The ‘Mayhem’ and magic of Imelda May
If you’re a sucker for an accent, singer/songwriter Imelda May’s adorable Irish lilt is as stick-to-your-ribs satisfying as a Guinness stew. It’s just a few weeks before she returns to Vancouver for the Burnaby Blues & Roots Festival, sharing a bill with Canadian icon k.d. lang, but she’s already celebrating: her second studio album, Mayhem, has just come out in Canada following a staggered release in Europe then the U.S.A. After a slow burn, it shot up the charts thanks to an audience hungry for May’s unique blend of rockabilly chic, sexy blues and vintage Irish influences. It’s been a triumphant year for May, who got her start singing in clubs when she was just 16: she wowed millions during her Grammy appearance with Jeff Beck, toured with Meat Loaf and is proving something of a pioneer in the industry as one of a handful of women producing their own albums.
WE: Do you remember the first song you sang where you felt you’d really found your voice?
May: Ooh, I was maybe 16 or 17. When I was 16, I started playing in clubs. God, what was the song? I sang all the time. I can’t remember the name of it! I used to call it me anthem, I used to end every set with it. People would shout for it at the end of every gig. It’s on the tip of me tongue. Oh! “Bring It On Home!” That’s what I sang all the time. It’s an old number, I’d toy with it, change it each time. I got to play with it a lot.
How would you change it?
Do you know, I’ve never told anybody this before, but when I was a kid — thinking of it now, I was so obsessed with music early on I used to listen to records, with my ear to the speaker, so I could hear every single thing. I remember when I was 17 or 18, singing in these rootsy clubs, the blues, jazz, country, and traditional Irish of course, and rockabilly, I remember I used to just pick any song, like “Happy Birthday” or anything at all, and I used to sit as if I was day dreaming and I’d try to sing it in as many different styles as I could. I suppose I was learning without realizing it. I’d do a gospel version, you know [sings a few phrases of “Happy Birthday”] or you might do a rock ‘n’ roll [sings a totally different, snarling version] and I would do that with any kind of song.
How have your songs evolved?
I don’t know. As a writer, hopefully you try and get better all the time. That’s natural, as I’m sure for you too, you try to improve constantly. The influences have stayed the same, still with the chunk of rockabilly and blues and jazz and a bit of post-punk, with a bit of traditional Irish. I tried to evolve on the production more than anything else. With Love Tattoo, I had a record deal and they said they wanted it turned up a notch, they wanted it more produced, let’s call a big producer in and I said, no, no, I’ll do it. And they were like, “Wha?!” They were having heart attacks and fighting me against it, and I said, no, I’m producin’ me own album. It’s what I do. They said, “We want this to be moved on a bit.” Me too, I said. They tried to get me to meet producers, which I did, but then I went into the studio without telling anybody and I decided to record the album and produce it without anybody knowing. I played them what I’d come up with and they were happy! I wanted this album to be a little bit more pushed along without losing the charm of the first two. I wanted to be a little more creative on it and I had a little bit more time. Not much more, but for instance, I wanted to put backup vocals on it, so I generated me backup vocals, I just do that myself. I have a great band who are very talented and play many different instruments.
Your label trusts you more as a producer, I assume.
They do now. Initially they thought I’d produce the same album, they wanted a little bit more from it, but once they heard I wanted the same, I think they were still nervous. It’s not the usual thing, usually you get a big shot producer, but I really didn’t want that. I can hear me own stuff and I love producing and I knew exactly what I wanted the album to sound like. I wanted to get me teeth into it, really. Once I got going on it, they were very supportive and they backed off.
It doesn’t seem like there are many women producing their own work. Am I wrong?
No, I don’t think there are many. I think a lot of people will maybe doubt themselves and get a producer in, but I love that side of it. I’ve been in studios for years... Maybe it’s confidence, I don’t know, all I know is that I know how me own music should sound. I don’t want anybody else’s take on it. It’s in my head, I can hear it when I’m writing it... As weird as this sounds, I like sitting there listening to seven drum takes.
You’re pretty well known in Ireland and the U.K., but not as well this side of the Atlantic. Is there pressure on you to become a hit?
No, no. I do my thing and hopefully it works. I love doing it and so far it’s doing well. I was surprised — the album just came out in Canada — it’s come out in staggered amounts and it started off slow but then went crazy, to like number seven or something in the charts, so I never expected, I suppose, my career to even go this well when I made my first album. I wasn’t signed to a record label and I was expecting to just live out of my suitcase, that’s what I’d been doing before. I love it, I don’t feel pressure. If it goes well, great, and if it doesn’t, well I get to do what I love.
You appeared on the Grammys with Jeff Beck. Was that a surreal experience?
Yes. Completely surreal. It was a very weird and great day. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Very strange to be standing in a queue for photos with all the press. Course, nobody knew who I was. They knew I was with Jeff Beck. You do interviews beforehand and then you do the photos, then the performance and then more interviews after. Before we were walking up and everyone’s calling, like “Alice Cooper!” — he was beside me — “John Legend, we want an interview! Pink, we want an interview!” And I’m just walking around and some girl has my name on a placcard walking in front of me, which made me laugh my head off, and somebody else is going, “do you want to interview her?” [meaning me] and they’re like, “Who? No.” Then I ended up in a queue for the photos between Pink and Mary J. Blige and then the Jonas Brothers and Nicole Kidman skipped the queue and then we went off and I did the photos, did the performance, and when I came out it was completely different! They were shouting “Imelda! Come talk to us! Imelda! Imelda!” Within a couple of hours or so, it was fun. It felt like a dream! We go there, did the performance and then we were on the plane straight back home and me and my husband woke up in bed and I just looked at him and said, “Did that really happen?” It was so funny and great.
You toured with Meat Loaf. Did he give you any awesome advice you’d like to pass on?
Meat Loaf is a brilliant man. I love him to bits and he’s a wild performer. He told me “Oh, you have to love it.” And then, “I’m an actor. I’m not a singer, I’m an actor. I act my songs.” Which is exactly what he does. He gets right into character for every song. It’s amazing. He said, “I’d love you to get up and do a song with me.” And I said I’d love to, brilliant. And on the last night he said, “Would you shoot T-shirt guns at the audience?” And I said, I would, yeah! He said, “Do you know what they are?” And I said, yeah, I think so. He had a glint in his eye. And I’m up singing with him and then they come up and — I don’t know whether you want to put this in your paper, by the way, you might not want to — they strapped this thing on to me that was a giant hot dog that was supposed to look like a giant penis. (Laughs) That was the one night my family had decided to come. Out of the very top of it, a tiny little ball of a white T-shirt shot out of it. My God, I nearly died, but I laughed me head off.
Imelda May plays at 5:05pm at the Burnaby Blues & Roots Festival Aug. 13 at Deer Lake Park, $65 from Ticketmaster or $70 at the gate, 1-10pm. Info: BurnabyBluesFestival.com.