Today, she’s one of Ireland’s most popular and successful artists, but Imelda May’s singing career started on a chunky, brown Fisher Price cassette recorder. After years of sitting in the family home in the Liberties (an historic working-class neighbourhood of Dublin) listening to Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner and Janis Joplin, the record button on her new toy finally allowed her to capture her own voice.
From those humble beginnings, she’s gone on to tour the world, top the charts in her homeland, host her own TV show and and convert the likes of Bob Dylan and Bono as fans. Her album Love Tattoo is the bestselling record of all time in Ireland by a homegrown female artist. She’s performed with some of the most important musicians in the world today – U2, Lou Reed, Sinead O’Connor, Robert Plant, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Jeff Beck, Jeff Goldblum, Noel Gallagher and Ronnie Wood.
Her rockabilly wiggle captivated the UK, from her first appearance on Later… with Jools Holland back in 2008, all the way through to her latest blast of big-hearted rock’n’roll, ‘Made to Love’, which provoked a huge reaction when she appeared on The Graham Norton Show. Its appeal for togetherness captured this moment in 2021, when we’re all craving connection.
On a Zoom call from her home in Hampshire, she took us back to the very beginning of her journey to trace the musical moments that shaped her as an artist and a person.
Listening to Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin on vinyl
I used to sit with my ear to the record player and pick up on various things that I loved. I listened to a lot of female singers. I remember trying to copy Aretha Franklin. And then I’d listen to Ella Fitzgerald. Then I’d hear Janis Joplin. And I’d think: right, I need to do all those things with my voice. And I want to know them now. I would listen to them over and over and over again to try and figure out how they did that, and I would replicate it. I wanted to understand what they did and how they did it… and then I do my own version.
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Singing along to Stop by Sam Brown
When I was about maybe 13 or 14, I got a present of a Fisher Price [cassette recorder]. That Fisher Price toy changed my life because it had a record button.
I recorded myself singing Sam Brown – ‘Stop’. Then I gave a lend of [the recorder] to my friend. The tape was in it and I didn’t know. When I went to her house, her family said, “Oh my god, you’re an amazing singer.” I nearly got sick. The thought that anybody had heard it! I didn’t let anyone know I was doing this. At that age I was so precious about these things. And so terrified and embarrassed by everything. That was the first recording that I ever did.
Obviously, Sam Brown was brilliant. She could really go for it. She could really get that soulful rasp at the top end and then make it really soft on the bottom.
Clare Torry’s vocals on Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky
I remember the first time that I heard Pink Floyd and Clare Torry, the vocalist on ‘The Great Gig in The Sky’. It was just amazing.
She really goes for it. That was the first time I’d heard anybody… I’d like to say lose it, but that’s not what she’s doing. She’s really controlling it. She knows what she’s doing and she’s letting herself go. Her instincts have just taken over.
Sometimes when I’m singing, I feel like I’m levitating. I’ve lifted off the floor. They’re the magic moments. That’s where your instincts kick in, and your heart and soul go into it. She’s in her moment there. It’s instinctive singing, and it’s almost feral.
I often think gigs are quite like making love. They’re like a one-night stand. You meet somebody, you get to know them a little bit, they get to know you a little bit. You laugh together, then you get a little connection or relationship. And at some point in the evening, you reach this fabulous climax together. Then you all say good night and go home your separate ways. That’s a gig.
Clare Torry does that with her vocal, in one song. She brings you in, you get to know her a little bit. She reaches this crazy height, and then she brings you back down to this beautiful space exhausted, and it’s phenomenal. So that would be a massive moment for me, for sure.
Comparing legs with Eartha Kitt in London
I remember going to see Eartha Kitt in a tiny little club in London. She had her dress slit up to way past the top of her thigh. I met her later and she grabbed me, she stuck her leg and told me, “Come on”. I stuck my leg out as well. And she just said to me… “Whose is better, yours or mine?”
Her gig was so amazing – and she was in her 80s at that point. I remember how much control she had over the whole gig and her audience.
I suppose women like that have always influenced me, especially as a woman in a man’s world. I’ve had so much, you know, people presuming. Saying, “Where’s your musical director? Who actually writes your songs?” Or at the end of the night asking, “Who do I pay?” You pay me!
So, when you meet these women who went before you, you really have a huge respect for what they have gone through. These are the powerhouses that paved the way for the rest of us.
Going to bits watching U2 in New York
Every U2 gig I’ve ever gone to is like a spiritual experience. They really take you to another place. It’s definitely spiritual. 80,000 people in a place, feeling the love.
It was in New York and I flew in to see them. I remember during that gig, they had this beautiful moment where you’re looking at this big screen. They had this woman in the huge refugee camp that was in Jordan. And she’s speaking about her life, saying all I want to do is get an education. It zoomed in on her face and her eyes. It was a real woman, not an actress – an actual woman, living this.
Then the visual went different. All of a sudden, this giant flag with her face printed on it rolls out across the audience. And they said, “Carry her, carry her.” I was in bits. “We’ll hold each other up. Carry each other, carry her.” It just kills me even now, thinking about it. That was a moment I thought was very, very powerful. And very beautiful. It made everybody think – you know, really think.
11 Past The Hour is out on Decca Records on April 16. Stream Made To Love & pre-order 11 Past The Hour here.
Music video by Imelda May, Noel Gallagher performing Just One Kiss. A Decca Records recording; © 2021 Universal Music Operations Limited