Interview: Irish singer Imelda May out to win over America

Imelda May

Imelda May performs at the 2014 Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival. Roman Gokhman/STAFF.

Irish singer Imelda May is OK with playing in front of smaller audiences, or opening for others, in the U.S.

The 40-year-old with a shock of blonde in her black hair, and a single front curl in her retro hairstyle, may still be an unknown quantity here, but she’s got many admirers – she’s shared the stage with Eric Clapton, Bono, Chuck Berry, Jeff Beck, and Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, among many others – to make her a household name in the U.K., where she’s used to playing in front of thousands. In America, she likes the challenge of getting a crowd to dance, such as she did at Outside Lands last summer.

“Somebody has to open…and it kicks you up the ass,” said May, who blends the rockabilly, blues, surf rock and jazz of the ‘40s and ‘50s with ‘70s punk. “You have to win them over, and I like that.”

May released her third album, Tribal, last month, and returns with her largest Bay Area headlining gig Thursday at The Fillmore.

Growing up in Ireland as the youngest of five children, May had no choice but to listen to whatever music her siblings and parents listened to. In her household, it just happened to be a collection of American classics, at least at first: Elvis, Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and Big Mama Thornton.

“My brother was into all that,” May said. “Seven of us in a two-bedroom house, and one record player. So I heard everything from Dean Martin to David Bowie, Meatloaf, Rolling Stones, John Denver, The Carpenters, The Specials, Eddie Cochran – nobody went to their own room with headphones on.”

In the ‘80s, she discovered rockabilly and punk: the Stray Cats, The Clash, The Cramps, The Pretenders, Patti Smith, Blondie, Joan Jett. To top it off, she soaked up her father’s favorite big band, jazz and traditional Irish music.

With her own music – 2007’s Love Tattoo, 2010’s Mayhem, and now, Tribal – May has continued to move from traditional rockabilly and in the direction of punk. Foremost, she’s driven by the desire to progress – “Otherwise, what’s the point? You may as well lie down and die.” Furthermore, she wanted to capture some of her band’s live electricity in the studio.

“I wanted to tap into the more heavy sounds that I love,” she said. “I wanted to get the kind of rawness of the early rockabilly and the later Ramones-y feel. They had that raw danger, almost, and I wanted to get a little piece of that on this album.”

Q&A: Imelda May on avoiding ‘flies,’ making people dance

You did a good job of exciting the hundreds of people at Outside Lands who were upset about Chvrches not being able to make it. You really won them over.
They were great. I even got a few of the girls that were up front waiting for Paolo (Nutini). They had their spot, and they were not moving! They were going to be there at 6 o’clock this morning. So I caught a bit of them moving as well. I saw them singing along.

You’ve been a parent for a year now. Tell me it gets easier.
It does get better. Well, new stuff will arise. When you think you’ve gotten over one thing, when you think you’ve hang of it, then all of a sudden it’s something new. I was getting only two, three hours of sleep at night the first six months.

You can tell from listening to your new record that your happiness is coming through and were able to be yourself despite having a baby.
It’s not despite it, but because of it! I’m not rebelling against having a child. I’m delighted to be with her, but I still have the same passions.

What are you looking forward to most about coming back to the Bay Area?
I think San Francisco is known for being music lovers. We say, “There’s no flies on it.” Is that an expression here? It’s like, “fresh;” there’s no staleness. There’s no fooling or pulling over your eyes. There’s no deceiving you. They would smell you a mile if there’s anything slightly fake about it, and I like that.

The band includes drummer Steve Rushton, trumpeter Dave Priseman, upright bassist Al Gare and guitarist Darrel Higham, May’s husband, who wrote two songs on Tribal.

Joining May on tour is her sister, because someone has to take care of her nearly two-year-old daughter when mommy’s working.

“It’s like (with) all working mothers; you just get on with it,” May said. “I’d rather have her with me than not. She’s starting to speak different languages, traveling around. She tries the food. I love being around her all day. The only thing is I get less sleep.”

May is happy to swap baby stories and talk about how having her daughter affected her life and career. Tribal was written and recorded after her daughter was born, a few hours at a time, between baby naps. But that doesn’t mean she’s going to write a lullaby album.

“It’s like people expect you to turn into a little marshmallow in the corner because you had a baby. And it doesn’t do that,” May said “I’m not going to sit in a corner singing lullabies for the next 20 years.”

“I took time off having her, and I stayed at home with her because I just wanted to be with her,” she said. “Then it got to the point where…I (was) ready to go again. So I started to write. I missed the guys; I missed being on tour – that’s a huge part of my life. I knew that it would be good for her, too. She’s not in school yet. She’s having a great time, and she’s traveling the world.”

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