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Imelda May: 'I thought I'd be playing weddings for the rest of my life'

We meet at a hotel where, having already eaten lunch, May is holding out for free chocolates with her coffee.

Far from being the latest diva-esque singer on the block, 36-year-old May has been plying her trade for 20 years and is quite accustomed to slumming it.

"I've been doing it all my life and whether I had a record deal or not, I'd still be doing it," she states. "I started singing in church with my sister Maria when I was four and I've been pretty much singing ever since. There's never been anything else for me to do."

The youngest of five children, May grew up in a musical family in The Liberties. Her sister Maria sings in a Christian music group, in which May still puts in appearances from time to time, while her brother Finton was responsible for introducing her to rockabilly.

Thus, May's early heroes were Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent and Elvis, while during her teens she developed a love of The Clash, The Cramps, The Pretenders and Blondie.

She describes her family as "my biggest fans and my biggest critics. It's good to have people around who aren't afraid to say 'Well, that's not very good is it?'"

When May was six years old her mother masterminded The Liberties Musical Drama Group, designed to encourage the artistic impulses of children in the neighbour-hood. "Where we lived all the playgrounds were ripped up and covered in tarmac and there was nothing for the kids to do," recalls May. "So my mother started this up. She was big into old show tunes, so she taught all those while my aunt was in charge of drama.


"We even entered into competitions -- my mother would make the costumes and my dad would make stage sets -- and other groups from all over would come in and sing in front of us. After a while, all the kids were queuing up to be part of it. It changed a lot of their lives and it definitely changed mine."

In her mid-teens, May started going to gigs. Since she and her friends couldn't afford to go to the stadium shows, they would go along, sit on the steps and listen from the outside. At the same time, she started singing at local blues and soul clubs where the staff would turn a blind eye to her age. "Everyone was very supportive," she recalls. "I was this kid singing boogie-woogie and the blues, which was unusual. I learnt a lot from a lot of fantastic musicians. There would be Van Morrison's band or the Hothouse Flowers who would hang around and jam all night, and I was in the middle of that."

Over the next 15 years, May would seize any opportunity to sing and make a living. In 1997 she met her husband and moved to London, where she took on a series of day jobs to make ends meet. She would work as a waitress, a cleaner, in a launderette and a nursing home, in between times singing at weddings, funerals, office parties, on boats and on barges. "I even sang once at the opening of a supermarket," she laughs. "You name it, I've done it."

In 2007 she got a new band together and set about writing a series of original songs, coming up with Love Tattoo, which she describes as "my first proper solo album".


May says she never expected anyone to hear it, not least because the album was self-financed. "We couldn't even afford a sound engineer. We thought we might sell a couple of hundred copies at gigs." In fact Love Tattoo, which included the single Johnny Got A Boom Boom, went triple platinum here in Ireland, earned May a Best Irish Female prize at the Meteor Awards and revealed May and her band as unapologetic rockabilly revivalists.

Now May is set to release Mayhem, her second album that builds on the founda-tions laid by Love Tattoo and blends lovelorn country ballads with psychobilly punk and surf-pop to thrilling effect. "If I'm honest," reflects May, "a couple of years ago I thought I might be playing weddings and office parties for the rest of my days. And really that wouldn't have been so bad.

But what's happening now is really exciting. I don't know how long it's going to last so I'm making the most of it."