“I don’t remember life without music,” Dublin-born singer Imelda May proclaims. “At family get-togethers, we’d all just go around and around the room singing songs, playing music.” At 16, she was belting out Billie Holiday songs in Irish blues clubs. “I met Ronnie Wood years later. I went up to him saying, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but you came into the club I was singing at.’ ‘How could I forget?’ he told me. ‘A little girl singing all them blues,’” May recalls.
The rockabilly star, 40, whose album Tribal is now hitting American shores, was inspired by more than just Billie Holiday, though. Over the phone, May rattles off just a few of her many musical inspirations. “Judy Garland. I loved Judy Garland. My mum did, so I loved her, too. Shirley Temple. Dad played all that Big Band stuff like Glenn Miller.” She mentions that her family—May has five siblings—had one record player. She heard what everyone else was into. “Jazz. Ska. Punk. Meatloaf. The Carpenters. David Bowie. Elvis Presley,” May remembers. “And all that traditional Irish music, too. I listened to it all. I loved it all.”
It was listening to Elvis and those early rockabilly stars that first spurred her into a career, she says. “I just went crazy for it. It was like a whole world was opened up to me. I just lost my mind.” She was a teenager when she discovered that type of music and started writing her own songs by 16. May continues to write, of course, but more for herself than anyone else. “You can’t think of anyone else. I write for myself. I try and please myself. If you love what you do, it shows.”
The rockabilly genre, May feels, was a precursor to punk with its rebellious, sexy and aggressive qualities. Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Charlie Feather and Bill Flagg– all those pioneers who became the stars in her musical galaxy; they’ve stuck by her ever since.
There wasn’t a moment in which May realized she could make singing her profession, she says. “I was singing in all these clubs, singing Big Mama Thornton, Billie Holiday, and I was already a singer, you know? I didn’t find it. It found me.” Her first album, under her maiden name Imelda Clabby, was released in 2003. It was appropriately called No Turning Back. Joining Ambassador Records, she released Love Tattoo in 2007. It reached number one in Ireland. The follow-up, 2010’s Mayhem, followed suit with another number one album in Ireland. Tribal, though, she hopes will reach not only Irish listeners, but rockabilly fans in the states. To help, she has a rigorous tour schedule across the United States before returning home for a music-based TV show she’s working on.
Those who don’t know her yet are missing out. May has played the Grammy’s with Jeff Beck. She’s sung face-to-face with Meatloaf at Wembley Stadium. She has worked with Elvis Costello, Wanda Jackson, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame, Bono. “What a great, sweet, humble man,” she says of her Irish brethren. She’s excited about where her career is and where it’s going.
“The Stray Cats in the 1980s helped put rockabilly back on the map. Hopefully, I’m helping make it grow again,” she says wistfully. With Tribal she’s doing just that. “I just wanted, with this album, to get down to the knuckles. Make it just black and white. No gray.” The album is vibrant, jaunty, tight, infectious. She wanted a punk feel coupled with tunes like some sort of David Lynch torch song. Whether it’s a foot-tapping country swing tune like “It’s Good to Be Alive,” or the blues-heavy, “Wicked Way,” or a rousing roadhouse anthem such as “I Wanna Dance,” the album is a straight ahead forceful statement of purpose. Listening to the tracks, co-produced with Mike Crossey (Foals, Keane, Jake Bugg), one can sense May is trying to bring rockabilly back to the fore. “I’m proud of the new album. I wanted to capture the feel of a live performance in a studio album, and it’s got a lot of that energy. I love it.”