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.
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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.
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.