In the summer of 2017, Imelda May toured Ireland, England, Europe and America, singing the songs from Life Love Flesh Blood every night in front of thousands of people. Those songs were from her bleak masterpiece - endorsed by Bono, who "mentored" Imelda on the album and called it a "game changer" - about the slow death of her 13-year marriage to Darrel Higham the year before.
Every night around the world on tour, Imelda would sing lines like "Inside I'm dying/Outside I'm crying" from Black Tears and, from Call Me: "Still in love with me?/ No matter how hard I hope/ No matter how hard I broke/ You still don't." The singing onstage soon gave way to a troubled inner cry for help that went unheard until Imelda picked up the phone and made an appointment with a professional.
"I wasn't in the best of places," Imelda says. "I had some tough times."
I ask her about them. "When I came off the road … God, I don't know if I should tell you this … I kind of fell into a bit of a major low. That time was tough."
Did she go to a therapist initially after her marriage broke up?
"No," Imelda says, "but I got a wonderful counsellor after that tour in 2017. I am a total convert to counselling now. I think it is wonderful. I think in Ireland we're probably for many generations very guilty of just 'getting on with it'. I really found it very helpful. When I see friends might need it, I suggest it, gently. A couple of friends of mine have seen how good it was for me and they went to it themselves. And that's fantastic."
Does she still go to counselling? "I do. Not so often, but I suppose it has helped me become more aware of when I need it. Whereas before I wouldn't know. Now I can feel it."
When does she need it? "When I get anxious. I can feel it rise in me. Before I didn't know. I have also realised - believe it or not - that I get anxious and that I'm actually quite shy. I would make up for that by being possibly a little louder, a little funnier, a little bubblier than I feel. I think we are all guilty of that. You paint a smile on. But you paint it on too big and too bright. I love performing and I'm okay with that, but I have also become okay with being shy. I like being around people but sometimes I just want to hide."
There's no hiding today. The summer sun is shining through the window of Imelda's kitchen window in Hampshire. She is sitting on the sofa by the door to the garden of her grand house. The one-time Belle of the Liberties is the lady of the shires now. Just "down the road" is her pal, chef Clodagh McKenna, who lives with aristocrat boyfriend Harry Herbert on the grounds of Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. (Clodagh told me recently that she and Imelda attended a house party in London last Christmas and ended up dancing with Mick Jagger.)
It was far from castles in Hampshire that Imelda was raised. Born Imelda Mary Clabby on July 10, 1974, she was brought up in a small two-bedroom house in Dublin's inner city with sisters Edel and Maria and brothers Brendan and Fintan. "One of my brothers shared with two of my sisters in the second room of the house until he got too old to be sharing with girls," Imelda once told me. "He was on the top bunk. If he woke up too quick, he'd smack his head off the ceiling."
The holidays of Imelda's childhood were just as fun, especially in France. "I can't believe that we actually camped under the Eiffel Tower as kids! My dad set up the tent for all of us, thinking: 'This is a nice spot!' But we woke up to police wanting to arrest us! Every time I go to Paris, I see that stretch of grass!" Imelda recalled with a laugh.
Today in the English countryside, there is a bird singing in the tree outside.
"It's a blackbird," Imelda says. When her eight-year-old daughter Violet walks into the kitchen, it inspires a brief impromptu duet of a famous song by The Beatles. "Blackbird, singing in the dead of night," Imelda and Violet sing.
I take the opportunity to ask Violet what her mummy is like. "She is amazing. She is the best singer in the world, ever," she says.
"I paid her!" laughs Imelda, as Violet disappears into the garden. "She wants me to tell you that she fell out of a tree yesterday. She has a few scrapes but she is very brave."
So is her famous mother.
"My dog died last Saturday," she says. "My beloved dog Alfie that I have had for 13 years. His ashes are coming home tomorrow. I have really bawled. I have grieved over him. He was always by my side, through ups and downs in life."
Those ups and downs are chronicled, movingly, on Imelda's first poetry release, Slip Of the Tongue. Of the EP, Imelda says it tackles head-on issues like "obsession, heartbreak, love and isolation in the time of Covid 19", adding that one of the poems, set to strings, Home, was written initially as a wedding gift to her friend Sara.
Imelda was originally thinking of writing a book of poetry. Then friends and family encouraged her to do an EP because, she says, "they know my poetry so well over the years. Do it the way we hear it, with the way I speak, the rhythm of that."
She remembers her dad reading her poetry books by Spike Milligan and Pat Ingoldsby as a kid.
"It is part of our culture, part of who we are, who I am," says Imelda, who started singing at 16 in local bars in Dublin and released her debut album in 2003, No Turning Back. "I've always been writing songs and I've always been writing poetry - hundreds of them."
Last July at the Latitude festival in a forest in Suffolk, Imelda gave an "immersive art piece performance entitled Hallowed inside an illuminated cube" which "spurred me on with Slip Of the Tongue".
What also spurred Imelda to release an EP of poetry was that she "got fed up in interviews with journalists asking me, 'Do you really write your songs?'. One person even asked me, 'Who helps you?' And when I was married, someone asked me, 'Does your husband help you write your songs?'. I wasn't insulted. I was curious. I was slightly insulted," she corrects herself, "but more wondering, why it gets to that. That isn't the reason I did Slip Of The Tongue but those questions made me think about the process of writing. There is so much beauty in the creativity. I found there is more freedom in poetry because I am not contained by the rhythm of a song."
Imelda talks about how it is "imperative in art and creativity to get out of your comfort zone and not stay safe. When I felt terrified, when I felt afraid, when I felt anxious, I knew I was on the right path because I knew I was shaking myself up a bit. It has no value to me unless it is honest and real. Sometimes it is beneficial to me when I'm writing, but I'm not so sure how beneficial it is once you put it out there. I can't worry about that. I have to be who I am."
Does she ever listen to the deeply personal, deeply private, Life Love Blood Flesh? "It's probably the only one of my albums that I can listen to. Possibly because it is the most real. Not that the others weren't real but on the others, I hid. I hid things in songs."
Is the reason she can listen to such a painful album because she has moved past all that pain?
"Possibly, yeah. It feels the most honest album I'd written. I'm okay with hearing it back. It is like looking at an old photograph of yourself from years ago, whatever you're going through. You can accept it."
Regardless of Imelda as a songwriter, singer, performer, poet, she is still a woman who went through the heartbreak of a marriage split.
"That's part of life, isn't it? Everybody has to go through some shit in life, and find your way out the other side and learn from it. That is life."
I ask her is she in a relationship.
"I am. Normally, I would say I'm not and keep it private, but I am. He is a very good person who has just been really fabulous when my dog died, through isolation and these times. We weren't expecting to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week together!" she laughs. "He has been amazing."
How long are they together? "Oh, a good while, over a year. He's a musician."
How are her parents coping with the Covid-19 lockdown?
"They are good, thank God. My dad loves FaceTime. He is into that at the moment - with a magnifying glass. He is in his late 80s; mam is in her 90s. She is 93."
So her mother got a toyboy for a husband?
"Yes, she did! And so did my auntie!" Imelda laughs of auntie Kathleen, who died in November. "It is not that unusual of a thing in our family. For the women!"
Has Imelda followed in her mother and auntie's footsteps by hooking up with a younger man?
"Yes! Yes! Nobody in my family seems to care! As long as we're all happy and healthy, that's all we care about with each other. We don't mind about anything else."
The former Queen of Rockabilly's words crackle with humour, much of it generated from her childhood in the Liberties. I was with Imelda in a bar in Liverpool before Christmas in 2014 when three old men at the table recognised her. "I'm George Clooney's better-looking younger brother," piped up one ould fella, who must have been in his late 70s. "I thought you were Brad Pitt in that light, actually," replied Imelda.
How does Imelda look back at where she came from? "You'll never hear me saying anything other than singing the praises of my area growing up, even though it was tough times," she says. The youngest of six, Imelda once told of how one of her brothers died at birth. "He was taken from my mam and buried in a mass grave, but later my dad and my uncle found where he was and put up a headstone.
"He has never been forgotten; he is part of us. Another of my brothers has named his son Patrick after him," she said in 2017.
"We were raised by our parents," she says of Madge, who was a seamstress, and Tony, a painter and decorator. "We were also raised by the community. I think that has been the best foundation. I feel really bad for somebody who hasn't had that, because you have no solid ground to stand on when the rest of life throws things at you.
"I think if you have had a good childhood, it gives you something to hold onto when storms come.
"Violet and I are loving lockdown, to be honest with you. I'm not saying there are not trials with it. It is not easy being shoved in together but it really makes you grateful for your health when you see people struggling. It makes you really take stock about what is important.
"I am in a very good place now," she smiles in the Hampshire sun. "But I am missing my dog."
Imelda May's Slip Of the Tongue is released on June 12 on Decca Records
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