Arts

Imelda May on her new LP, racism in Ireland and reading Pat Ingoldsby to her daughter

With a new album out soon, acclaimed Dublin singer Imelda May tells Lorraine Wylie about recording with some of pop's biggest names, multitasking as a mum in lockdown and how she's looking forward to seeing her poetry in print

From The Liberties in inner-city Dublin, Imelda May is a singer, writer and multi-instrumentalist
Lorraine Wylie

IF A year in lockdown has left you hungry for some seriously good music, Imelda May’s latest album, 11 Past The Hour, will definitely hit the spot.

Featuring such luminaries as Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, it's a smorgasbord of husky vocals, sensual lyrics, low-slung blues and a generous dash of raunchy rock and roll. But in typical May fashion, the recipe wouldn’t be complete without a twist of originality.

In 2017 the Irish star reinvented her career when she ditched Rockabilly for the more classic sound of soft rock and soulful blues. Now, four years later, she’s done it again, using the spoken word to add a new dimension to her artistic expression. During a Zoom call, May tells me about the emotion that drives her work the impact of lockdown and how her poem, You Don’t Get to Be Racist and Irish struck an international chord.

I begin by asking about the inspiration behind 11 Past The Hour.

“This album is all about love," she says. “Not just the romantic or the lustful kind but all forms of it. When I sat down to write, I didn’t think, ‘Now, what am I going to write about?’ I’ve done that before and found it only contains and limits you. So now, I just follow the songs that come out of me rather than me try to lead the song. It’s been a lovely adventure.”

Throughout her career the Dubliner has collaborated with some illustrious figures including Jeff Beck, Smokey Robinson, Tom Jones and Van Morrison. On this album, Noel Gallagher lends a "great vibe and kick-ass voice" to the track Just One Kiss, while Ronnie Woods contributes his legendary guitar skills throughout.

“Ronnie and I have been friends a long time and I’m also a huge fan. He’s great fun to be around and brings amazing energy. Noel has a brilliant voice! I knew he’d be perfect for this one and I’m just delighted with the way everything has worked out,” says May.

Fans won’t be surprised by the positive that 11 Past the Hour has garnered so far but, until the release of her EP Slip of the Tongue in 2020 May’s poetic talents were less well known.

“I grew up listening to poetry,” she enthuses. “My dad used to read Spike Milligan to me and I now read [Dublin poet and former children's television presenter] Pat Ingoldsby to my daughter – we both love it!

"I think everybody should get into poetry. I’d recommend going to the local charity shop, pick up a few books and leave them around the house. Do not put them on a bookshelf because you’ll never read them if you do. I keep a book by my bedside and always read before I go to sleep. It’s like dipping into a treasure chest and choosing a wee gem.”

May's poem, You Don’t Get to Be Racist and Irish ended up in the public spotlight. Did she expect such a visceral response?

“No, I didn’t expect anything. I just wrote it, full of emotion. I had no idea it would have such an impact. The messages that came flooding in were totally unexpected. Many supportive and encouraging. But some were not so good. In fact some were really bad, even death threats and everything. People were very angry with me. It was unbelievable.

"But I write from my heart and I write what I mean. Back then, as I watched the events unfolding with the BLM protests I was surprised by some of the racism in Ireland. Of course, not everyone is racist but some... I thought, you have got to be joking! We’ve been oppressed for so long, it makes no sense to become the oppressor. If we wanted someone to offer us a helping hand and a warm welcome, then why couldn’t we give it back? It’s crazy.

"You don’t have to agree with what I say by any means but these are my feelings.

 

"Ultimately I believe in love. I mean, all those great characters – Jesus, John Lennon, Martin Luther King – all had the same message: love. They all died for their belief. It’s worth fighting for.

"Someone once told me that humans have two base emotions – love and fear. This has helped me to understand people. I ask myself, is this reaction coming from love or is it fear? I’d rather live my life from love than from fear.”

Growing up, poetry was part of the school curriculum but May thinks schools could have done better.

“We were taught to dissect our poems. Every line had to be analysed. We had to ask why the author said this, what did they mean by that? They sucked every last drop of joy out of it. For goodness sake, what does it matter what the author meant? It’s how poetry makes us feel. It’s very simple, you either like it or you don’t. That’s it.”

Having admitted to penning more than 100 poems, I wonder whether there may be a book in the works?

“Oh yes, 100 per cent!” laughs May. “Although I’ve already missed one deadline and I’m in danger of missing the next. But yes, I’m looking forward to having my work in print.”

As well as being a singer/songwriter, an accomplished musician and poet, the 46-year-old is also mum to eight-year-old Violet. And, like most parents this past year, she’s had to juggle the demands for home-schooling with work.

“It hasn’t been easy, especially in the middle of producing an album which is very time consuming. But my daughter is very patient. I explain that Mummy has to work and she’ll ask if it’s to earn money to buy her a new doll and I’ll agree, which seems to satisfy her. I simply crack on and get the job done, fit in some interviews, then I’ll try to do some housework before making dinner.

"To be honest, I’m not great with the home-schooling. So instead of cramming everything into a short space of time, I try to focus on the areas where she needs help most.”

Last year brought the excitement of working on a new album and, according to media reports, a new relationship with Dundalk musician, 27-year-old Niall McNamee. There has also been a painfully sad ending.

“I lost my dog Alife, during lockdown. I mean, I know its not the same as losing a family member or anything like that and I’m not making comparisons. But, I loved Alfie. He was with me for 13 years from the early days before things went well for me. I used to take him to gigs and then he came with me to London.

"When I look back at photographs I see his little paw touching my arm, always within reach. Someone once described him as my soul-dog and that’s exactly what he was. It was heartbreaking to lose him.”

May seems to have more than a few fans in the animal kingdom. Last time we spoke in 2017, she was telling me about Dave the Crow, who having recovered from an injury was eventually released into the wild.

“Yes,” she laughs. “Dave the Crow also attended a few gigs with me. I don’t know what it is but animals seem to seek me out. This year, we’ve had a blackbird come visit in my kitchen. I call him scar face because he has a little mark on him. Then there was the pheasant who literally tapped on my door. He had a trap attached to his leg.

"Fortunately I was able to get it off and he was fine. Recently, a young deer took up residence in the garden so I’ve been looking out for her. Busy time!”

11 Past The Hour is released next month; Imelda May is scheduled to perform at Derry's Millennium Forum on May 02.

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