Last summer Imelda May became a mother for the first time. This summer she turns 40. You might expect her to turn to singing ballads. You would be horribly wrong. “There are no lullabies on this album,” laughs the lady who’s brought rockabilly back into fashion sixty years after it was kicked into life by young men like Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Indeed there are not. Tribal is as primal a rock 'n' roll record as you could ever find, infused with the spirit of Sun Studios, where the sound was born in Memphis, Tennessee–but given a 21st century kick in the butt by a girl from the back streets of Dublin.
“Motherhood is amazing; it has changed my day-to-day life and it’s changed my priorities,” she admits. “But it hasn’t changed the person I am. I’m still me. I still want to have fun and I still love rock ‘n’ roll!”
Indeed, Tribal–her third album following Love Tattoo and Mayhem–is her punchiest yet. Imelda May is a welcome reminder of why rock ‘n’ roll terrified the Establishment when it first burst into life, empowering a new generation of teenagers, bringing black and white music together for the first time, and sweeping away the old crooners on a wave of sexually charged dance music.
The songs on Tribal are infused with the rebel spirit that launched rock ‘n’ roll on an unsuspecting world way back in the mid-1950s, but also the rebel spirit of the punk bands Imelda admired growing up in Dublin in the late 1970s as the youngest of five siblings–The Clash and The Undertones, The Buzzcocks and The Cramps.
Like them, Imelda May is raw, natural and just a little bit dangerous. “Rocking out is the way I feel. That’s why I wanted to inject the rebelliousness of punk and early rock ‘n’ roll into this album. That’s what drives me.”
Imelda was first drawn to the retro sound of rockabilly by an older brother’s cassettes of Elvis, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent when she was a little girl. Later on, she was drawn to Ian Dury and Adam Ant on Top of the Pops. “I liked the scariness of them. And I remember being terrified by The Specials singing “Ghost Town”. And also by horror films. I was drawn to the thrill, the combination of edginess and fun. And that's what still does it for me.”
The motto for the way Imelda lives her life is the title of her new single “It's Good To Be Alive.” “I wrote it in the early hours of the morning one day after I had the baby,” she reveals. “I was sleep-deprived and feeling very exhausted. I looked out of the window, watched the sun rise through the trees and felt–God, it's good to be alive!”
Other song titles sum up Imelda’s zest for life: “It’s Good To Be Alive,” “I Wanna Dance,” “Wicked Way,” and “Wild Woman.” Especially the latter, with its chorus: “There’s a wild woman livin’ inside of me/A wicked, wicked wild woman, dyin’ to be free.” “You see people toning it down and becoming more responsible as they get older. But inside, there’s still the lunatic inside.”
Her heroes–heroines–come from all corners and all eras of popular music: 1950s singers Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Wynona Carr, rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, country superstars Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton and a string of rock and pop icons: Joan Jett, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde. They all have one thing in common: “Strong women,” smiles Imelda. “Strong women like me.”