All interviewers want to talk about is my hair laughs Imelda May, playing Ipswich tonight
PUBLISHED: 13:11 04 May 2017 | UPDATED: 14:30 05 May 2017
Imelda May launches her first UK tour in more than three years at the Ipswich Regent tonight. She talks about the secret divide in music, the X-Factor and everyone’s fascination with her new(ish) haircut.
Known for her rockabilly style, there was a point where Imelda admits it had become a caricature. She sometimes felt like she was almost dressing up as Imelda May. She laughs when I bring up her new look.
“I’ve produced albums and then you turn up to do an interview and the only thing they wanted to talk about was your hair. You think ‘okay, I’ll just get rid of it’ and then sod’s law everybody wants to talk about your hair again... I don’t mind, I just find it very amusing.”
She saw Imelda makeovers offered in shops and even now people dress up like the Dublin born singer-songwriter at Halloween.
“I was like ‘ohh, make it stop, you know; rewind’. It became too much of a thing and for me it’s all about the music. (Everything else) doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Everybody should boycott those (sort of) magazines, I don’t think they’re fulfilling in any way. I don’t think they’re good for ya. It’s fine to flick through in the hairdressers or whatever. It’s fun, but there’s no substance, you don’t finish those magazines and think ‘oh I feel good after’. It’s too much focus on things that don’t matter.”
Fascination with style rather than substance leads us onto what Imelda - back with new album Life, Love, Flesh, Blood - calls the secret divide in music right now.
“It seems to be either middle class kids or kids with parents who can afford it sent to music college and working class kids go on the X–Factor. It seems to be a massive division and I don’t think that’s right. I’ve never gone to music college, I went to gigs and jam sessions.”
She thinks if music is in your bones, you’ll find a way; but the focus shouldn’t be all about the fame either.
Performing on TV in front of judges while the whole nation watches isn’t for her. She much preferred quietly having fun with her friends when she started out on the Dublin club circuit aged 16.
“If you’ve been on the X-Factor two seconds... It’s fun TV but it’s not a music show. There should be somewhere in the middle between it and college where kids can get involved in the music business. It’s like fast food you know? It’s instant but not nourishing... With very few exceptions.”
Life changed for Imelda in the lead-up to the new album, the most personal and intimately autobiographical collection of songs she’s written. She’s admitted in the past to sometimes “hiding things in my songs and twisting them around”. Not this time.
Divorced from husband, father of her four-year-old daughter and former band member Darrel Higham, she found the whole album process cathartic.
“I found it quite liberating, almost a weight off me shoulders. I really enjoyed writing it. I just wanted to write what I wanted to write. I almost wanted to write this album like I wrote my first one; without thinking of anything, just feeling.
“I definitely put my heart and soul into this more than any one I’d written before. I wrote it over the course of a year so, yes, there’s heartbreak in there but there’s also hope and love and regret and desire... That’s why I sing about family and everything over the course of a year in my life or possibly anybody’s.”
The album was produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett and recorded in LA. It features some of the most well renowned musicians in America - the same as on T Bone’s celebrated Alison Krauss and Robert Plant Raising Sand album - with guest appearances by long-time supporters Jeff Beck and Jools Holland.
“I’ve never met anyone quite like Imelda May. She is full of life. When I first happened onto her music, she was a punky Irish rockabilly singer with a great band. I was intrigued by her deep feeling for and understanding of that American art form, much of which, of course, had originated in Ireland,” T Bone recalls.
“When I ran across her several years later, she had gone through a change of lives and was writing about it with a wild intensity and singing about it in the most open hearted way. I was inspired by her honesty and her generosity, and I continue to be intrigued.”
Imelda describes the process as wonderful, remembering she and T Bone’s many meetings over dinner before going through every song and asking her about what vibes she had about the album and for references - be it music, movies, visual...
“He wanted me to use his band. I didn’t meet them until the first day of recording; we had no rehearsals or anything. It was electricity in the room, there was fabulous adrenalin. That’s why I hope it has a lot of life to it because we were just buzzing; no pressure.
“We recorded 15 songs in seven days just because it flowed so well. T Bone set it up all very well and gave me a lot of space. He sits back a lot and trusts you to do what you do best and just encourages it along the way. I found him really great to work with.”
Exploring blues, soul, gospel, folk, rock, acoustica, cinematic drama and balladry it’s been described as a new groove for her.
“It is and it isn’t. It’s new to what people know me for, but I’ve been gigging 26 years and people only know me for maybe seven of those so they only know me as their rockabilly... I started off doing blues, jazz, soul, gospel; so I’ve gone back to my roots more than anything. I think with music, you either like it or you don’t and I felt like taking a step back a bit and seeing what came out when I wrote.”
I’ve just been watching video of her surprising a busker in London; joining him for a rendition of Molly Malone. She jokes she’s never busked before, adding it was too cold and rainy in Dublin for such things. Passing a hat round at open mic and jam sessions was more her style.
“We used to stay all night; four walls, a roof, normally some warmth, dryness and a bar. It was the same concept just way better,” laughs Imelda, who has actually busked before; notably as part of Glen Hansard’s star-studded line-ups raising money for the homeless any year she’s home for Christmas.
Imelda, sat in a car on her way to rehearsals as we speak, can’t wait to get back on tour.
“Enough talking, it’s time to just go,” she laughs. “I’m lucky enough I have four albums to play with now. So I’ll be doing all of the new album and a few songs from each of the others.”
Cheering her on from the wings will be daughter Violet.
“She’s fabulous. She tells me to be quiet because she’s the singer now. She writes songs and tells me I’m not allowed to do any more. She’s been on the tour bus for most of her childhood, all around the world and loved it. Now it’s time to go to school and I’ll balance it like everybody else does, I’ll juggle.”
The proud mum says Violet is why she does everything she does. She wants to give her a good life and for Violet to be proud of her the way Imelda is of her own mother.
“We’re like two peas in a pod, everybody is telling me... Me mother told me it’s payback time; she’s strong willed like me so I’m going to have all the teenage years my poor mother had with me, God love me. I’m going to tell her I was a saint,” she laughs “like all parents do to their children - until they find out otherwise.”
We may not have to wait as long for Imelda’s next album.
“At the moment I’m just talking about music all the time - I know I have to do it but it’s not what drives me... But I’m ready to be creative again. I’m always writing, I keep notebooks and constantly write bits and pieces. I said to my manager ‘I’m ready to write my next album’ and he went ‘dear God’.”
• Imelda is also visiting Cambridge Corn Exchange May 6, Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion May 8 and Latitude Festival July 14.