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Magic mayhem

Maybe they did it on purpose. Whatever the case, while waiting for Imelda May to arrive at Universal Music Ireland's offices on Aungier Street, a member of staff decides to stick on some Later . . . with Jools Holland. You know, to keep me entertained and that. I hadn't planned on taking it any further than a quick "howya Imelda -- isn't Jools only a grand lad for havin' ya on the show that time?" But gosh darnit, it's pretty unavoidable now.

As the strikingly beautiful singer pulls up a chair beside me, it seems we're destined to engage in a conversation that must surely do her head in.

"I'm absolutely fine with being asked about it!" she laughs, remembering every detail about her first major appearance on British television two years ago. Or, at least, the events leading up to it. "If it wasn't for Jools Holland, this wouldn't have taken off, you know? He took a chance on me and a lot of people won't these days," she continues. "I wasn't out looking for a record deal. There was some interest -- there were promises made, and hands shook, and 'definitely' this and that, and 'oh, brilliant singer, where have you been all our lives?' This usual stuff, and then I never heard anything again.


"They weren't interested, saying, 'we don't get what she's doing; there's too many different styles; we think it would do well if you get rid of the rockabilly thing', and they wanted me to go down the road of easy listening jazz kind of stuff, and it absolutely wasn't what I'm about at all."

As Imelda explains, it was sticking to her guns and keeping with her own style (a gloriously infectious rockabilly groove straight out of the, uh, Liberties) that eventually led to touring with Mr Holland and, of course, that big break on the box. Well, that, and the small matter of American R&B singer Natalie Cole having to pull out of the show because of illness. "It was a mad phone call. Jools must have just said: 'I know who can do it!'"

Indeed, what the big shots had once failed to notice was now blowing up in front of their very eyes. And, oh, what an explosion it's been so far -- a number one album, an endless touring schedule, countless TV appearances, a triumphant homecoming last Christmas at The O2, and, oh yeah, she's even performed at the Grammys, too. Not bad, Imelda. Not bad at all.

"I nearly collapsed," she says, discussing the moment when she and husband/guitarist Darrel Higham discovered they'd perform with Jeff Beck at the 2010 Grammy Awards earlier this year. "Jeff rang and said that it was a possibility. He and his manager were really fighting for meself and Darrel to do it with them. The Grammys wanted to put Jeff with Richie Sambora or Meat Loaf -- all these big, big, big names, and Jeff said, 'I don't want anyone else doing it, only Imelda and Darrel', and, fair play to them, they put their necks on the line."

Cue a frantic search for the perfect evening dress. But it hasn't always been as glamorous. Indeed, for Imelda (36), there have been plenty of times when it seemed as though her dream might never come true; a subject matter that arises in song on Imelda's second album, the absolutely brilliant Mayhem.

"I'd always have day jobs to keep things going, and Darrel sometimes did couriering as he had the van for all the equipment," she tells me.

"I'd be knackered waitressing, and then afterwards I'd go off and get a backpack full of leaflets -- you know those awful leaflets that come through your door? -- I used to put them through, and get a pittance for it. So we were trying everything to make it work, and then gigging at night."


"However, when Darrel joined the band," she continues, "it meant if my band hadn't got a gig, neither of us had a gig, so that was really hard. I have fond memories of it because we still had a lot of fun. It wasn't miserable by any means. It was tough, but you have to laugh, it's the only way you can get through a lot of stuff. I remember doing an opening for a shopping centre, and these old ladies walking past me with trolleys wanting me to just shut up, you know?"

And what about working alongside her husband, then? Surely there must have been some concerns about sharing both their careers and, indeed, their lives.

"That was my only concern," she nods, "because we get on so well and I thought, 'I don't want to jeopardise it'. But then there's loads of people that have their own businesses, or whatever, that are working together in all kinds of walks of life and they can make it work so we said: 'let's give it a go.' He joined the band and it's been fantastic. It's great being able to see him -- we can see the world together. We have our normal ups and downs, we just have it travelling!"

Unfortunately, time's almost up. But not before Imelda thanks yours truly for "the lovely questions" (phew) and shares just one last piece of information before I leave. Well, it's more of a wish,really: "I'd love to do something with Quentin Tarantino if he was ever interested. I don't know if he would be but, you can always dream of things!" she laughs. The ball's in your court, Quentin . . .

Mayhem is out now. Live at the Olympia Theatre December 15