Imelda May was our cover star back in March, and shared everything from her birth, sex, love, divorce and death, all of which appear in her newest album. "It's the story of my life," she told Olaf Tyaransen.
Imelda May’s stunning new album, Life. Love. Flesh. Blood, is strongly informed by her 2015 break-up with ex-husband and band member, Darrel Higham. In a remarkably revealing interview, she discusses working through personal pain on the record, reinventing her look and sound, collaborating with legendary producer T Bone Burnett in LA, and how advice from her friend Bono helped shaped the material. “I put my whole heart and soul into this album,” she tells Olaf Tyaransen.
“Oh my god, my bleedin’ top is undone!” shrieks Imelda May at the very end of this interview, frantically pulling at her black silk blouse. “How long has it been open like that?”
There’s a slightly awkward silence before your blushing Hot Press correspondent is forced to confess, “Well… um… ever since you arrived.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“To be honest, I was quite enjoying the view.” (She’s wearing a rather fetching black lace bra).
This earns me a playful slap. “I hope you don’t think I did that deliberately just to get a better interview!”
Perish the thought! Though given that the title of the Liberties girl’s fifth studio album is Life Love Flesh Blood, her fleshly faux pas makes perfect sense. These are definitely her most revealing songs to date. Earlier she’d explained the title: “I’ve called it that because it encompasses everything. It’s all in there: birth, sex, love, divorce and death. It’s the story of my life.”
Rewind 40 minutes or so and button up. When the 42-year-old star walks into the bar of Dublin’s Westbury Hotel, Hot Press’ first reaction is to almost fall off the seat. Truly, Imelda looks absolutely stunning. She was always a looker, but her trademark blond streaked rockabilly quiff gave her something of a cartoonish quality. Today, however, she’s looking more like Betty Blue than Betty Boop. Dressed entirely in black, with matching straightened hair, she’s totally ditched the rockabilly image in favour of a far more sultry femme fatale look.
She seems extremely comfortable in her new skin.
“I always loved the ’50s rockabilly style, but it got to the point where I practically felt like I was dressing up as this character called Imelda May before every gig,” she reflects. “I just didn’t want to do that anymore. This is me.”
It’s not just her look that has changed. Her sound is markedly different, too. Imelda has found a new musical groove, with the album – produced by the legendry American musician T Bone Burnett – exploring soul, gospel, blues, folk and rock on a collection of some of the rawest, boldest and most intimately autobiographical songs she has ever written.
That Imelda has been through a lot of emotional trauma in recent years – including motherhood, a marriage break-up and an ill-fated rebound relationship – is reflected in the song titles: ‘Call Me’, ‘Black Tears’, ‘The Girl I Used To Be’, ‘Shoulda Been You’, ‘Leave Me Lonely’.
But we’ll get to all that messy personal stuff in a while. First off, when did she decide to change her sound?
“I made that decision before writing [last album] Tribal,” she explains. “Even before I wrote it, I knew. I just didn’t tell anyone, but I knew in my mind. Not that it was a rockabilly album, but because you know I’ve always fought against that label. I love rockabilly, but I’m not a purist – as most rockabillys will tell you. I use electric bass, god forbid!
“No, on the last album I kinda tended towards a lot of punk. I made a conscious decision to go as heavy as I felt was comfortable for me with Tribal, because I knew I was going to step away. So that’s like two or three years ago.”
How did her band feel about that?
“I didn’t tell them at the time,” she shrugs. “I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I was going to write.”
Imelda’s band used to include her husband Darrel Higham, with whom she had a daughter, Violet, in 2012. The couple split in July 2015 after more than 18 years together. She announced the news in a Facebook post: “As you can imagine, we are very sad but happy we’re making the right decision for us and our daughter, who is doing really well by the way.”
So how did he feel about her proposed new musical direction?
“Well, Darrell was the rockabilly player,” she says. “But he was also the one who would push me to get away from it, to be honest. He’s definitely the purist. And the other guys… one of the things that I always liked about my band, some of the guys are into punk or jazz or rhythm & blues or singer songwriter stuff or whatever, and rockabilly, too, of course. “I loved that because I could feature each of those things within the gigs. It’s nice to work on people’s strengths and make the most of the difference. I like differences, but Darrel was always saying, ‘There’s more to this, you need to move away, step away.’ And he was saying I should have been doing that a long time before.”
She laughs, throatily.
“Of course I never listen to anyone. I always do my own thing. And then Darrel had said, around Tribal, that he wanted to leave the band. So I knew he was leaving the band because he wanted to concentrate on his own career. He knew that I was moving in a different direction, and he didn’t want to go there. He said, ‘I want to write and start my own band again’ and ‘You need to do your own thing.’ We both knew musically we were separating. So that was good.”
Did they both realise that the musical separation would ultimately lead to a romantic one, too?
“Yes, and I think he would agree with me,” she nods. “Music held us together quite a lot. It’s a common interest that you spend hours talking about, and then working together. It was actually quite good for us. If we hadn’t have got that, we might have parted ways earlier. Then musically we were drifting as well and that was kinda the last straw.”
Imelda and Darrel struggled financially for many years before their music began to properly pay the rent. Having played just about every dive in Ireland and the UK, things eventually took off with the 2007 release of May’s second album Love Tattoo. Since then she has performed with a stellar cast of big names, including Lou Reed, Smokey Robinson, Tom Jones, David Gilmore, Wanda Jackson, Lulu, Paolo Nutini, The Dubliners, The Chieftans, U2, Robert Plant and Sinead O’Connor. Is there a sense that, as the Sinéad song once put it, success ultimately made a failure of their home?
“Maybe… I don’t know,” she falters. “I don’t know all the answers, but probably. It changes the dynamics of things, whether you like it or not. And then you have to work your way around that, and then how busy you get as well has an effect on you. It’s quite a broad statement to make, but there’s good and bad in everything. The struggles when you don’t make it, and the struggles when you do. Sometimes you work them out and sometimes you don’t.”
Well, did they not enjoy success? Or did it prove to be another kind of restraint against happiness?
“I enjoy being able to pay me bills, more than not,” states May. “I know you would for sure agree with me, Olaf, and I’m sure you’re the same. You’re a writer: you’re in the same game.
“So if things go well it’s great,” she continues. “It gives me more freedom to do what I want creatively. Whereas I found it hard timewise as well when I was trying to write and trying to earn money. It’s almost ne’er the two shall meet. One kills off the other. I was doing double shifts in a pub or a restaurant, and then at night I was singing at functions trying to get some money together to try and stay in music… and in between I was trying to write. But now I love that I can write and use that as my job.”
Does she ever travel to inspiring locations purely to write songs?
“No, but I think I should,” enthuses Imelda. “That’s a great idea! I can’t write on tour – it’s all consuming for me, touring. Timewise, it’s mad. You roll into town, get yourself washed and dressed, get to the venues to soundcheck, do a gig, you know. Then on to the next one.”
How’s single motherhood balancing out with all of that?
“I’m just trying to make it work,” shrugs May. “I’m absolutely in love with my daughter; I suppose most people can relate to that who have kids. Everything revolves around Violet. She’s a bossy four-year-old. They tell you what to do and you have to do it. She’s been known to call me Cinderella. She’ll be quite happy and tell me that I’m her slave. “I’m a single mommy working my ass off and I just have to make it work,” she continues. “It might mean I sleep less, and I have to wear more makeup to disguise me lack of sleep. But I’m quite happy. I just try work out how to bring her with me or not. It’s just balance and juggling, multitasking and juggling.”
Did the pressures of parenthood also contribute to the split with Darrel?
“It changes your priorities and your outlook on life, having a child,” she muses. “And then you maybe realise that you aren’t being the absolute best for the child. If something’s not right – and Darrel agrees with me – then you have to address it. You want the happiest childhood for your child. You know, you might be able to make do slugging along the two of yous on your own and as soon as a child comes along you think, ‘Hang on a second, we need to make this better for her.’ So it’s all dealing with her interests ahead. The two of us are in agreement over that. We’re both mad about her.”
How are relations with Darrel now?
“Me and him? Oh good, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re great. It’s all about her and we get on. He comes and stays. I’ll text him ‘do you need to stay over?’ because there’s a studio nearby he works in, and he comes and stays over a lot. Sees Violet and no, it’s all good. He pops in if he’s nearby and I’ll make dinner and we’ll have dinner all together. I sang on his album. Hells Hotel it’s called, and that’s out next month. I asked if he wanted some free backing vocals if he would help me lifting heavy things into the attic. He said yeah.”
Is that coming out under his own name?
“Yeah, Darrel Higham of course,” she nods. “He has Robert Plant singing on it and it’s a great album, and exactly what he wanted to do. So I think we’ve both found a new freedom. We’ve had separate careers for many years before. Many people presume we were in a band together forever, but we weren’t. I’ve been doing this 26 years or something and he’s the same. We were in a band together for seven years. So we both had things before doing our own thing and while we were together as well.
“We’re very supportive of each other. He pushes me to do my thing, I push him to do his. It’s great that we both have come into our own again. It’s lovely, yeah.”
Needless to say, much of what’s happened between the couple has fed into Imelda’s new album. As she sings on the bitter ballad ‘Black Tears’, “How did it all go wrong?/ We seemed to have it all/ But it’s broken/ and I’m running/ and I’m scared.”
The songs seem quite autobiographical…
“Dear god, I know” she laughs, putting her hand to her mouth. “And now I’m having to deal with doing interviews about it. Jesus, I didn’t think that one through. I was asked questions by somebody the other day and I was going, ‘I’m not telling you that.’ But he said, ‘but you wrote about it on your album.’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, shit, I did!’ So it’s being honest while you’re writing and then trying to deal with that or not discuss it while you’re doing interviews. It’s an honest album, yes.”
Are the songs hard to sing?
“I haven’t toured it yet so I’ll have to let you know,” she smiles. “I have a feeling they might be, but that’s a part of it I think. We’ll see if I’m messed up by it or not. I’ll see how that goes, but it could be therapeutic. I don’t know. I just knew I had to write it. I had to write honestly. My one plan with this album was to have no plan and not know because all the other albums I knew what I wanted to do before I did it. And this one I just wanted to be free and write what I felt like writing. “Just go with it and almost follow the sounds and figure it out. And it was really a wonderful feeling to not know what was going to come out of me. I really can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the process of it. It was probably one of me worst and best times. I was going through tough times, but I think it was one of my favourite albums to write.”
The album was recorded in just a fortnight in Los Angeles with T Bone Burnett at the helm, and a core trio of guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello), bassist Zach Dawes (The Last Shadow Puppets, Mini Mansions) and drummer Jay Bellerose (Robert Plant and Alison Krauss).Long time Imelda champions Jeff Beck and Jools Holland also make guest appearances.
“It was recorded quickly, but took about a year to write,” she explains. “I took a lot of time over this album. I did a bit of co-writing, which I had never done before. I always write alone. I found that nice.”
What prompted that decision?
“I just wanted to try it,” she avers. “It was accidental, actually. I was meeting up with the manager of a friend of mine in Nashville, and I had a couple of meetings with a few days off in between. My manager in England, Peter [Rudge], said, ‘You’re in the songwriters capital so do you want to do some co-writing?’ I said, ‘Sure – I’d rather use my time than not.’ Otherwise I’ll be dancing with some cowboy again in some honky-tonk club, which I’ve been known to do. Drinking shots!
“I found it interesting writing with someone else. More disciplined. You turn up to work and there’s a start and end time to it. Normally, when you’re on your own, you could just go on forever and if it’s not working you go, ‘Well, I’ll leave it and go back tomorrow and I’ll go and work on something else.’ But when you’re there for one day you think, ‘We’ve to start and finish this song right now.’ So it was quite good for me.
“It was a more disciplined way of doing it. I did about six songs as a co-writer and I really enjoyed it. Actually I wrote way more, some of them I just didn’t connect with. It’s a kinda weird process turning up with somebody and baring your soul. Some people I just didn’t connect with and you’d have to… it’s like a date. You have to not be rude and in your mind you know this is just not happening. So you would have to be nice about it. You just get on and think, ‘Well, let’s just write something, end it quickly and get out of here.’
“Other times you’d meet with someone and it takes off immediately,” she continues. “It was great working with somebody else who would take the middle to a place where I never would have gone. Then I’d think, ‘Jeez, I never would have done that.’ So it was good.”
Bono also offered a lot of sound advice throughout the writing and recording of the album. The U2 star recently proffered his opinion on Imelda: “I love the girl she used to be, but I think I love even more the woman she’s become. Still mischievous and playful, still a siren, but there’s an ache in her voice now that has me with a glass at my ear to the wall of her world where trouble has entered the room. There’s an erotic power here that’s not just feminine power. She makes truth-telling an invitation to intimacy.”
Imelda is obviously really appreciative of his help.
He’s brilliant, yeah he’s really, really good. He’s been there for me in the background.”
When did that began?
“Well, he came to sing with me once a long time ago in the O2,” she explains. “I asked him and he was very sweet. We didn’t get together until we did a thing in Monaco; Ali was getting an award at some charity deal. We met at lunch and started chatting. Then he was saying, ‘What you doing?... blah blah blah.’ He asked me to sing us a bit of your song and I sang a bit and he went, ‘Fuck me! I like that.’ He gave me his details and said, ‘If you ever need anyone to ask or bounce things off, give us a shout.’
“I didn’t think of it until I got stuck. I wrote 38 songs for this album and then set it up that I was meeting T Bone. I asked to work with T Bone and I never thought for a million years that he would say yes… and he said yes and then I had to whittle it down to 11 songs. Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood from the trees because you’re so connected to them. So Bono was great. He said, ‘Send them to me’ and he was going, ‘That song that you thought was your good one… ditch it. And the one that you’re getting rid of, it’s just not finished, finish the bloody thing. Rework it and rework it again and rework it again. Cause that’s a strong song!’
“It was just brilliant to have someone so honest. We didn’t talk to each other a lot, but when I got stuck it was great to have somebody to lean on. To think I’m really stuck here now. The cover of the album, say, I had it down to two photographs and he’d call to say, ‘How you getting on?’ just out of the blue. I’d say, ‘I’m stuck’ and he’d say, ‘Art, art, keep focused. What do you want to do here? Create. Art. Don’t listen because you’ve loads of people around you giving you advice, but from a different perspective.’
“So my record company’s great, but they’re obviously coming from a different angle. They’d be thinking of the commercial perspective. And they’re right, they have to say, ‘We really believe in your album – you make it, but we have to try and get it out there.’ But Bono was great with keeping focus – ‘What you wanna do? Make art, focus.’ I can’t thank him enough for that. It’s just good to have somebody at your side.” Imelda pauses when asked if she can summarise the album in a couple of sentences.
“Well, it’s an honest album,” she eventually says. “I’ve put me heart into it. I feel like I’ve put my life into it. That’s why I called it, Life Love Flesh Blood. Cause I thought that I just put me whole heart and soul into this, and me blood. I’ve written about my family, too, loads. “There’s good and there’s bad in it, there’s good times and bad times. I wrote all the way through the course of a year, year-and-a-half of my life. I don’t know how to describe it, Olaf, you just have to listen to it and figure it out for yourself.”
Does Darrel like the album?
“I don’t know.”
Has he heard it?
“I don’t know.”
Well, has he been sent a copy?
“No, not yet, not yet,” she says, shaking her head. “I talk to him about it. I did tell him there is stuff about us in here. He said, ‘I get that that’s what you do, you’re a writer.’ He said, ‘I’m doing an album, and it will be the same for me.’ It’s not necessarily, this is my… (pauses) I just wrote what I felt at a particular time, and there’s obviously two sides. This album is not just written about my marriage. It’s life in general. There’s loads of different things that go on. I’ve fallen in love since, and had me heart broken again since, and there’s all that stuff in there.”
Was that a rebound?
“I don’t know, it’s just the way it goes. I suppose I’m an optimist, so you keep trying to find love and it doesn’t work. But you keep trying. So that’s the optimistic view I’ve got. It’s just nice to meet people. You know Darrel, he’s a writer, he gets it. I’m a writer, we both write. We write separately. He has his album, I have my album, and we were both supportive of each other. We’re lucky.”
Is she nervous about hearing her ex-husband’s musical take on things?
“No, no,” she says. “I respect what he has to say and write about. You have to write your own truths. Doesn’t mean it’s the truth for both of you, but it’s your own truth. I guess my album is my truth. So it should be – that’s what makes it interesting. Wouldn’t it be dull if we agreed with each other all the time?”
Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is out now and gets a live airing at the Waterfront, Belfast (May 27) and Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin (29-31).
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