Saturday 19 January 2019

'Don't chase away all of your demons - it's always good to keep a couple of them near'

Her most recent album unveiled a new, noir-ish Imelda May - and, in advance of her Dublin show, our writer heralds the Liberties belle as she enters a brave new world

Imelda May appears at the Summer Series gig in Trinity College on July 29. Photo: Andres Poveda
Imelda May appears at the Summer Series gig in Trinity College on July 29. Photo: Andres Poveda
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

They say that every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures, sometimes painfully.

So it proved with Imelda May on her last album - the rather brilliant, and largely autobiographical, Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. It had echoes of Bob Dylan's 1975 tour de force Blood On The Tracks, about the end of his marriage to Sara Lownds, or indeed Bruce Springsteen's 1987 masterpiece Tunnel of Love, about the break-up of his marriage to Julianne Phillips - in that Life. Love. Flesh. Blood was partly about the end of Imelda's 13-year marriage to Darrel Higham.

The one-time Liberties belle laid herself bare with lyrics that give vulnerable a new meaning. Her voice is also better, more raw, more soulful, less forced, more true, than it has ever sounded on record before. It was like a sweet-soul PJ Harvey channelling Van Morrison with Phil Spector orchestrating behind the scenes. There is something authentic going on here. Like Imelda is putting her feelings and her emotions into the songs as she sings out her pain. "Tell me who takes care of me?" she sings on Should've Been You.

Your mind tricks you into thinking you are reading Imelda's private diaries when you hear her sing some of the songs. Not least lyrics like: 'Still in love with me?/No matter how hard I hope/No matter how hard I broke/You still don't'; and 'I've tarnished my halo and my specialty is to take/But I want you to think of me as better than the rest/I've chased away my demons but I'm human at my best.'

In an interview last year, I asked her how did she 'chase away' her 'demons'?

"Have I?" she practically hissed with laughter. "I don't know whether I have chased my demons away. It is always good to keep a couple of them. It's good for writing."

And how did Imelda come to realise that she is 'human at best'?

"There are a lot of songs about 'be my princess, be my baby, be my darling'," Imelda answered, "and I thought: 'I actually can't be any of those. I'm just human. I'll be human at best, and I'll try to be the best human I can be, but it doesn't mean that I don't want you to put me on a pedestal. I will fall off it but I want you to see me as who I really am. I am not perfect'."

The flawed Imelda was a new Imelda in many ways. Gone was her trademark cow-lick quiff with the blonde swirl - replaced by a moody cut that makes her look like a Gallic poutress, liable to go out in the evening slamming tequilas with Beatrice Dalle - but also gone, mostly, was the sometimes reductive toe-tapping mix of rockabilly and blues that was once her sound.

Produced by American musician T Bone Burnett, Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is the next step for Imelda on a sonic path that will hopefully see her continue to develop in ever-more intriguing and compelling ways. In any event, there is no turning back. She has entered a brave new world. She is a different woman now.

As Stephen White wrote last year in The Last Mixed Tape: "Time has passed, things have changed, and so too has Imelda May, and this is mirrored in the darker noir-like sound of Life. Love. Flesh. Blood. A stark contrast to the cartoonish, more colourful records of the past." More of the noir for the nu-Imelda could only be a good thing in my book.

Imelda May was incredible at Rock Against Homelessness in aid of Focus at the Olympia last month; and she will be just as good, if not better, when she plays the Summer Series at Trinity College on July 29 (to say nothing of the Feis in Liverpool with Van Morrison, The Chieftains, Hothouse Flowers et al on July 7.)

Other acts worth checking out at the Summer Series are: July 23, Grace Jones with Wyvern Lingo; July 24, Il Divo with The Trinity Orchestra; July 25, Rag'n'Bone Man with Grace Carter; July 27, Bryan Ferry with Special Guests; July 28, Gavin James with Little Hours.

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