“The problem with an artist like Imelda May is that she’s so good, it makes a critical review almost impossible to write; her performance is flawless.” – Clash Magazine
Imelda May, born in Dublin and raised in the Liberties, may be an unknown name to some, but to many she is already a superstar. She is unmistakable both in her music (a fusion of surf guitars, blues and rockabilly that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch film) and her style, with a solitary curl and shock of blonde in her jet black hair. In Ireland, her debut album ‘Love Tattoo’, which she recorded and released on her own label, has gone Triple Platinum. She has shared a stage with Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, David Gilmour, Sharon Shannon, Jeff Beck, Shane Macgowan, Kirsty McCall, Van Morrison, Lionel Richie, Wanda Jackson, Paul Brady and Meatloaf. And now, with the release of her new album “Mayhem”, she is about to go stellar.
Being the youngest of five siblings , Imelda was the most susceptible to the various influences from her older brothers and sisters, which she could hear constantly through the walls of their two bedroom house. There was folk, the obligatory chart pop, and then there was Elvis. “My brother was a mad Elvis fan, and I found a tape in his room with Elvis, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. I thought the music was fantastic.”
By the age of nine Imelda had fallen in love with rockabilly and the blues – the only kid in her class who wasn’t into Wet Wet Wet. Singing along to rock n roll from an early age, her tastes began to develop and deepen, first with Elmore James and then – “ I heard Billie Holiday, and that blew my mind.” After a year of art college she dropped out, deciding she would rather sing for a living. At that point, her professional experience was confined to having sung on an ad for Findus Fish Fingers at 14. “A girl in The Liberties was in the music business and she got me this ad, where I sang, ‘Betcha never put your finger on a crunchier crumb!’ I got £40 for it!” She quickly found work singing with the swing troupe Blue Harlem and rock n roller Mike Sanchez and had an interesting spell of singing in burlesque clubs: “I’d sing while the other girls were onstage. One of them used to take an angle grinder to her crotch and would produce a shower of sparks. One day a spark flew down my throat when I was singing!”
Imelda began singing in clubs when she was 16 years old and had the honour of being occasionally barred from her own shows at Dublin’s Bruxelles club for being underage. “I was getting tips from the best musicians in Dublin. One of them said, ‘Your voice is great, but it needs to roughen.” It was around this time, when driving a tearful Imelda to a gig, that her father asked her “Is your heart broken? Excellent. Now you can sing the blues”. Remembered by Imelda as a turning point in her life, from then on her voice developed into the sultry, rich and unique tone you hear today.
By 2006 she was itching to go solo, and formed her own band. “We started out a bit jazzier, but it needed balls and roughing up which it got.” Her debut album, “Love Tattoo” was soon released and started to get noticed. Catching the attention of Jools Holland in 2008 she supported him on tour which led to him requesting her to appear on Later. Here she performed to an audience that included Jeff Beck, Elbow and Roots Manuva and afterwards Beck made a point of telling Holland that he was only there to see Imelda. In 2009, Imelda knocked Bruce Springsteen off No. 1 to become the first female Irish artist to top the Irish album charts since Mary Black nearly 20 years ago. She then went on to win Female Artist of the Year at the Irish Meteor Awards. Despite album success, Imelda continued to tour, playing to over 400 000 people in 8 countries across Europe and the US – including, most recently a US tour with Jamie Cullum.
Imelda has not only caught people’s attention musically, her striking style and unmistakable cool but quirky 50s look has led her to grace the front cover of the Irish Sunday Times Style, Roberto Cavalli flew her out to perform at his private party during the Milan Fashion Week.
2010 got off to an auspicious start when Imelda accepted an offer from Jeff Beck to perform with him at the Grammys. This was followed in April by a two night support slot in London with one of her idols, Wanda Jackson.
Her new album ‘Mayhem’ sees Imelda continue to develop her uniquely modern fusion of classic musical genres. The record not only showcases her exceptional songwriting ability, but also displays some more disparate influences, with first single Psycho seeing Imelda channel the spirit of early PJ Harvey, whilst the heartbreakingly poignant “Kentish Town Waltz” conjures an image of Chrissie Hynde at her most reflective.