When Imelda May was growing up in Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s, her family only owned one turntable between the seven of them. So the music-loving clan would take turns spinning records, which meant that the young singer-songwriter was exposed to a little bit of everything: “My parents were into big band stuff, and I heard a lot of blues and jazz and gospel, along with traditional Irish music, punk and even funk.”
Her older brother was a big rockabilly fan, often blasting Gene Vincent or the Stray Cats at high volume. She fell in love with the whole rockabilly culture: the cars, the clothes, the guys, and most of all the music, which communicated to her teenage self a sense of danger and excitement.
That is exactly what she strives to create in her own music. As an adult, May is one of the biggest pop stars in her native country with three best-selling albums of jazz- and soul-tinged rockabilly to her name, including her latest, Tribal. She has performed with Wanda Jackson, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello and Smokey Robinson, and earlier this year she launched her own television series, The Imelda May Show.
During a rare break in filming, recording, touring and being a full-time mother, May spoke to CMT Edge from her home outside of London about loving rockabilly, nerding out in the studio and treating her audience like a gang.
CMT Edge: As a teenager, what drew you to rockabilly?
May: It was the electricity of it, the danger, the conviction of it that I loved. I just thought it was wild. I heard the Blue Caps screaming in the background when Gene Vincent was singing, and wow. Then I looked at the record covers, and all those guys were really hot. They had such cool clothes and cool cars. But I didn’t listen to it and think, “This is 1950s rockabilly from another country.” I didn’t care where it came from or when it was made. I just heard it and loved it.
But I also listened to a lot of the bands that were inspired by rockabilly, like the Clash and the Cramps. I love country as well, especially Johnny Horton and Patsy Cline. Who doesn’t love Patsy Cline? And bluegrass. At one point I knew a guy in a Cajun band, which was quite rare in Dublin at the time. But people loved it. It’s quite similar to traditional Irish music. The rhythms are similar and hypnotic.
Traditional Irish music influenced American country music, which in turn inspires a lot of Irish musicians today. We give a certain amount to you and you give a certain amount back to us, and hopefully that keeps going around.
Tribal blends a lot of different styles together. Are you thinking about genre as you’re writing?
No. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people who can just decide to write a song. My husband [guitarist Darrel Higham] can write like that. But I have to walk around for a while and mess around with melody or lyrics in my head before I can pick up a guitar and finish it. Then I call the band and we work it out together. I know exactly what I want it to sound like, and the guys are very patient.
I produce all my own albums although Tribal is the first one I co-produced. I love the whole process. Everybody else goes home but I stay at the studio until the wee small hours and play around till I get the right sound for each song. Sometimes I’m there until 6 in the morning. I want my albums to have that nice, big, vibrant sound, so I used a lot of overhead mics to get a good live sound. It’s nerdy but I love it.
So you’re recording live in the studio?
I always get everybody to record it together initially, and then I might change things up after that, especially the drums. Drums are the foundation of any healthy band. If they aren’t right, there’s no point in building on top of it. But I have to rerecord the vocals at the end of the session because I can’t fit in the studio with the band. I’m always standing in the control room waving my hands to direct the guys.
When I wrote “Tribal,” I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound. I loved it in my head, but at rehearsals it just wouldn’t sit right. The guys all said it was good, but I was done with it. I had other songs that I wanted to get around to, but the guys convinced me to go back to it. We sped it up and did something different with the drums, and all of a sudden it clicked. It was a great moment and that’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
Those drums reminded me of those big Adam Ant songs from the early 1980s.
That’s exactly what I wanted. I loved Adam Ant as a kid and I wanted that feeling. Adam Ant was like the Stray Cats in that he seemed like he had this tribe of fans around him. It felt tribal, you know. It was like a gang. If you went to see Adam Ant, everybody in the audience knew when to shout and when not to shout. I always thought that was a great atmosphere for a gig.
Do your own fans respond the same way?
They all go “Oooh-oooh-oh-oh!” It’s loud and it’s great. I look at the positive side of the gang as a tribe. They’re always given a bad name, as though they’re all gangsters and fighters. But fashion has its tribe. Music has its tribe. Sports certainly has its tribe. If you go to a football match, people are on completely different sides and they’re shouting at each other. But everybody thinks their side is the best side. I love the camaraderie of it, and that’s what I want to convey in my music.