If there’s one person who has every reason to use the words “rock out,” it’s Imelda May.
And she does. The Irish rockabilly queen, whose third album, “Tribal,” just launched in the US after debuting at #1 in Ireland and #3 in the UK,” chatted with IrishCentral on the eve of her US tour, which begins today in Providence and will bring her across the country to New Orleans, Austin, San Francisco and beyond.
How do May and her band like performing “Tribal” in comparison to previous albums “Mayhem” and “Tattoo Love”?
They love playing it live. “There’s more of a punk edge to it,” said May. “By the end of the shows people are totally revved up and we can all rock out.”
What was it like for her to work on “Tribal” as a new mother, when Violet, her daughter with husband Darrel Higham (who plays guitar in her band) was only five months old?
“It was very tiring, as it is for any new mother,” May explained. “She’d nap for maybe half an hour and I’d think – will I clean the house, will I wash myself, or will I write a song? There were so many other things I could have done but I had to write. I was rocking out in my mind and in my head. I enjoyed it!”
And how do she and Higham balance parenting with a busy tour schedule?
Violet goes with them. “I’m so lucky that I have a daughter and I can bring her,” May, who turned 40 this year, said of their two-year-old. “She’s having a great time. She gets to see the world, hear different languages, try different foods. She loves it, loves the tour bus. We still rock out.”
“Tribal,” as an album, commands the listener to rock out, with May’s signature blend of rockabilly, blues, punk, jazz, retro sassiness, and no-nonsense Dublin Liberties attitude working its magic on foot-stomping tunes like “Wild Woman,” more pop-y numbers like “It’s Good to be Alive, and “Little Pixie,” a sweet and still strong tribute to her daughter.
The lyrics to “Little Pixie” were penned by her brother Fintan, who wrote a poem for Violet shortly after she was born.
“He was a little embarrassed, but he gave me the poem and I read it and said this is amazing. When I got home, I knew it was a song, so I sat down and wrote out a melody of it. I didn’t tell him I did it until we had recorded it,” she said.
It was also Fintan who nudged May to write “Hellfire Club,” which puts one of Dublin’s scariest local legends to music. The abandoned Hunting Lodge on Montpelier Hill, was home to the Hellfire Club in the 1700s. The story goes that one stormy night a stranger came to the door, was invited inside, and joined in on a card game. It wasn’t until one of the players dropped a card and went to pick it up that he saw the stranger had hoofs instead of feet – it was the Devil himself.
May (born Imelda May Clabby) told IrishCentral that when she was little her parents would take her and her siblings (she’s the youngest of five) for picnics on Montpelier Hill. “The view was beautiful, but we used to scare the lights out of each other!” she said, laughing.
The title track, “Tribal,“ is a fierce and proud anthem to the things that make us stand out and bind us together.
“Standing in a crowd, I hold my head up proud / What’s right for you for me it may be wrong / It’s great to be different but have something to belong,” she croons. “When you look in the mirror, tell me what do you see / Someone new or your ancestry / You’re a king, you’re a queen, you’re a wizard, a fool / or if you’re me then rockabilly rules.”
May said that writing “Tribal” had been on her mind for some time. “I had the title and I knew what I wanted it to be about. I was interested in writing a song about how even when you want to be different you still want to belong. Like if you’re a goth kid in school and you see another goth kid, you’ll be naturally drawn to him.
“I love that we’re all tribal. It can have a negative light, of course, but it’s great if you take it lightheartedly – this is my tribe, this is where I’m from, this is my family.
What are Imelda’s tribes? “Irish, that’s a great tribe. I’m also a Dub, an inner city Dub, and there’s my family and my music.”
And sometimes, the audience becomes her tribe too. “When you have a great night, the electricity that passes between the band and the audience, that moment belongs to everyone in the room,” she said.
Her newest adventure, “The Imelda May Show” on RTE, is re-connecting her with one of her first tribes – Irish artists working hard for that first big break.
The show, four episodes in to its first season, brings together legendary stars with emerging artists, giving them a chance to perform for a wider audience. Guests so far include big names like Sinead O’Connor, Wanda Jackson, Hozier, and The Script, and stars on the rise including The Riptide Movement, Hudson Taylor and Seraphim Kelly.
“I’m still learning but I like learning,” May shared. “This is something that I never wanted to do. I was asked to be a judge on the Irish version of The Voice and I had to turn it down because I didn’t want to judge anybody, but I love bands and I wanted to give them a platform.
“Other shows are more TV shows than music shows, they’re about who wins. I thought there needed to be more music shows. There are so many phenomenal bands in Ireland right now, probably as a result of the recession; people are drawn to the arts, they’re more creative.”
So while she may have never wanted to be a TV presenter, May, who got one of her big breaks on the Jools Holland Show, fully understands the doors a TV spot can do for someone’s career. Bringing everything full circle, Holland was one of the guests on the first episode.
She recalled that when you’re young and trying to make it, “it’s always going to be tough, there’s never a magic wand moment. For me it’s something I can’t not do, does that make sense? I think as long as you put your heart and soul into it, make music that means something to you, then you can hold your head high.”
“Ireland could also do with more music venues,” she added, “there used to be loads.”
May and her band, Higham, Al Gare, Steve Rushton and Dave Priseman will be making thirteen stops on the US tour, starting tonight in Providence, Rhode Island, and ending on October 12 at Austin City Limits in Texas.
“I love going to America!” she gushed. “I think people get the music, because it is essentially American roots music, though there’s Irish and all sorts of other influences there too.
“Ireland and America, music wise, are very closely related. The Irish came over with their fiddles in hand, and you can hear it in the bluegrass and rockabilly. I love it when music from different countries combine.”
Then there are the classic American diners, which Imelda, with her ‘50s vixen style and blonde front curl, probably looks completely at home in.
“I love them! They’re one of my favorite things,” she said. “I always order too much because the portions are so much bigger than they are here. They bring out three plates and they’re all for me! I never learn.”
For tour dates, to purchase “Tribal,” or to let Imelda know about an awesome classic diner in your state, click here.