’roll; in this track, Imelda 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 performing outstanding duets: across a career that spans nearly two decades, she has gone on to sing with artists like Lou Reed, U2, Van Morrison and Elvis Costello, and she’s also very active in poetry and the arts: her debut poetry EP Slip of the Tongue – released during Summer 2020 – received worldwide recognition for a composition titled You Don’t Get To Be Racist And Irish that was used by the Irish government for the social enterprise billboard campaign ReThink Ireland.
I had the chance to interview the lady herself – and what an insightful conversation about music, art and poetry has it been.
And I also received an added, unexpected bonus: it doesn’t happen every day to have your private book collection challenged by Imelda May in person.
She’ll browse your favourite authors and will gently but firmly make you notice that you have read nothing but books written by men all throughout your whole life, and so you’re apparently seeing just “one side of reality”.
You never really thought about that before, and you certainly never cared for integrating more women into your book consumption.
You already had enough of the ones you met at school.
The thing with the stubborn thick-headed like me is that they always think they represent a great deal of mystery for everybody – everybody except Imelda May who will suss you out in three seconds much better than you did in a lifetime.
Thank you for being here, Imelda! You’re a great artist, and you’re very beautiful. It’s such a pleasure to have you today!
Oh, wow! Thank you!
Where are you now?
I’m in Hampshire, England, right now. And you are from Rome, is that right? I think the last time I was in Rome, it was with Jack Savoretti, he invited me to one of his live shows in Rome and it was a fabulous night…
Hopefully, this can happen again soon…
Yes, let’s hope so!
How was 11 Past the Hour born and what does this new album mean to you?
I started this album like I did the last 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. And 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 we’re all going through so many emotions every day now with the lockdown. So the album has a lot of movement on it, you know. And it means a lot to me. I think this is my favourite album out of all my albums.
How did Noel Gallagher and Ronnie Wood contribute to the single Just One Kiss?
Oh, well, for Ronnie, after I wrote the song, 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. And 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. You know, he sounds so cool. And so yeah, I’m delighted. 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.
Which of your songs are you most attached to?
Oh my God. So many. It’s like asking who is your favourite child or something! It’s funny how you’ve known them all since they were young and help to nurture or create them and then there’s a point you have to let them go. I think I’m most proud of my last album and this album. For sure, I think I love Human and Sixth Sense of my last album Life Love Flesh Blood. And in this one, I love Solace, there’s a song coming out called 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. But it’s not out yet.
What do you think of the current state of rock music?
Of rock music today?
Yes. Compared to what it was like back in the days.
I think it’s brilliant. I think 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. You know, it needs to move. It needs to be alive. And I think there’s so much good music out at the moment. There are so many amazing bands. And I think it’s healthy. Yeah, I think you cannot live the past of rock music. You know, once rock’n’roll was created, it has changed its forms and it’s all brilliant. You know, whatever you’re talking about from Elvis Presley to when The Beatles rocked out to The Rolling Stones rocking out, to Oasis rocking out, you know? It all moves and so we should, too.
What kind of music do you listen to, these days?
I listen to everything. I listened to so many different artists. I’ve never listened to one particular type. I listened to anything that moves me, you know. There’s a great guy called Joshua Burnside I’m enjoying music very much at the moment. Also, Blake Mills, there are so many really really cool bands around at the moment. And Fontaines D.C., I love them, they are a great band. And you know, I love The Last Shadow Puppets, Marilyn Manson and Inhaler. There are so many great bands at the moment. There always is. There’s always so much great music.
What does inspire you in music and life?
Love. That’s it, that’s all that inspires me. Love of all kinds.
That’s so very romantic of you.
Not just romantic love, not just romantic love, I mean – love of everything and trying to behave in a loving way and accept everything and people and 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 and the birds and the trees. I mean, 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.
Oh, yes, all the time. It’s like, my house is just… 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.
Books of what sort?
Oh, just everything. 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. Yeah. Good writing. I’m writing haikus, at the moment.
You mean the Japanese stuff?
Yes, haikus are an old Japanese way. Yes. So that’s my new challenges. Trying to write in haikus. It’s very interesting. Brings in wonderful results.
What achievements are you most proud of in your career?
Oh, wow, God. I’ve been lucky that so many achievements have meant a lot to me. And one of my songs were added to the school curriculum. So I landed in school, and that sounds good. But just being able to make the music that I love, really this 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 having to do other things.
Did you always know that you wanted to do this – and just this – when you were a child?
Oh, when I was a child and I was very young, I wanted to join the circus. I wanted to be an acrobat. Yeah, 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 then that kind of took over my life and writing. But I still got back into drawing lately, which has been nice. So I’m bringing out a poetry book I started to do, and I got some artist friends involved and I was getting them to do some drawings for me. I started doing a few myself, and it’s been a long time but I’m getting back into painting and sketching again. Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed it.
What kind of art techniques do you love?
I like the abstract, mostly. And I like surrealism. I love Marina Abramović, she’s my favourite performance artist. Do you know her?
Oh, you need to check her out. Marina Abramović does the most amazing performance act. Wow. And she makes you think, you know. 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 torn, 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 a little, if you let her. She’s wonderful. I also like Jackson Pollock and Frida Kahlo and Tracy Emin and Grayson Perry.
And oh, I love Marc Chagall so much. One day, I was talking with Bill Wyman [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 at his old age. And this book was beautiful, full of his paintings and beautiful. I was very glad to get that. And then a while ago, a while later, it’s weird how things change and match together… but well, anyway. It doesn’t matter.
It does matter. Please go on. What did happen a while later?
If you like a different story, 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. So I was talking to her about Love on the Left Bank by the Dutch photographer Van Der Elsken which was a beautiful book of these beautiful black and white photographs taken in Paris in the 1950s in a small snippet, and as we were discussing that she said “this is some of my photography” and she gave me her book with all her work in it. Pattie Boyd took most of the most famous photographs of the Beatles and Eric Clapton. She was married to George Harrison. And 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. And it blew me away. And so the cover of my new album 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.
The cover is fantastic. I love it.
Thank you very much!
My pleasure. And there any other people, in any field of the arts, that you would particularly love to collaborate with?
Patti Smith. She’s a goddess. Yes. Wonderful poet, 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. Yeah, there are loads of people I’d love to collaborate with. I’d love to do some fun with and Fontaines D.C., they’re very fun. I love what they do. And of course, Sinéad O’Connor.
You mentioned just women. You must really want to work with women.
I like to work with great artists. I think I admire a lot of great women. I think it has changed now for the women in music, and in order to be great, you have to be extra great. Yeah. So I think when you see a great woman, you know, she’s through the roof. You know, she’s phenomenal.
It doesn’t happen very often for women to privately or publicly admire other women.
Oh, yes. We have to support each other. Look at your record collection, or look at your book collection there, look at your eyes on the wall, just look around at your own place, will you?
Can you tell me who is there?
J.D. Salinger, Oscar Wilde, Roald Dahl, Walt Disney, Mark Twain, David Nicholls.
And mostly white men.
All white men.
And then you realise that you’re not getting a balanced story. Yeah, 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 go 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.
I have no idea.
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 strong grandmother. Yeah, 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 views, 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.
Wait, wait – I’ve just found something. It’s the official Shirley Temple’s autobiography, Child Star. Does it count?
Bought it when I was 9 to try and learn some English. I was a massive fan of her 1930s movies. She was still alive at the time. But yes, the rest are all men. Thank you very much for making me notice that.
You’re welcome, it’s my pleasure. And I don’t say that this is a battle of the sexes. Both men and women are equally as creative and equally have their opinions and have their magic, and we should see each side. You know, 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!
If you think about it, Freddie Mercury wrote Love of My Life for a woman, even though he was gay. And also Oscar Wilde wrote things for his wife. And Roald Dahl – I’m really really into Roald Dahl – he had this amazing grandmother from Norway who is said to have inspired him to write tales.
Yes, and wouldn’t it be lovely if we could hear from those women? Instead of just the men, you know, it would be lovely if we could all hear their stories and their wisdom and their insights, you know? 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. You know they haven’t been affected by the world and they’re just interested in it… interesting things and interesting people.
Going off on a tangent, what do you think of Brexit? I’m asking because you’re Irish.
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.
What are the main differences 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, you know. We have songs and music and poetry and storytelling as a very normal thing in our family life, while here 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, you know… 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.
Haha, you know, it’s funny that a lot of the English musicians that I like here are second-generation Irish. So you know, the Oasis, they’re 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. So they must have felt the need to create music. I say they were probably brought up with music in their family life, you know?
And what do you think of The X Factor and other talent shows like that?
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 100s might do, sometimes that happens. But I think mostly, it is to have 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.
I am done with my pre-made questions. Would you like to add anything else at all? Just anything about any topic?
No, I’m happy. I’m happy, I enjoyed chatting with you. And thank you very much for taking the time!
Likewise, it’s my absolute pleasure.
I hope you have a wonderful day. And I hope you change some of your book collection.
Do you read poetry?
If you like Oscar Wilde, then you have very good taste in writing. He was a phenomenal writer. A good one you maybe can start with – because she’s very easy to relate to – is Rupi Kaur. She’s a very, very nice poet. Very, very emotive. She’s fabulous. It’s a good start, and then you can go from there.
I’ll have a look, I promise! Thank you. And oh, just one last thing: any plans for you to go on tour at some point with the new album?
I don’t know! I have a tour plan for the album, but who knows. I don’t know what’s going to happen. So, I know I’ve continued to write and I’ll continue to write poetry and write music and I brought up the poetry EP Slip Of The Tongue in June 2020 and it did very, very well, I was overwhelmed. I couldn’t believe that people were so open to it. I’m very lucky that the fans that I have are ready to travel with me wherever I go. And so they bought this album and I got so many messages from people saying that they liked it. And that was a dream, for me, to be honest, that I got to do that. That was one of my achievements you asked me about earlier – to be able to do this, and my record company supported me, and that was nice, that was fabulous, and I’ll bring more and I’ll write more. So my creativity is still flying. But fingers crossed for getting back to gates at some point. It would be nice to just go to dinner, wouldn’t it? Be nice just getting to dinner and have somebody else cook, let alone go on tour! Ciao!
★ This interview has made the opening of our other interview with The Animals’ John Steel
★ If you enjoyed reading Imelda May’s story, you’ll also like our other interviews with Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s (remember Hey There Delilah?), The Sex Pistol’s Glen Matlock, Dire Straits, legendary Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, Skunk Anansie’s Skin, Suzi Quatro, The Jam, Prince’s musical director Morris Hayes, Stephen Emmer, David Bowie’s pupil Ozark Henry, Jah Wobble, Maxim of The Prodigy, Amy Macdonald and UB40