An Irish rock and roll songstress uses some profound life experiences to forge a new chapter.
By Steve Houk
Life is full of changes. We all experience them. Some are small, and some are big. But change is part of our lives.
Imelda May has gone through some profound life changes over the last few years, as profound as it gets, really. Having her first baby, getting divorced from her longtime partner and bandmate, reassessing her career, figuring out what’s next. Yeah, some big time changes.
And out of all of that turbulence came a revelation: a stunning, beautiful, and for her, a very different new record, aptly titled Love Life Flesh Blood, released in April of this year. It’s not the Imelda as sassy rockabilly siren that people have come to know, although she’s still in there. It’s an introspective, deeply personal collection of music that signifies a new chapter in this exceptional singer’s life and career. And often for musicians, their music is just the elixir they need for handling the many changing tides of life.
“Well, life changes, as you know,” the sweet, affable and open Imelda May told me on a break from her current world tour that will bring her to Wolf Trap on June 22nd opening for Elvis Costello. “And as a writer, I write about what’s happening. I probably took about a year to write this album. This was a really wonderful writing time for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed making this album. And I just wanted to write honestly.”
Love Life Flesh Blood certainly is honest, brutally so. You can just feel the pain, the struggle, the sadness, and also the redemption and recovery, oozing from its deeply emotional songs. It is a seminal time for the lovely Irish-born May, who also decided to put her preconceived image aside and move away from what people thought she was.
“I had no plan about what album I wanted to make,” the 42-year-old May said. “But before I wrote the last album Tribal, I knew that was going to be the last album that I wrote in that vein, because I felt like I’ve hit a glass ceiling almost. You know people say, ‘Oh, I know what you do,’ and that’s terrible. You know there was a certain album expected, and creatively, I just felt a bit fenced in, and so I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore. I’ve always done all kinds of music, but I was kind of tagged with just one, and so I just wanted that to stop. So I wrote Tribal as heavy as I felt comfortable with, and put a lot of rockabilly, a lot of punk in that as well, and so I could step away comfortably, now that I’ve gone as far as I wanted to go.”
Although May knew she wanted to get out of the corner she felt painted into, she wasn’t sure what was to come next. That’s until she mined her own psyche for the intense feelings she had experienced during such a tumultuous time. The music flowed from there.
“I didn’t know what was next, and that was really liberating to just not know, and to just write and write and write and write. I just wrote so many songs, like 40, because so much had gone on, like I said, it’s a year. Things happened that caused me heartbreak and regret, and then hope and feeling guilty for being happy, and then letting myself go to happiness and desire. I wrote what I wanted to write, and I wrote honestly before, but I found a way of kind of hiding things, meanings, in there, not in a weird way, just that’s what you do. If you’re talking to a friend, you might talk slightly different if there’s a microphone in between you. It’s that kind of vibe. If you think lots of people might be listening, you might hold back a little, but if you’re on your own with your friends, and you think no one’s listening, you just let it all out, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write this like no one was listening, and just write how I felt and let it all out, and almost use the album like a diary.”
May is happy she could not only convey her deep feelings into her music, but she hopes that people can connect with the songs as much as she did when she was writing them.
“Writing is an inward thing,” May continued. “I was writing for myself, and purely for how I was feeling, but then after the album comes out, I want to connect to people, and I almost feel like once an album’s out, you’re almost, you give your songs to others in a way. If somebody else relates to it, then it belongs to them. If I can write the words that you’re feeling, then we’ve connected in life somewhere along the way, and I think that’s lovely.”
May was lucky enough to have a top shelf roster helping her out with the new record, including ace producer T-Bone Burnett and longtime buddies Jeff Beck and Jools Holland. But it was a fellow Irish rock star that she’s been pals with for a while who ended up being her most valuable adviser on the record.
“Bono didn’t collaborate as much as to be a very, very, very good friend. He said, ‘If you get stuck, just give me a call.’ So anytime I’d get stuck, I’d give him a call and say, ‘I’m so close to the trees, you know, I can’t see the woods for the trees I’m so close,’ and he just put me in the right direction again, and reminded me what I wanted. He’d say, ‘Do you want to make a hit? You want to make art?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, I want to make art.’ And he’d say, “Well, do that. If that’s what you’re feeling, write it down.’ And then, he was hounding T-Bone, like, ‘Mate, get this right or I’ll kill you,” you know? There were jokes, there was lots of joking going about on T-Bone, who’d say, ‘Would you get this small Irish man off my back?’ He’d say, ‘God, Bono’s onto me,’ because there was a couple of songs I was going to drop, and Bono was calling T-Bone saying, ‘Do not let her drop these songs.’
And as for that trademark blonde curl above her forehead that was part of her previous image? Well, losing that was also symbolic of the changes that signified a new phase of life for this very special songstress, who has come out of an intense time with a brighter future than ever.
“Do you know, I was in Dublin and I was walking around and I was getting stopped, and people are really, really sweet, but I felt like I was almost dressing up as Imelda May the singer, you know? As opposed to Imelda May, me. It was becoming the performer, and it was great while it felt like me, it was great. Like anybody, you go through changes, and when it feels like you, it’s great, and then the minute it doesn’t feel like you anymore, then it’s time to change. And now…I’m feeling good, I’m feeling really good.”
Imelda May performs as opening act for Elvis Costello & The Imposters on Thursday June 22nd at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, 1551 Trap Rd, Vienna, VA 22182. For tickets, click here.