'Look to women that are intelligent and talented - don't look to the Kardashians, for God's sake!' - Imelda May talks women, music, and break-ups
Annoyed by the Kardashian effect and sick of being seen as "just a hairdo", Imelda May is urging young women to improve their minds and not just their bodies. Here, the singer talks to our reporter about how heartbreak and motherhood have helped her become comfortable in her own skin…
Artists who don’t like to be interviewed generally fall into one of two camps. The first group subjects the interviewer to monosyllabic answers, silences that seem to go on for days and an occasional weary sigh, just for effect. The second camp are much more obliging. They may not enjoy the process but they don’t take their frustration out on the person asking the questions.
Imelda May doesn’t like being interviewed — in her own words, she “hates every part of it” — but she falls squarely into the latter category. Indeed, for someone who would rather have a tooth pulled than field yet another question about her new fringe, she is engaging, good-natured and surprisingly forthcoming.
“I’m more introverted than you’d expect,” she explains when we chat by telephone. “I don’t like to talk about stuff; I get on with things. That’s why I write.
“I put stuff into my songs and my writing because that’s my escape, but when you do interviews you have to give something, so it’s trying to learn how much to give and how much to keep back.
“I’m very often asked stuff in interviews and you put the phone down and you burst into tears. Some people can be quite heavy on it — especially early on — and it just feels so intrusive sometimes. But you know you have to give a little.”
The ‘it’ that Imelda is referring to is the breakdown of her 13-year marriage to her Big Bad Handsome Man, Darrel Higham. The singer announced the news on her Facebook page in July 2015, explaining that “the papers were running with it soon” and adding that she and her husband had the “deepest love and respect for each other” and would continue to be committed co-parents to their daughter Violet, who was two years old at the time.
Sentiments like this could easily be construed as PR machine boilerplate of the ‘we remain good friends’ variety, but it soon became clear that this was the real deal. Imelda talks to her ex-husband and former bandmate regularly, and speaks of him in the highest of terms. She even performed backing vocals on his break-up album Hell’s Hotel, and advised her fans to listen to it to get his side of the story.
It was a truly graceful split and one wonders how it didn’t devolve into a he-said-she-said war of words, or whether there is a secret to emotionally evolved co-parenting.
“People always ask me about the marriage break-up and it just makes me recoil, because it’s not something you want to talk about on paper,” says Imelda when this is put to her. “But I’m happy to talk about that for anyone else breaking up.
“The only thing I say is put your child first. Number one. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. Don’t be selfish. Don’t be an a******. Put yourself in your child’s position and think how they’d feel, and that is the only thing that Darrel and I have done, and we get on really well and it’s all because of Violet.
“We agreed on that at the beginning. We said it’s all about her. If she’s happy, we’re okay. You would have your moments — naturally — but you just suck it up and get on with it. And compromise as much as you can. Don’t dig your heels in on anything. It doesn’t matter. Your child’s needs are the only thing that matter.”
It helped of course that the former couple could channel their heartbreak through their music and keep themselves busy in the studio.
For her own part, Imelda re-emerged with a new album — some of which she’ll be performing at the Cork Opera House tomorrow as part of the Guinness Jazz Festival — a new sound and an artistic honesty that cuts to the bone. Most writers have heard the maxim “open your veins, and bleed”. It feels like the singer had those words pinned to a wallboard when she penned her aptly-titled break-up album, Life Love Flesh Blood. This isn’t just an album about a marriage breakdown; it’s also about getting her heart broken in her first relationship after her marriage ended. She has never identified the man, although it was reported at the time that he was French.
While Imelda is reticent about the finer details of this relationship, the album is an emotional outpouring. Black Tears, which features her friend and frequent collaborator Jeff Beck, wonders where it all went wrong; Call Me contemplates the torturous wait for a phone call that’s never going to come; How Bad Can a Good Girl Be — “Tried to resist you but I couldn’t/ Tried not to kiss you, knew I shouldn’t” — homes in on the moment that lust clouds better judgement.
The rallying cry, however, is Should’ve Been You — a song for any woman who has ever felt taken for granted. The music video assembled a diverse group of women for a march through London’s Brixton Market as the singer, leading her troops from the front, chants: “Who takes care of me?” The concept could so easily have been heavy-handed, yet it somehow strikes just the right tone.
With the new sound came a new look. The Rockabilly dresses and signature suicide roll has been replaced by an understated wardrobe of sharp separates and a long tousled shag hairstyle. The transformation hasn’t subdued the bodhrán-bashing, hip-slinging, Johnny Got a Boom Boom pizzazz. If anything, it’s given her a new lease of life.
Imelda makes it clear that this wasn’t a record company-friendly reinvention designed to reach out to a new demographic and stay relevant. The rockabilly look had become part and parcel of her identity, she explains, and she was “fed up being a hairdo”.
She still likes to make fashion statements, only nowadays they are a little more outspoken. The singer turned up to the Brit Awards in February wearing a black suit, a buttoned-to-the collar white shirt and a specially-designed ‘Dress Like a Woman’ envelope clutch that carried a clear message for President Donald Trump, who a few days previously had issued his female staff with a memo carrying the same words — only with no sense of irony.
“It was a little kick on the shin from very far away,” she laughs. Her Brits outfit choice led to even more Chrissie Hynde comparisons, which seems rather lazy given that the women share little more than a hairstyle. Others described her new look as ‘au naturel’, which doesn’t sound quite right either.
It’s much of a muchness and, besides, there are more important things to discuss, such as whether her old dresses went to a charity shop and, if so, can she give us the post code?
She laughs heartily. “Some of them I sent to a charity shop; some of them I kept, like the ones I wore in videos. The majority of them end up on most of my family. When we get together at parties, I have a big box with shoes, bags, the lot — and I say, ‘Go for it’.”
There are still plenty of treasures stowed away for her four-year-old daughter, Violet, who Imelda describes as her “doppelgänger”. “My mother is laughing, saying: ‘Now you know what it was like raising you!’ It’s payback time. She is a strong character and I think she is going to give me a run for my money when it comes to teenage years. I’m bracing myself already.”
The singer is well aware of the pressures on young women of the Instagram Generation, and what she calls “the weird rat race of who can look the strangest”. It’s one of the many reasons why she won’t be allowing magazines that consider a celebrity’s cellulite to be a front page story into her house. “Girls should keep away from those terrible magazines with pictures of women and comments about their bodies,” she says. “Don’t buy them. Boycott them! Let’s make a stand and say we’re not going to buy these if you continue with this: Feed our minds and give us something fascinating to make us feel good about ourselves.”
She’s not finished there. Her manifesto soon segues into the importance of female role models for young women. I can hear somebody in the background telling her that our allocated time is almost up but she tells them that we can let it run on.
“Look to women that inspire you,” she continues. “Women that are intelligent and talented; don’t look to the Kardashians, for God’s sake! Look to the people who are comfortable in their skin like Helen Mirren, Joanna Lumley, Vivienne Westwood and Patti Smith. Women who make you think and make you feel.
“It absolutely does my head in, how obsessed people are with unrealistic expectations on women. It’s ridiculous.”
This isn’t to say that she has opted out entirely. Imelda has an exercise regime: three short runs a week and a little light stretching. And she loves lotions and potions, especially Environ — “it’s phenomenal... by the way, I’m not paid by them or anything”.
However, she is fundamentally opposed to the concept of ‘anti-ageing’. “Yeah, I want to look good,” she says. “Of course I do. I use face creams religiously. There are so many of them in my bathroom it’s ridiculous.
“But I don’t mind ageing. I think it’s a luxury, to be honest. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost friends and family along the way who haven’t made it as far as I have. And I think: ‘What are we moaning about?’ I think health is more important. As I get older, staying healthy and being able to do what I want to do is my priority.
“Forget about the things that really aren’t important,” she adds. “Do your face creams, do your make-up — but just chill out on it and use your mind for better things. Read some books and don’t buy into the things that condone all that.”
Her no-nonsense approach to ageing makes sense. Those who have experienced excruciating back pain — as Imelda did for many years — tend to think of ageing in terms of vitality rather than wrinkles. Likewise, those who have seen a loved one die before their time usually come through their grief with a life-is-for-living attitude. Imelda lost her cousin Caroline Dowling to cancer in 2014. The fact that they were the same age made it even more of a wake-up call for the singer, who decided there and then that she was going to “grab life by the balls”. She wasn’t messing.
Imelda is the youngest of five siblings. They were brought up in a two-bedroom house in Dublin’s Liberties where money was tight but the craic was 90. Her parents, Tony and Madge, with whom Imelda shared a bedroom until the age of 14, cultivated a spirit of creativity and non-conformity and, by the age of nine, Little Miss May was singing rockabilly and the blues.
Her voice quivers just a little when I ask if she attributes her strength to any particular aspect of her upbringing. “I suppose I have strength,” she says. “But I have plenty of weaknesses as well... My mother is a strong woman and she had a way with getting on with things. And I took a lot of that from her. If I got a knock-back, it wouldn’t be that I wouldn’t feel it but I would dust myself off and get on with it. I’m sensitive but I have a streak: if someone tells me I can’t do something, it makes me more determined to do it.”
The 43-year-old remembers a teacher telling her that she “wouldn’t amount to anything”.
“I think that was probably one of the best things they could have said to me,” she muses, “because that made me determined to do well. I think, for other kids, it might have knocked them but, for me, it got me... angry? Cross? I don’t know but it got me determined. It spurred me on. I thought: ‘I’ll show you. Just you wait.’”
By the age of 16, her older brother was sneaking her into Dublin club Bruxelles and encouraging her to get up and sing. She remembers crying to her dad about boyfriend troubles on the way to one of these gigs. “Is your heart broken?” he asked her. Yes, she said, it was. “Good,” he replied. “Now you can sing the blues.”
Still, while her early talent was obvious to all around her, she was far from an overnight success. She moved to Britain 20 years ago because there weren’t enough gigs in Ireland. She worked as a carer in a nursing home by day and gigged by night. Back in Dublin, she once walked from record store to record store asking them to sell her album.
Sure, she got lucky when Jools Holland walked into a gig she was playing in a small venue in Sheffield, but the old saying about luck being what happens when preparation meets opportunity couldn’t be more apt when you consider the sheer graft that has gone into her career. Imelda’s first performance on Holland’s show was a turning point, and there has been one pinch-me moment after another since.
She has shared a stage with a roll call of industry heavy
weights including Lou Reed, Smokey Robinson and Bono; she has visited Buckingham Palace for tea and been championed by none other than Bob Dylan, who said she was one of his favourite contemporary artists. Later this month, she’s sharing a bill with jazz legends like Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kenny Garrett at the 40th Guinness Cork Jazz Festival.
Yet while singing with Reed was an honour as she “had been a fan for years” and performing with Jeff Beck “always goes to another dimension”, it still comes back to one magical moment: her duet with Sinéad O’Connor on her eponymous RTÉ show (if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching on YouTube).
The story goes that Imelda visited Sinéad in her dressing room a few hours before the show was due to start filming. It was only supposed to be a meet-and-greet — they hadn’t met before — but Sinéad doesn’t do small talk. She wanted to know how Imelda really was. The question, coupled with Sinéad’s soul-piercing gaze, caused Imelda to break down.
“Sinéad and I had a moment that wasn’t a musical moment, if that makes sense. It was very personal,” she says.
“It was a song we didn’t mean to sing. Neither of us knew it particularly well. But I have to say, I wasn’t aware of anybody or anything when I was singing that — and I don’t think she was either. It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means... but it was very special.
“Sinéad has more truth in her body than anyone I know dares to have,” she continues. “And that, I think, brings a lot of controversy and a lot of trouble. Most of us think a lot of things — Sinéad runs with it. And I think that’s what makes her a great artist.”
It’s refreshing to hear somebody talk about Sinéad as the artist she is without dwelling on all the inconsequential curtain-twitching nonsense. And should Sinéad read the praise that this fellow artist has heaped upon her, she’ll probably come to a simple conclusion: it takes one to know one.
From October 27-30, Cork will see more than 40,000 people descend upon the city for the Guinness Jazz festival. For tickets, as well as information on the free events taking place in over 70 venues across the city, see guinnessjazzfestival.com.
Photography: Conor Clinch assisted by Donal Talbot
Styling: Dee Moran assisted by Plum O’Keeffe
Hair: Craig Purves using R+Co
Make-up: Lisa Mejuto using Tarte and MAC
Shot on location at Ruby’s Bar & Lounge, Dalston, London