The rockabilly singer will be belting out the hits in Dublin on New Year's Eve. This year has seen a lot of change for the star, who tells Julia Molony that her new baby will be brought on tour – to be fussed over by the band
On New Year's Eve at Imelda May's family home in the Liberties in Dublin, her dad has a ritual of sweeping out the old year. Just before midnight, he takes a big brush and goes around the house, clearing the way for the new. This year, Imelda won't be there to see it happen. She'll be onstage in College Green, counting down the gongs in front of a huge audience.
It has been a year of firsts for Imelda. She's had her first baby. A little girl now four months old and named Violet Kathleen, after both her husband's grandmother and her auntie. She's spending her first Christmas with her husband and baby in their new house in London.
Christmas had always been such a big deal at home, that she and Darrel used to split for the day so she could go to be with her family and he with his. But this year they're staying together in London.
Violet was born in August, and Imelda was back on stage by late autumn, performing with a 42-piece orchestra for the London Jazz Festival. "No pressure, there" she jokes. "I was wondering how it would go. My mother- in-law came with me and minded Violet for me and I really enjoyed it."
She's not one to let the arrival of a baby stand in the way of her life as a rock and roll star. "She'll be on the road with me all the time. I've talked to a lot of people who have done all this before and it's do-able. You just work around it. And I think she'll probably have a great time. She'll have loads of people fussing over her – all the band members and tour managers and all of that. She'll be grand."
While the desk-bound worry about balancing work and home life, Imelda's managed to find the babysitting benefits of being a singer on the road.
"It means that I can bring her with me all the time. I don't have to worry about going back to work , leaving her with a childminder. I don't have to do that." Luckily for Imelda, her husband, the guitarist Darrel Higham, is also in the band. So she won't be alone on tour trying to manage both a baby and an audience alone. "We'll see how she goes, and play it by ear. I'm lucky I have Darrel with me so the two of us can muck in."
It might not be long, too, before Violet is joining her musical parents onstage. Imelda has no plans to push her first-born into the family trade: "She'll be whatever she wants to be," she says firmly. "I'm not going to force that on her but I have a feeling ... I was singing last night, Darrel was minding her and I could hear her, everytime I was going for a high note, she was getting louder – not crying, she was singing."
Having a baby, she says has "turned my world upside down. It's certainly turned my sleep upside down". But that doesn't mean she's in any danger of giving up the pin curls and lipstick or swapping the showgirl stilletos for Crocs. A showgirl is what she's always been.
She struggled for years to find an audience to match her persona, so not even the arrival of a baby could threaten the essence of Imelda May.
The look, the musical style, the retro-rockabilly sensibility that defines her isn't a stage construct that she took on to suit l'esprit du temps. She didn't ride on the current retro-wave. "I'm not making it up, I'm not acting. It's just what I'm into and always have been.
"Funnily enough, I did have a period where I thought I'd better tone it down a bit. Probably when I was coming up on 30 and getting married and all. I started to tone it down. And I was miserable. Miserable. I didn't know what to be wearing. It took me ages to get dressed in the morning. And then I thought, 'Oh to hell with it'. And I went back, even with more velocity. And I'm glad. It feels better to do what you like and be yourself and wear what you like. Once I hit my 30s, I think I came into my own."
Now that she's started work writing a new album, she's not about to put out an album of songs "about having babies" either. Though she has written one lullaby. But she's happy having a baby has turned her world upside down. "I wouldn't change it for the world. She's a good baby and it's a great experience. The love that you have is just overwhelming. And funny enough, it makes you realise what your own parents have done for you. All the nights sitting up ... it makes you feel very grateful. But there's plenty of aunties and uncles as well. We couldn't be without them." She credits her husband Darrel with being a vital force behind her career. "He's very supportive. I don't think I could've done what I've done without him. He's always right behind me saying, go for it. And my family have been the same."
She and Darrel run her music career like a family business. And indeed, she compares the partners-in-work-and-life model to couples who run a bakery. Both have distinct, but complementary, roles. "We go into work mode when we're on the road together. I always say, it's my band but it's our business. It's great to have somebody who you can sit down with at the end of the night and say, 'what do you think?' And we both talk it through. Because it's our lives, you know. We're both in it together."
It was a risk, at first, deciding to work and live together. "We didn't know whether it would work or not, when I asked him to join the band. We had a good laugh, we said , 'My god, Sonny and Cher, Ike and Tina, it doesn't look very good does it? But it's been terrific really. We've seen the world together."
They stick to some basic codes of behaviour: "You try not to be too passionate in front of the band, one way or another. Try not to have your rows in front of them or be too amorous in front of them and then that's nice when you have a day off, then you can be husband and wife" She's the first to admit that it's not all perfect all of the time.
"It's a normal marriage, with the usual rows about – well it's mostly me giving out to him, for not taking the bins out or, can you do the dishes."
They met in a pub in Camden when she came over for the weekend. "Then I went home, and he chased me. And then he convinced me to move over here, to London, with him. It was all very exciting, a big whirlwind. And it made me pull my socks up, musically – not knowing anybody, trying to get work."
It was a long hard road to success, though. She spent many years in obscurity in London, knocking around the retro scene evolving her style with other bands. It wasn't until she was into her 30s that she launched her own band. After a few false starts with different musicians she got into her stride and then Jools Holland came calling, launching her swiftly into the mainstream.
Through all those years, she always worked hard at it, took it seriously, an ethic she says was handed down growing up in a good working-class family. "You take pride in whatever job you're doing. I tried to do any job I did well, and I did every job, from scrubbing laundry to cleaning dishes. You hear people saying they want to be famous. I was never like that. I just wanted to play my music. I was obsessive about it, and wanted to play it to the best of my ability." Her parents were always completely behind her, even when she was struggling. And they're pleased as punch now that their faith has paid off.
"I was never told to do a proper job. Never never. It was always, go for it." Now her family can enjoy it with her. "I've brought them to loads of gigs all over, especially my father, he's the fame-hungry one," she says with a big throaty laugh. He tells everybody, 'Do you know who I am?'"
She has her father to credit, though, with instilling the essence of soul. He dropped her to a gig once, after a boyfriend had broken up with her. Imelda was in floods of tears, and her dad asked her: "Did you get your heart broken? Good, now you can sing soul." It's a lesson that continues to ring true, the more experiences she has, the more life goes on. And it's why she's glad she didn't come to success until she'd had a chance to really, properly grow up. "I had more life to write about," she says.
Imelda May will play Dublin's New Year's Eve countdown concert in College Green. For tickets, costing €20, visit nyedublin.ie