- 01 Jul 20
As she reveals a stunning new side of her artistry with her latest EP, Slip Of The Tongue, Imelda May discusses family, sexuality, shame, and poetry’s forgotten place in Irish working-class life.
From rockabilly to soulful soft rock, the last five years of Imelda May’s career have been marked by constant reinvention. Now she’s making her boldest move yet – ditching the traditional songwriting form for poetry on her new EP, Slip Of The Tongue.
“I’ve been writing poetry for a long time, but I’ve just kind of kept it to myself,” she tells me. “Within songwriting, there’s this question that often crops up, especially with women: ‘Do you really write your songs?’ I still get that asked of me – even though that’s the crux of what I do. That’s where it all starts with me."
The EP was partially inspired by her performance arts piece at Latitude Festival in the UK last year, which saw her writing poetry live inside an illuminated glass cube. Although she originally intended to publish a book, the project ultimately took shape in the recording studio.
“I’ve written around 100 poems in the last couple of years,” she reveals. “My friends and family ask me for poems for particular events, and I’ve just been writing like crazy. I wrote an album and poetry at the same time – continuously flipping between the two, with no plans for what was coming out. But each time I went into the studio to record, I’d read my poetry.”
Despite having secured her legendary status as a solo artist across five acclaimed albums, as well as through her work with a star-studded list of collaborators, including Jeff Beck, Lou Reed, Smokey Robinson and Tom Jones, the move into such uncharted territory was undoubtedly a risky one.
But true to form, Imelda doesn’t sound too daunted. In fact, she exudes a positively joyous energy – particularly when her new lockdown neighbour, a miniature deer, briefly crashes our interview. “A muntjac got in behind my bushes, and she had a little baby,” she gushes. “I’ve been watching out for her.”
Of course, pontificators have declared poetry a dying artform countless times over the decades – while others view it as a stuffy literary form reserved for the educated, and far-removed from the realities of ordinary life. Both are misconceptions, according to Imelda.
“Music, poetry and art are very normal parts of a working-class household,” she argues. “It shouldn’t be seen as elitist at all. If you talk to anyone, most people can recite to you their favourite poem. My dad read me Spike Milligan as a kid, and he’d act out each poem. He’d write poetry too. It was on both sides of my family. My mam’s brother, my late uncle Joe Comerford, was a taxi driver – but he’d come over on his lunch break to sit down to read out his poems for me.
“With spoken word, it’s coming straight from the person’s mouth who’s written it,” she continues. “It’s normally spoken in quite a normal way, too. School didn’t do a lot for poetry, for me. We had to pick it apart, studying every line. By the time you were through doing that, you hated it.”
This platform affords her a depth of self-expression that’s not always so easy to find in music. This direct line to her audience also leaves less room for the misinterpretations she’s had to deal with in the past – particularly with her previous album, 2017’s Life Love Flesh Blood, which was often inaccurately described as being solely about the breakup of her marriage to Darrell Higham.
“People like to wrap things up in a nice, neat story,” she laughs. “Me and my husband split up, so therefore that’s what the album must be about – even though I didn’t say that once. There were only two songs on there about that, and then there were loads of positive songs, like ‘Human’, and love songs, like ‘How Bad Can A Good Girl Be’. It doesn’t really matter in the scheme of life, but I had to keep going, ‘No! It’s not about that!’ In fact, I’d laugh with Darrell about it. There was a lot of water in between that and the album – I’d even already had another relationship, which had run its course.”
Indeed, on Slip Of The Tongue, she embraces a surprisingly intimate and open approach. Among the standout tracks is ‘Stargazer’ – written for her daughter.
“As I gave birth, the nurse said she was a little stargazer, because she was looking up at the night sky,” Imelda tells me. “She was breech – so it definitely didn’t feel romantic at the time! She turned herself the wrong way around. But she’s wonderful. She’s a great little writer – and always singing. I love reciting ‘Elephant’ on the EP to her. That’s definitely inspired by Spike Milligan.”
Since our interview, Imelda has used her poetry to express her support of the Black Lives Matter movement, that’s increasingly gaining worldwide traction in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. In Ireland, the protests have sparked further conversations about how racism continues to pervade Irish society – which Imelda addresses in her poem ‘You Don’t Get To Be Racist And Irish’.
“Our joys have been earned, well-deserved,” she reads. “And serve to remind us to remember: More Blacks, More Dogs, More Irish.”
She’s also used the medium to challenge the shame that continues to surround sexuality in Irish society – most notably on Slip Of The Tongue’s ‘GBH’, which explores female sexual pleasure.
“I did get some grief from some women initially – and then I got a massive wave of support from every other woman. People are taught to be afraid of those things. That shame is engrained through generations – but we’re shaking it off, which is fabulous. Without sex we wouldn’t exist – so how could the utmost reason we’re here be shameful? That shame isn’t a natural reaction.”
She attempts to break down such boundaries between women with ‘Becoming’. The title is borrowed from Michelle Obama’s memoir – and has even got the official blessing from the former First Lady herself.
“I was at a lunch that she was at,” Imelda recalls. “I was asked to recite this poem to her, and she loved it. She was like, ‘Amen!’ – and asked me what it was called. I hadn’t got a title for it yet. I’d just finished reading her book, and I loved it, so it was one of those lightbulb moments. I knew ‘Becoming’ would be the perfect title. So I asked her if that would be okay, and she said, ‘Yes – you have my blessing on that’.
“I was a total fangirl around her,” she adds, laughing. “She’s not intimidating at all, though. She’s really warm, and she has the wonderful ability of making everybody feel good. You know she connects to the people she meets – which is a wonderful talent.”
Undoubtedly, Imelda shares a similar gift for forming inexplicable connections with those who come into contact with her music – and as she embarks down a new avenue with her poetry, it’s clear this unique ability has gone nowhere.
“I was talking to Victoria Mary Clarke, because I was nervous about ‘GBH’,” she reflects. “She said, ‘Imelda, as a writer, maybe your job is to be a catalyst, and say things others can’t’. So I thought, ‘I’ll take that as a role’. Maybe I have to be so honest – to put into words what we all feel.”
• Slip Of The Tongue is out now.