Rockabilly Never Died: An Interview with Imelda May

Imelda May

At last, payoff time has arrived for Imelda May.

The big-voiced Dubliner may be almost as recognizable for her chic retro stylings as for her rollicking fusion of blues, jazz and rockabilly, but make no mistake: the success she has enjoyed over the last few years is the hard-earned product of 20 years’ experience as a touring musician. Shooting to UK fame in 2008 in no small part due to an appearance on the TV show Later… with Jools Holland, since then she has finally begun to receive the attention she deserves.

Happily, these are busy times for May. Her third album Mayhem — originally released in Ireland and the UK late last year — is about to see a US release, which calls for an extensive tour with the Imelda May Band, which includes her husband Darrel Higham on guitars. While preparing to play the legendary Isle of Wight festival, May found the time to talk to PopMatters about her myriad influences, her long road to success, and how to come across well in a traditional Irish sing-song. First though, came the story of one of the biggest moments of her musical career so far …

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Recently you played for US president Barack Obama — that must have been a pretty special experience. Can you tell me a bit about how that came about?

I got a call when we were in the middle of a German tour and the date just happened to be [on] the one day we had off, which was great, so we were able to play and to go over. It was a very exciting day — we got there with only just enough time for me to sling my makeup on and everything, we just about made it. Backstage security was crazy, with Secret Service guys everywhere but they were all very nice people. We were all in a room together — it was like a holding pen with some fantastic bands — The Coronas, Sharon Shannon. I got to meet some great actors — Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Gabriel Byrne, a lot of fantastic people there. We were all excited. After, I got to perform which was a great thrill and the crowds were in great spirits, stretching out as far as I could see down the road, a sea of people. It was just the one song, [and] we came off stage and we were watching the President’s speech which was terrific and everyone was cheering and screaming. Then we were brought inside into this huge regal room and all of us sat giggling because it was very exciting and it was like getting ready for an old school photo except with the President! We were in rows and lines and then he came in and shook hands and I got to speak to him for a little while. I introduced him to Katie Taylor and had to butt in and explain that she’s our world champion boxer; she’s so pretty and tiny, you’d never think, you know? And the two of them starting mock-boxing each other … I chatted to Michelle Obama for a while. I asked her if she’d ever visited Chess Records in Chicago — I went to Chicago and that was the first place I wanted to go to. It was a Mecca for music lovers, where Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon and Etta James had recorded and it was in their home town. She hadn’t been, but she knew of it.

To have been involved in that must have been a great feeling because it shows that you’re thought of as being a great example of Irish music.

I was very flattered to be asked, delighted to represent my country — I was very proud of that. My family were very proud, but you couldn’t bring lots of visitors with you. Normally I bring my family with me, but I couldn’t bring anybody backstage because the security had to be tight. So my dad stayed at home and took some great photographs of the television! I was talking to Daniel Day-Lewis and he asked if my family were around and I said “No, my dad’s taking photographs of the telly!” And I said it must be a big occasion because he got the tripod out. Then he decided he actually wanted to be there so he went all the way down — which is not far — to where the President was and battled his way to the front and told everybody who his daughter was! They were great photographs, he showed me when I got back, it looked like he was with Obama all day! At the end, we were all given a little box with the Presidential seal on it, and it was a special Presidential box of M&Ms. We were trying to work out what colour they were; Brendan Gleeson opened his and of course they were red, white, and blue.

You play rock and roll, rockabilly and the blues — what is it about these kinds of music that you love? What is it about the way they make you feel that you get hooked into?

Oh, that’s a nice question. First of all they make me feel good. I love music that makes you feel great, and it really does. For me, rockabilly is very, very exciting music. It’s electric and kind of wild, you know? It’s make your hairs stand up on the back of your neck kind of music. I also listen to country, and blues and jazz and so on. Rockabilly is connected to country in that it’s basically American roots music; and then of course something like bluegrass is influenced by traditional Irish music. They’re very very similar, carried over by immigrants with a fiddle under their arm. It makes sense to me, that music. When we go and play, American audiences tend to go crazy for it, which is great. Also, in traditional Irish music you have to put your heart and soul into it. If you’re sitting in a traditional session and you just sing a song, it’s not really acceptable. It wouldn’t go down well if you’re messing around or singing it for no reason. When you’re in a pub in a traditional session or if you’re with family having a traditional party it doesn’t matter if you’re not a fabulous singer but you have to close your eyes and put your heart and soul into it. My mother used to tell me, “You’re telling a story, you have to speak the music. You have to tell the story of that song.” And she’s absolutely right. It’s similar, I suppose, with singing the blues in that you have to tell the story, close your eyes and give in to the music. So they’re linked, in many ways. I do love the music — it sends me flying, actually. The adrenaline I get … I love it. I love to see everyone going home after a gig, happy. When I’m writing, I mean what I’m saying — there’s a lot of me in each song. But I do want people to feel good.

You talked a bit about how American audiences respond to your shows and you have a US tour coming up soon — how does it feel to promote the US release of the new record Mayhem when for you, it’s been around for quite a long time?

The record originally came out just before Christmas and we’ve already been touring around the world — when it comes out in places it tends to do really well. What I do is not mainstream music, so a lot of countries will say “No, we don’t think it’s for our audience” and then the record companies come to a gig and they see places packed solid and then they go, “Actually, we will release it!” So we go from country to country as it comes out, and it seems to be doing pretty well. In France they just released the first album, which was recorded four or five years ago but they’ve just decided to release that now because songs have been used on adverts and things over there. So I’m looking forward to going over to America — we’ve already been there, we’ve toured with Jamie Cullum and then we toured with Jeff Beck. We’ve played some small gigs over there for the fun of it and met some great people so I’m looking forward to getting back. We’ve toured with some lovely American artists so hopefully we’ll get to see them — like Meat Loaf. It’s terrific to be over there because the audiences do get it really quickly. I remember once doing a gig in Ireland and there was a woman jumping around and screaming, “I don’t know what this is but I love it!” I thought that was a nice compliment.

You’re sometimes called a “revivalist” of the kinds of music you play. Do you think that’s a fair term? And either way, do you ever feel a responsibility to “do right” by rockabilly and communicate it to people as well as you can?

I do, in that I communicate it as well I can. I’m not going to do it if I can’t do it justice, I’ll always do it to the best of my ability. But in the same way I don’t feel like I’m a revivalist. I don’t think the music that I do is nostalgic in any way, I don’t think about going back to nice old-fashioned music. I’m certainly influenced by old music, but I want to bring it slap-bang up to today. There are great, pure rockabilly bands out there but I’m not pure rockabilly but a mix with blues and jazz and a punk vibe … I love the Clash, the Cramps, the Pretenders, all these great bands and I think you can hear that in there too. There’s great bands out there like the Arctic Monkeys and the White Stripes which have said they’re heavily influenced by the past but they keep it for today. I’m not saying I’m the White Stripes or the Arctic Monkeys — I don’t think the music is similar — but the influences are similar. I hope the music speaks to people of today.

I suppose the term “revivalist” implies that a certain type of music has died, whereas what you’re saying is that these styles are living music.

They’ve never died. They go in and out of fashion, and I think it’s absolutely dreadful that certainly rockabilly has been shunned for so long. I don’t get it. There’s always been an underground following, and it’s nice and strong now. But I was once told, “get rid of the rockabilly and you’ll go flying”. But like a good typical stubborn, fiery Irish bird I put it in even more. It’s so influential … people come up to me and say they love rockabilly, and that it’s so good to hear it. Jeff Beck has said it, Jimmy Page has said it, Meat Loaf — all these great people have come up and said they loved rockabilly. Even Gary Moore said that if it wasn’t for rockabilly, he wouldn’t have got into music at all. Even in the interview the Beatles gave saying they wanted to be Elvis, they wanted to be rockabilly. For music that’s so influential, I don’t see why it should be shunned, it should be revered. To be listened to, at least. Music should never be shunned. There’s room for everything, most people have a varied taste and at gigs people have come up to me and said that since I was talking about rockabilly in this or that interview, they’ve gone out and bought one record and now thanks to me they’re broke, because they’ve bought every Johnny Burnette record they can get their hands on. I got a great chance to work with one of my idols — Wanda Jackson — and that was a huge thrill for me. She’s an absolutely phenomenal woman and she’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, at last. She just recently released an album that Jack White produced. She’s like the ultimate girl power; if you look at old YouTube footage of her she’s so beautiful, and you think she’s going to come out and sing a nice soft number, and she just rocks it, you know? She played guitar, was a good songwriter and a great talent. It’s great to see her doing well, as well.

You’ve had so much success in the last few years, you’ve got a lot of influential admirers, and you’re taking music like rockabilly into the present. Where do you see yourself in the future?

I don’t know where I’ll be in the future. I’ve been a musician for 20 years now, I’ve been gigging since I was 16 years old, and it’s only in the last three years or so that everything’s gone crazy. It’s really since I started with my own band, as I’d been in other people’s bands for many years and I’ve been writing songs for many, many years. It was only three or four years ago I decided to start my own band with my own songs and that’s when it kicked off. As I said, I was told to get rid of the rockabilly but I put more in, because I wanted to put in the influences I loved. I’m not going to stop listening to records I love because somebody tells me not to. You have to listen to what you like and for me, I have to write what I like as well. Hopefully, after this crazy year I’m going to get a little break, write another album, make another album and tour all over again. I’m a big believer in working hard and enjoying yourself … I’m lucky that I get to do what I love, that I get to play the music that I love and to be a working musician. The labels used to say, “We like it, but we wouldn’t know where to put it.” But bit by bit, audiences came to gigs and with each gig, the audience would be double the size, record companies start to keep an eye on you and of course Jools Holland was a huge help. He put us on his TV show and people went crazy, but each place you go around the world it’s the audience who come and the old-fashioned way of doing that is by word of mouth, as opposed to some big, mad campaign. It’s a nice relationship. Hopefully, that’ll happen in America as well — we’ll go over, see how things happen and hopefully people will enjoy the music.