That's Alright, Mama: Singer Imelda May on family life
Imelda May grew up in a small house with a big family and a great sense of adventure. Family holidays to Morrocco by car and a house full of canoes and circus folk taught her that it was OK to be different, and, she tells Barry Egan, the only time she felt truly mad and miserable was when she tried to change herself.
When Imelda May met the Queen recently at an official function at Buckingham Palace, she looked back and caught Prince Philip checking out her backside as she walked away. The Duke of Edinburgh had earlier told her that he could certainly see what Imelda's husband saw in her. She roars with laughter now at the thought of it.
About 10 years ago, long before the British royalty and superstardom came calling – prestigious slots on The Graham Norton Show and Later with Jools Holland are de rigueur now – Imelda worked as a carer in a nursing home in London. It was about as far away from tea with Her Royal Highness at the Palace as you could get.
What she learned about life from working with old people at the end of their lives? "I learned a lot about life," says Imelda, "and death. I was there for two and a half years. I really loved it there.
"It felt like a privilege to be able to look after people in their most vulnerable state, and that they would trust you to do so," she continues. "It was emotionally very tough because, obviously, you get very attached to people you were looking after, and, as they were dying, it was hard. You'd clean them up after they died. You'd still take care of them after they died – making sure they looked nice for their families coming in. It would be tough because you knew them. You didn't know them how their families knew them, but you knew them for what they were then. Some of them would talk to you a lot about life. Some of them would ask you about death.
"Some will be worried," Imelda remembers. "They'd be saying, 'I know I'm going to die. Do you think I've done awful things?' Some of the men had been in wars and had killed people. 'I've seen and done awful things in my life in war. Do you think God forgives?'''
What would you say? Does God forgive?
"I remember telling one man, 'Jesus hung out with thieves and robbers and prostitutes. So I think you'll be all right!'" she says. "'If you're asking that question, and you're obviously feeling remorseful, I think you're doing OK. You're aware of things. You're fine.' I would just try to comfort them.
"I was grateful that I got to know them as they were in that moment. The family could feel sad for what they used to be."
Imelda recalls one particular woman she grew very close to. "Her husband was dying," she says. "They had been together for ever and they were a great couple. She wanted to pray and she wanted me to pray with her. I did and then I left her with him.
"We stayed really great friends up until she died a couple of years ago. We had a bond, I suppose, for ever. I admired her very much. Her sons and daughters came to my shows afterwards, and I stay in touch with them."
I tell Imelda that when my father was dying in the hospice, the nurses told me that when someone died, they could sense their soul or their spirit still in the room for 24 hours at least after the person died.
"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah," she says. "God, this is getting very deep. I never get this deep . . ." There is a significant pause. Imelda takes a sip of her red wine. "I saw and felt things doing that job that I won't forget.
"Sometimes, when somebody is dying, the feeling in the room changes to something that's not familiar," she says. "And not necessarily bad, which I found very comforting, and, often, in a weird way, very beautiful – especially if somebody had been in a lot of pain and they were ready to go.
"This was a nursing home for very elderly people," Imelda adds. "Most of them had lived a colourful life. I think it is different if it is children or young people.
"These were people mostly in their 80s, up to one woman who was 105. They'd been prepared. They knew it was ahead. Some didn't like it. Some didn't mind dying."
Did it teach you about your own mortality? That, one day, that will be you, too, at the end of your life, looking back – dying?
"Very much so," Imelda says. "I suppose it gave me quite a strong faith or spirituality being there. It is different. The reality of it is different to what it sounds like, when you're there, taking care of someone and making sure their mouth isn't dry, or that they're as comfortable as they can be.
"I believe in God. I have a very strong faith, and I think it is because of working there. I am absolutely not a saint, but working in the nursing home, I suppose, made me see the value of my life," she smiles.
Imelda takes another sip of her wine before continuing. "I am living it now. I suppose it brought a bit of urgency to it. You've one shot at it. So, when I was talking to some of these women or men, and I noticed the difference between those who had full lives – they could tell you everything about their lives – compared to someone who didn't do much and had regrets. That definitely stuck in my mind.
"It made me realise that you have got one shot at it. Don't lie, when you are 105 years of age, on your deathbed, thinking, 'I should have done a few things!' I would like to think I tried as much as I could."
No one could legitimately accuse Imelda May of not doing that. Ever since her third album, Mayhem in 2010, which sold platinum six times over, made her a star internationally – with people such as Bono, Paul Brady and Jeff Beck queuing up to sing onstage with her – the quiffed high priestess of rockabilly has gone from strength to strength.
Her sublime new album, Tribal, is a testament to that, chockablock with tracks such as the David Lynch-like Gypsy Woman ("The gypsy in me can never be free/The gypsy in me I keep in cage locked up") and the shiver-inducing Wild Woman that has Imelda shrieking, "There's a wild woman living inside of me!"
Imelda and husband, Darrel Higham, whom she met in 1997, had their first child, Violet, in August, 2012. Is that what the Wild Woman song is about? The postnatal emotional chaos?
"Oh God, yeah," she laughs. "I was loving being a mother. I was absolutely madly in love with my baby, but, because I had a Caesarean, I had to stay in for six weeks and I was climbing the walls. I loved going for long walks and I couldn't go out. Then I was going mad with pure sleep deprivation. I would be up all night with Violet.
"Darrel would be snoring his head off. Snoring away! Because I was breastfeeding, you see," she smiles. "So that was the perfect excuse for him. I had to do it all. But I was happy to do it all, to be honest with you.
"So, he was snoring away and the dog, Alfie, was snoring. I eventually got the baby to sleep. So then I was so tired I couldn't sleep. So I would be rocking my foot, and then I would grab a pen and paper, and start writing the new album . . ."
Is it true that you lose the weight you put on during pregnancy through breastfeeding?
"Yes! When I tell people that I lost my baby weight through breastfeeding they think I'm exaggerating. But it was brilliant for that. It is great for bonding with your baby. It is hard when no one else can feed her, but it was worth it for me. I loved it."
The Wild Woman song, on another level, is about trying to restrain the wild woman within herself. Imelda can remember, around the time she was getting married to Darrel, in 2002, in St Catherine's Church on Meath Street in the Liberties, thinking, "'I need to grow up.' My brother said to me, 'You're wearing the same clothes as your niece!' I thought, 'God, I am! Maybe I need to grow up!' I was thinking, 'I'm getting married. I'm getting older now. I'm coming to 30.' I tried to rein myself in a bit and I was miserable. I didn't know what to be wearing. I was trying to conform a little bit. I thought I needed to calm down. I was a lunatic."
And did you calm down?
"For a short period of time, I tried, and then I thought, 'To hell with this. I'm just going to be myself.' I got stronger and stronger. I think I'd like to be one of those eccentric 80-year-old women."
We are having lunch in a Thai restaurant near Heathrow airport – our interview went on for an hour longer than expected and I almost missed my flight back to Ireland because Imelda, for once, decided to open up in an interview, and, once she started, she couldn't shut up.
"My parents raised me well. I just go for it. It is in me. They know I'm headstrong as well," she says. Presumably, this stubbornness emerged with a vengeance when certain record biz muppets back in the day urged Imelda to abandon her signature alt rockabilly because it was, they said, the kiss of death. "I was always like that. It's the Liberties. I'm a strong Liberties girl. But Irish women, in general, don't have flies on them, really," she remarks. "We're quite clued-up."
Imelda has reached iconic status beyond that of the reductive cliche of working-class hero from Dublin's south inner city – the Liberties belle. She talks with an infectious innocence about life.
In fact, she makes her childhood home in the Liberties, and her upbringing in general, sound like a place of unblemished magic, almost like a cross between a Wes Anderson movie and The Commitments. From hearing her tell these lovely stories about her youth, you can see how she became the person she did growing up in that house and with those parents. Tony and Madge Clabby instilled their youngest child – born Imelda Mary Clabby, 10 July 1974 – with their own brand of life-is-for-living parental magic. Their love, Imelda says, allowed her to be herself, to be "a bit different".
I ask her when did she first realise she was a bit different?
"I always felt a bit different. Is that odd?" Imelda muses.
"I mean, all our family felt it – with ourselves – and I think it was because my dad was so mad. He was eccentric. We were aware of that. I loved it. But I remember we used to have people knocking on our door to see our wallpaper because it was mental.
"There was a whole roll of red poppies and then there was a roll of yellow dandelions, and then red poppies again. He loved art. Then he wanted to strip the wallpaper and do a mural on it. He would get these shapes and paint over them on the fireplace."
Imelda and her five siblings – sisters, Edel and Maria; brothers, Brendan and Fintan, and parents, Tony and Madge, lived in a small two-bedroom house. Do the maths. That's seven people in two bedrooms.
"When we needed an extra bedroom, because there was seven of us, my dad had the bright idea of knocking out the staircase and turning it into a little, tiny box room. I was in my parents' room until I was 14."
I give her a look.
"Mentally scarred!" she jokes, in reference to sharing a bedroom with her mum and dad until she was 14.
"My dad built himself a spiral staircase with a Perspex cover on it. And this was in the Liberties. So we had people knocking on our door. You'd know by them. They go, 'Oh, is such 'n' such in?' And then they'd whisper [after glimpsing the nigh-fairytale spiral staircase] 'You see! I told you!' Then I'd close the door and my mam would say, 'Who was that?' and I'd say, 'Oh, just someone else coming to look at the mad house.'"
In reality, it wasn't so much a mad house as a house of love. Any accommodation issues, no matter how daunting, seemed to be always overcome. "There was me and my brother in bunk beds, with my mam and my dad in a double bed. And the other room was small. My dad built a three-tier bunk bed for my two sisters and my brother. It was so close to the ceiling that, if my brother woke up too quickly, he'd smack his head off the ceiling!" she laughs.
"I loved being a part of that family. I loved us all being together. Maybe that's why I'm great with the tour bus! I don't mind a load of people being in a little place. Then my eldest brother, Brendan, got into building canoes. So the house was full of canoes! We were stepping over canoes! Then he got into tandem bikes! And they were in the house. And then he made friends with a circus and . . ."
You had lions and tigers in the house, I interject.
"There weren't lions and tigers, but we had a great mixture of people in the house," she laughs. "Giants and dwarves. They were lovely people. They were always artistic people in the house. And there was always music in the house.
Imelda can remember going to school and the teacher calling her a liar. What prompted this unfounded character slur was she had asked all the pupils what they did for their summer holidays. The answers of the kids ranged from Courttown, Mosney and Cork. When it came to Imelda, she just said matter-of-factly, "Morocco".
"They thought I was telling porkie pies, but we would go to Morocco. My mam would pack a tent on the top of the car. It was a little Rover with red leather seats. There was five kids in the back and off we went.
"I remember my mam on the boat to Morocco taking out her little stove and cooking us all dinner. We didn't have a lot of money, but we had adventures!"
The Clabby family adventures embodied a beautiful spirit that transcended financial troubles and came back to one thing: love. "I loved being in that family," Imelda says. "We had so much fun.
"I will never forget my dad saying to us all, 'Right, kids. Do you want a nice meal or do you want to have rolls and go to Morocco?' We said, 'Rolls! And Morocco!' So that's where we went. Then he said, when we went to Paris, 'We're flipping coins for who gets to go up the Eiffel Tower. We can only afford two.' So we flipped coins. The two others went to Notre Dame.
"We were watching Little Miss Sunshine recently, and we were all roaring laughing because that's how we remember most journeys – all of us out of the car, pushing, and then, one by one, having to jump in. That was so true. Dad used to spend more time under the cars fixing them than in them," she says. Imelda laughs at the memory of the night in France, when the car broke down and they stayed in a hotel. "My mam took out the stove and cooked us dinner in the room. She also washed the clothes and hung them on lines all round the room.
"We always had a great time," she adds. "Once, in a campsite in Germany, we went in to have showers. It was just one giant area with shower heads in it and people went in naked. Mam couldn't believe it. So the whole family went in in our swimming togs, typically Irish! And they were all washing themselves, naked, and Mam would be saying, 'Don't look!'
Is that sense of adventure something that you and Darrel recreate when you go on holidays?
"We are recreating it. But we don't really go on holidays. We get days off around gigs. Actually, Darrel and I had our first holiday together only a few months ago – other than going to Ireland and be with the family, which we do all the time. We were doing a gig in LA. So we decided to stay on for 10 days in Santa Monica.
"We went to the beach with the baby. That was the first proper holiday we've ever had. The reason we haven't really had holidays is because, when you have been travelling on tour, you just want to get home and sit on the couch," Imelda explains.
Like the Clabby family adventures, the Imelda May band adventures have been certainly colourful.
"I'd try and find places for us to stay that were £20 each bed and breakfast. You can imagine the hellholes that we'd be turning up to sometimes."
Echoing her father's immortal question to Imelda and her siblings when they were kids of, "Would you like a nice meal or an adventure?", Imelda asked her band, not so long ago, "Would you like life on the road to get a bit easier or would you like a raise?"
"They all went, 'an easier life!''' Imelda laughs.
So, kindly Imelda hired a big bling tour bus, which they drove 40 hours from Denver to New York with "only two toilet stops.
"It was one of the tours from hell. I was up to three o'clock in the morning trying to sort out parking spaces for an enormous tour bus in San Francisco, with a spot to plug in, etc, or else everything in the freezer will go off and keep the lights out."
On another tour, Imelda says she had to reacquaint the driver with his P45 because "it turned out he couldn't drive!" she laughs.
"We couldn't sleep because he was going over the strips at the side of the road all the time while he was texting."
Another driver, she recalls, was "slurring. Then he said to me, 'Don't worry! I'm not drunk! I've just lost 35 per cent of my brain in a diving accident.'
"Let's go!" she laughs. "So he drove the 40 hours straight to Colorado!"
And now she has hit the big time. She has a big American tour and European tour coming up, as well as dates in Ireland.
It is not quite as simple as things have dramatically improved for Imelda May because, as she says, "things are different in different countries.
"I suppose I realised that things were better when I could pay myself as well as the band. Before things started to take off, I was doing shifts in a nursing home and I was doing function gigs – singing at funerals and weddings, and openings of supermarkets, so I could pay my band on gig nights."
She lives in a big house in Hampshire – the Liberties Belle in the shires – with husband and baby.
"It is the biggest love you can ever imagine," she says of Violet.
"Imagine yourself in love, and multiply it by a thousand. You're madly in love. You actually think, 'This is the best child that has ever been born.' Everything she does, you think, 'She's a genius!' I'll call Darrel and he will run over and the two of us will be like a pair of idiots, 'She moved her finger! She moved her finger!'
"We sit and stare at her for ever. It really is great. You are absolutely wrecked, but you are so besotted."
Does Violet tap her tiny toes approvingly to your new album?
"She loves the guitar. She loves drums. She loves percussion of any kind. She seems to have great rhythm.
"Chikka-chikka-chikka!" Imelda says, mimicking her daughter moving to the rhythm. "She will shake her shaker in time. I am actually very impressed, because the radio was on yesterday – I was feeding her; she didn't move a muscle – and then The Specials came on with A Message to You Rudy, and she went, 'Ohhhh!' And I thought, 'That's my girl!'''
Imelda May. That's our girl.
- Imelda May's new album, 'Tribal', is out now. She will perform on June 18 and 19, at Vicar Street, Dublin and on June 21, at The Marquee, Cork, see www.ticketmaster.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine