“Who here in the audience is Irish?”
Decked in a hip-hugging, striped pencil dress and crowned by her signature blond victory roll, Ireland’s most noted rockabilly revivalist Imelda May stands contrapposto under the hot lights of the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. It’s the first night of her band’s four-week-long North American tour. She beams as almost the entire crowd answers her question with resounding cheers.
“All right then,” she says, “Who here is not Irish?” Howls of pride could be heard from every corner of the room, but are modest compared to the previous eruption of applause. At a table nearby a man says, “Booo!” To which his date promptly elbows him in the arm. “Sorry!” he hisses. “Now, how many of you have ever been to Ireland?” Imelda asks. Save a few shy hollers, the room goes silent. “That’s okay,” Imelda says assuredly, “We’re all one big family!”
Family is quite a big deal for Imelda May. Born Imelda Mary Clabby, she grew up the youngest in a family of seven, crammed in a 2-bedroom house in Dublin with just one record player to share. While her parents favored old school staples like Judy Garland and Ray Ellis, her siblings constantly circulated everything from The Carpenters to The Specials and Meat Loaf (who she’s performed and collaborated with).
“I was raised with a big mixture of influences,” she says. “But I went crazy for early Elvis.” Although she appreciated David Bowie and Adam Ant like most teens in the 1980s, it was Elvis that inspired her to start a career in music. As a teen she landed her first paid gig singing a jingle for a local fish stick company, and soon after began slipping into jazz clubs to perform, despite the fact she was underage. Since then, she lays claim to a long list of honors; her second album, the self-produced Love Tattoo hit the#1 spot on Ireland’s album charts in 2009, and she boasts an impressive repertoire of guest performances with Wanda Jackson, Lou Reed, Jools Holland and Jeff Beck.
Though she’s met an array of superstars and traveled across the world and back, Imelda still manages to bring it all back home to her Irish roots. At the Bowery Ballroom she shares some folk history that inspired her song, “Hellfire Club,” a sinister rock ‘n’ roll shanty about a haunted building near Dublin. “Atop a hill stands what people call the Hellfire Club,” she says. “It was known for its women, drinking, gambling and…” She pauses before she adds, “Satan worshipping.” The crowd roars with applause. “Wow, you all are weird!” She laughs. “Well,” she continues, “It’s where my family would take us for a picnic as kids.” That’s when her husband Darrel Higham, who doubles as her band’s guitarist, takes it away with a menacing country riff.
Although she’s primarily a vocalist, she makes use of a variety of instruments in her performances, including a tambourine, a cabasa and the bodhrán, a traditional Celtic folk drum. “It’s a great instrument,” she says about the bodhrán, “And it all comes full circle. You can hear traditional Irish music in early American folk and bluegrass because people brought their fiddles over to the States,” she says. “Then the blues came along, then rock ‘n’ roll. And before you know it, punk bands like The Cramps and The Clash came around. Music travels, you know! It shouldn’t stay in one place.”
“But I’m not stuck in a time warp,” Imelda says. “I’m lucky to live in this time. I have decades and decades of fantastic music to listen to! I wish I could have a bigger brain to soak it all up. Every week I hear an artist I haven’t heard before. Especially now with the internet, it’s so easy to find music.”
Much has happened since she released her 2010 album, Mayhem; namely, the birth of her daughter Violet. The bedlam continues in her 2014 release, Tribal; yet she sees this album as an inquisition of human nature. In her video for her latest single, “Wild Woman,” she experiments with drag to convey the various facets of her personality, including an uptight secretary, rabble-rousing biker dude and Catwoman. “It’s about having different people trapped inside of you. Once you pass your teenage years you have more responsibilities and you have bills to pay, so you pick and choose which personality to show people. But once you scratch the surface, that wild, teenage animal is still there.”
Despite her added responsibility as mother, and especially a musician embarking on a world tour, Imelda’s intent on continuing her music career. “Like any working mother, you balance it because you have to!” she says. But she enjoys the support of her family, friends and band mates so that she can continue writing, producing and performing. “My daughter’s come with me on tour and she loves it,” she says. “Darrel is great at helping out. And in fact, my sister flew in so she could help watch my daughter on the road!”
With an air of serenity, Imelda looks back on the difficult times during which she penned her other 2014 single, “It’s Good To Be Alive.” First colored by the uncertainty of new motherhood, it culminates in a sanguine pop anthem for better days ahead. “I was just so tired that I couldn’t sleep at all,” she says. “I stayed up all night until I could watch the sunrise from my window. But everything changed– everything got so much brighter by the sight of the sun. And I just thought, “It’s good to be alive.”