Imelda May, Irish singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, chats with Kevin Cooper about being influenced by Northern Soul, getting drunk with Jools Holland, her latest album Life Love Flesh Blood and her current tour of the UK.

Imelda May, is an Irish singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. She began her career in music aged sixteen by performing with a number of local bands and musicians before forming her own band in 2002. She released her debut studio album, No Turning Back in 2003.

After the release, May relocated to London with her then-husband, guitarist Darrel Higham. Following an appearance on the BBC music programme Later… with Jools Holland in 2008, she released her second studio album, Love Tattoo in 2009. Her fifth and latest studio album, Life Love Flesh Blood was released worldwide on April 21st 2017 and saw May take a different direction.

Although known primarily as a singer, she also plays the bodhrán, guitar, bass guitar and tambourine. May is known for her musical style of rockabilly revival and she won the Best Female Artist of the Year award at the 2009 Meteor Awards.

May has recorded and performed with a huge variety of artists such as Lou Reed, Jeff Beck, Jools Holland, Smokey Robinson and Tom Jones, to name but a few.

Whilst currently on tour of the UK, she took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.

Hi Imelda how are you today?

I’m very well thanks Kevin how are you?

I’m doing okay thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

That’s okay and thank you for being interested in what I am currently up to.

How is life treating you?

Life at the moment is very good thank you. As you know I am currently on tour and I am really enjoying it.

I last saw you here in Nottingham back in 2012 when you were heavily pregnant and dancing around the stage in a pair of killer heels. We were all ready to catch you just in case you fell off them (laughter).

I know, just what was I thinking (laughter). I have to say that whilst it probably wasn’t one of my better ideas it actually felt really good.

I have been playing your new album Life Love Flesh Blood for the past few weeks now and I absolutely love it.

Ah that’s fabulous, thank you very much.

Are you pleased with it?

Yes I am very, very pleased with it. I love it and I am very happy with it.

Are you happy with how it has been received by the fans?

Yes I am, I’m really glad because I was hoping that the fans would come with me and to be honest with you most of them have done. A couple of people got cross with me when they heard the album but that’s okay. In all honesty, I expected to lose a few fans and maybe gain a few more but you really can’t think about those things when you are writing an album. You simply have to go with your heart and see how it goes.

A lot of the fans who have stayed with you are saying that the album is your best work to date. Would you agree with them?

To be honest with you I hope that every album is my best work. That’s the whole point, to try and improve and get better and I hope that my next album is even better again. I can remember the late Roy Orbison giving an interview and they asked him what was his best song and he replied that he hadn’t written it yet. I really do like the attitude that you are constantly learning. When the time finally comes and your latest release is not better than your last one, then you are finished.

There are some great standout tracks on the album and I particularly like Black Tears. What was it like working with Jeff Beck once again?

Working with Jeff is always a pleasure. I love working with him; he is a great man, he is very creative, and yes he is fantastic to work with. He is so full of enthusiasm and musically he does what he likes. I often have no idea what he is going to do (laughter). For me it is just like working with another singer as opposed to a guitarist because he makes his guitar sound like a voice.

He is certainly one of the last of the greats that we have got of his generation.

Yes he is but I have to tell you that there are lots of greats out there and there is still more coming. Jeff is very much forward thinking on that subject as well. He is constantly listening out for new bands and new players knowing that there will be more and that there should be more. Music should never ever have a beginning or an end. It should be continuous. Somebody out there will listen to Jeff, learn and take it forward. I don’t like to live in the past, thinking that because someone has passed away then that is the end of music. A lot of people think about music in that way and I think that it is unhealthy.

It kills off any enthusiasm for what is coming and I think that is detrimental to music when people live in the past. It doesn’t court new artists or new music. You have to keep feeding it for it to be great; you have to keep feeding the enthusiasm and that is what I love about Jeff, he is always forward thinking, that is why he is so great. Jeff is absolutely brilliant and is, in my opinion the best guitarist in the world.

Also on the album you have a certain Mr Jools Holland who is featured on When It’s My Time.

Yes I have and I have to say that Jools is brilliant.

Whenever I listen to that song I immediately think of Bessie Smith and Billie Holliday.

That is a beautiful thing for you to say, thank you. I am very happy with that. Thank you very much. I have been influenced by both of them and I think that it is important to listen to the greats, absolutely. Thank you.

How far ahead do you work, are you already thinking about the next album?

Yes I am, I am always thinking about the next album. I am constantly writing; I’m always jotting down my ideas. I am already writing for my next album and I have been asked to produce another artist’s latest album.

Is that something that you would like to get involved with?

Yes it is, I really would love to get into production. As you will already know I have previously produced a couple of my own albums and it really is something that I love to do and hope to do more of in the future.

I had heard that you were thinking of writing a book. Is that correct?

Well now, just who have you been speaking to (laughter). I am thinking about writing a non-fiction comedy about my childhood. It will be about the crazy and fabulous upbringing that I had.

And what stage are you at with that?

I have just started gathering up all of my thoughts and notes on it but hey, it might never happen but then again it might.

You are currently seven dates into the tour, how is it going?

It is going really well and I am loving every minute of it. The audiences are fabulous and the reception has been absolutely tremendous everywhere that we have gone. Finally I am really loving it at last. I feel like I have done a million interviews (laughter). You record an album, edit it, go through it all and then do photographs, and before you know it you have talked about it for about a year (laughter). And as much as I know that is part of the business and that I have to do that, nothing feels as good performing and making music for the fans. That’s what I do it for. So it is great to be back out on the road touring, it feels so exhilarating.

You will be here in Nottingham on Saturday 13th May at the Royal Concert Hall, just what can we expect?
A good night I hope (laughter). The band are on fire and we will be playing all of the new album plus a few of the older songs as well. It will be a really great night.

Do you enjoy your time spent here in Nottingham?

Yes I do, I have always loved Nottingham since the very first time that I played here. Each place that I go I try to have a ramble round. I also love to run so I will sometimes go for a run about the place to have a look around and get a feel for the place. I love Nottingham, it really is a beautiful city full of history. It is steeped in fabulous history and fables.

Well I have to tell you that we get grief off the American artists who play here because after they have seen Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves with Kevin Costner our Castle is not quite as big as the one featured in the movie (laughter).

(Laughter) that is very naughty. As you know everything is bigger and better in America (laughter).

Who has musically inspired you?

Everybody who I have loved and listened to along the way. I would have to say that I have been influenced by all of the greats such as Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Tom Waits, Blake Mills, Led Zeppelin, The Specials, The Undertones, Nina Simone; the list is endless. I would say that I have been influenced by everyone who has moved me through their music. However, having said all of that, one of the main influences on me has to be the late Leonard Cohen. I love his writing and I find myself reading a lot of his lyrics. I think that most people have a varied taste in music, it either moves you or it doesn’t. When you talk about music moving you then Donny Hathaway is the man for me, he really does move me and this may surprise you but I also like a bit of Northern Soul.

When I was over in America recording Love And Fear I was trying to get a Northern Soul vibe on the horn part and I then realised that the Americans had no idea what Northern Soul was. So I had to sing the horn arrangement to them, which they would then record and send it over to me. However, I soon realised that it just wasn’t working so I got them to record a whole bunch of stuff and got them to send it all over to me. I chopped pieces of the tapes that they had sent me, and I basically built up the horn section and the arrangement that I wanted note by note out of what they had sent me. I literally chopped it into different notes and then rebuilt the horn section and the arrangement until I got it to sound just how I wanted. And I have to say that I think that it sounds great now.

After I had finished, the guy who had done the original arrangement really got into what I had done with the horns and informed me that he knew nothing at all about Northern Soul and that he was going to go back and investigate it. I was really pleased when I heard him say that. It was a whole new world that he knew absolutely nothing about (laughter).

Putting you on the spot, what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

Oh god, I have to say that I have been so lucky to have many highlights and I hope that I have many more (laughter). Working with Jeff Beck of course, he is so amazingly talented. Getting my big break in the music business from Jools Holland. Being fortunate to sing a duet with Lou Reed. A big moment for me was getting to work with Tony Visconti. Hanging out with David Bowie, singing with Robert Plant, Ronnie Wood, Bono; I have been fortunate to have been able to perform with some of the greats. I sang a duet with Smokey Robinson, and let me tell you it just doesn’t get much bigger than that for me. For me to have made this album is also a highlight for me as well. It’s great for me to be able to make the album that I wanted to make; it is a really nice feeling. So as you can see I have had lots of highlights and I hope that I have lots more. I don’t want it to end, not just yet anyway.

What was the first record that you bought?

That was Billie Holiday by Billie Holiday. What a great album by a fantastic lady and such a beautiful singer.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

That was Led zeppelin.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

That was only last week and it was Maria Callas performing Tosca.

I recently asked Jools Holland the same question and he said that it was one evening when he was with you at his house and you were listening to Peto Schiffer singing the old French song Chasseur d’Amour. He also claims that you were both extremely drunk or words to that effect (laughter). Would you care to shed any light on that?

Yes that is quite right, it’s okay I don’t mind telling you about it (laughter). The evening had started with me telling Jools that I had discovered the original recording of My Prayer, the song which The Platters covered and are now mostly associated with. It had originally been recorded by a French violinist named Franck Pourcel and was originally titled Avant de Mourir. It is just so very beautiful. I played it to Jools and he thought that it was amazing. But then Jools being Jools had to go one better (laughter). He said “oh my god that is fabulous but wait until you have heard this” (laughter). I just love those kind of nights when you are with friends and you just start playing records. And as he quite rightly said to you, the two of us were very drunk and bawling our eyes out (laughter).

On that note Imelda let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been a pleasure. Enjoy the tour and I will see you here in Nottingham. Bye for now.

Thank you very much Kevin. Take good care and bye for now.