When Irish chanteuse Imelda May first wrote “11 Past The Hour,” the initial taste from her forthcoming album—she was writing about herself. This was before the pandemic forced everyone into their homes. Somewhere along the line, the song about awakenings and finding safety and love went from being about a “me” to a “we.”
“What if the song is written from the perspective of Mother Earth?” the 46-year-old Dublin-born, London-based May said she thought at the time. “We all … want to be, in almost a childlike way, scooped up and wrapped up and told everything’s gonna be all right. And you’ve done some things wrong. It’s not your fault. ‘Hide your innocence and all your sins/ And all the love in the world/ Won’t be enough to help you sail through the storm that you created yourself/ But You’re not to blame.’ Forget the world, just breathe for a minute. Just dance and just twirl around.”
The song continued to grow as it and its video developed, until it became about how we, as a people, need refuge. The title came from the artist seeing 11:11 pop up repeatedly. She searched online for a significance and found that it’s considered “intuitive” in numerology and other beliefs.
“The [song is] reflective, and it’s the universe calling you to be aware and wake up and listen,” May said.
It’s a timely song in times when listening to the concerns of others and the world is lacking.
As with many, 2020 has been a year of change and heartache for Imelda May. It didn’t begin that way, though.
She had her new album well underway last spring when she got the itch to record some of her own poems, set to music, instead. She’s been writing poetry for years, sharing it only with her friends. They encouraged her to perform publicly, and at 2019’s Latitude Festival, in England, she staged a performance art piece called “Hallowed,” where she spent three evenings inside a glass box, writing one poem each night and then performing it. She invited the audience to perform poems as well.
“It was majorly magical. I absolutely loved it, and I could not believe the amount of people that came and wrote with me,” she said. It was meditative, and it was quite beautiful. That’s what made me pursue the spoken-word EP.”
Still prior to the pandemic—early in 2020—May was waiting for the arrival of producers Tim Bran and Davide Rossi to record her currently shelved music album. Rossi was flying in from L.A., where May said the acclaimed string arranger was working with Coldplay. After the two arrived she pulled a switcheroo and convinced them to record poems that she had gathered, some of which she’d already recorded but wanted accompanying music to go with them.
The three of them got to work, but she had yet to tell her label of her plans.
“I said, ‘I’m not doing the album. I’m doing spoken word,’ and they were like, ‘Oh dear, sweet Jesus. Here she goes again,’” she recalled. “Luckily, they trust me.”
Slip of the Tongue, as the collection of nine spoken-word pieces came to be called, was an introspective look at her identity as a woman, joy, humor, the loneliness that comes with being a touring artist, and even self-love.
She had no plans of releasing it right then, but with the ability to tour postponed indefinitely, so was her music album. That’s what gave May the opportunity to release the poetry record instead.
When COVID-19 cast a cloud over the world, Imelda May faced similar hardships to other artists, and people in general. She became a stay-at-home mom, and briefly a teacher to her 7-year-old daughter, who’s in the second grade and is taking the changes in stride, May said. Luckily, they live in the London countryside and have the room to go outside safely.
“She’s glad I didn’t go on tour. She’s happy to have me home all the time,” May said. “I was homeschooling for a while. I found that tough, and she’s back in school now, which is fabulous.”
She doesn’t know when she’ll be able to tour again. At first her managers rescheduled tours, only to have to cancel them again.
“I don’t know how any musicians are ever going to be able to make a living again,” she said.
Two months into the pandemic, May lost her beloved pup, Alfie. The 13-year-old had been by her side throughout the rise of her music career, even traveling on her tour bus.
He became ill during the initial lockdown, and May wasn’t even able to get him inside a vet’s office because of restrictions.
“He was my boy, and he was family. He’s my soul dog, as I called him, and I loved him so much,” she said. “When I brought him to the vet that night, he was in my arms, and they could only see me outside. I had to lie with him on the ground of the car park of the vet. That was heartbreaking.”
The downtime allowed May the time to reflect on the positives of her life and grateful for having food, warmth and a roof over her head. Then she turned on the TV only to see footage of George Floyd being murdered by police in the U.S, followed by Rayshard Brooks.
Heartbroken again at the sight of racism not only in the U.S. but in her native Ireland, especially in what she was seeing from people who called themselves Irish, she penned a new poem called “You Don’t Get To Be Racist And Irish.”
The poem highlights the plight of the Irish people over centuries and ponders how those who were so often persecuted could in turn persecute other marginalized people. The poem caught the attention of Irish leaders and was displayed on billboards throughout the country in support of people of color, women, migrants, people with disabilities and the country’s LGBTQ+ community.
View this post on Instagram
“I was horrified by what was going on that I could see all around me and I was horrified by the audacity and the openness of racism that seems to be happening at the moment,” she said. “I was also disturbed by … how many people in America who consider themselves Irish, and in Ireland … speaking in ways I’d never heard before. It was really racist, and it shocked me because, I thought, we were the downtrodden. We were treated in such terrible ways in our history. We were pushed out of our own country.”
Imelda May is well-known in her home country, and her poem also caught the ire of the country’s far-right movement. She faced threats and hate online. Through it all, she sees a flame of hope. If she’s helped change the mind of one person to make them feel love, as the saying goes…
May was glued to her television in England as coverage of the U.S. election continued over close to a week.
“Everybody’s gone crazy over here watching it. Everybody’s up all night and exhausted,” she said a couple of days into vote counting. “It directly affects your child’s future as to which president is going to give a shit about the climate or the atmosphere. … If somebody doesn’t look at that, then we’re all fucked. It’s all of our problem.”
And that brings Imelda May to now, looking ahead to the release of her sixth album, likely next spring or summer. It’s all done, however. It will be her first collection of songs since 2017’s Life Love Flesh Blood, which saw a departure from the rockabilly sound that first brought her success.
Imelda May grew up with Irish roots music before first getting into jazz and blues, and finally punk, which influenced her rockabilly sound in the past. She said she knew when she was writing 2014’s Tribal that she was going to leave that sounds behind.
She switched to jazzier, meditative and soulful compositions. On the 2017 album, which followed her separation from her musician husband.
“I couldn’t go any further with it, and also, I felt I was pigeonholed,” she said. “I maybe had done a little of that to myself. Comfort is detrimental to creativity for me. I got to a point where I was comfortable, and I needed to shake it up. I needed to really shake it all up. I shook up my whole life. You try and tweak and you realize, ‘I need to start again and relearn about yourself as well.’”
May said the new record offers various different feels.
“I love the danger in it. There seems to be a theme that I like danger,” she said, laughing. “I like rebellion and I suppose, maybe, I needed to do some proper rebellin’ of my own. … I love the fact that I’ll just follow how I feel rather than tell myself how it should feel.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.