Imelda May is surely one of our best songwriters. Having been born and raised in Dublin, she began her career at 16 performing locally. Now, on the eve of releasing her sixth studio album ‘11 Past the Hour’, she is known worldwide and critically acclaimed. She has worked with some of the world’s greatest producers and artists and when releasing the debut single from this new album was able to call upon friends Noel Gallagher and Ronnie Wood to collaborate. She really is that rare thing of being an artist’s artist.
She feels emotions very deeply and these things are laid bare in her honest soul-searching writing style. It is almost impossible not to have a very deep response to her music making. I have been lucky enough to see her perform live and she really is a force of nature.
I was thrilled and honoured to chat with someone I consider one of our best artists and I hope you enjoy our chat which covered many subjects but ultimately was all about what has inspired the new release. Love!
EP: So, first new music since 2017. Is that a normal break between records or has the album been a victim of lockdown? Did it help having longer to work on the new music?
IM: Well, definitely lockdown has pushed the album back about a year. Things were certainly moving along quicker before that but it’s quite normal for me. When I tour something, I really go for it and then I like to try to take about a year off, or certainly take a couple of months off after touring, before my creative juices start again. Otherwise, for me, if I start writing after being on heavy touring, we just have albums about touring. You need more inspiration than that. Then, I take about a year to write an album and then start recording it, and having fun doing it. So, it’s quite normal for me to take two or even three years but within that time I’m working really hard, really going for it. I’m not just sitting back looking at the sky; I’m writing like mad, I’m recording like mad but yes, it’s definitely been put back.
EP: Talking about the album, its overflowing with all sorts of love and desires. Is this a glimpse inside your lockdown bubble? (laughing)
IM: (laughing) Sure, yeah! The album is full of love. I’ve been asked by a few people what the theme is but I never have a theme for an album, I just write what I’m feeling. It’s the same as any album I’ve done. I write exactly what I’m feeling on any particular day. I was listening to it all and there is a theme of love, but all love. Some songs are about romantic love, some songs about universal love. ‘Made to Love’ is about all of us. Yes, there’s plenty of lust and passion but then ‘Breathe’ is about love for the planet, loving where we live. It’s definitely the whole circle, the whole spectrum of love for sure.
EP: The last few years, if you don’t mind me saying, have been quite a tumultuous time for you personally with divorce and then finding new love recently. Did that help with the record, having so much quite raw emotion to draw upon?
IM: The last album, for me, feels like my first album really in many ways. I’ve had a kind of epiphany, for which I’m very grateful, and I suppose I write more honestly than ever. I’ve always written honestly, but I’ve found a way to hide what I wanted to say beneath a big screen of rock’n’roll. The rock’n’roll is definitely still there but I don’t hide what it is I want to say anymore. I’m quite happy to say it and that’s my truth, if you like. Life has always got its ups and downs as you’ll know, I’m sure, and you go through your array of emotions with all things in life because it always throws things at you and you just have to learn throughout it. I’m really happy at the moment.
EP: Do you find writing music is cathartic?
IM: Always, yes, always. It is like my diary. When you’re writing it, it’s very personal. I’m writing really personal things and then turning them into songs and poetry and you’re not necessarily thinking of anybody else hearing them and then they go out into the world and then you do interviews and you get asked about them and you go: “aaahh I’ve told them everything, how do you know that?”.
It’s a strange experience, for sure, but it’s what I need to do. Part of it is, somebody said to me once when I was worried about it; it was Victoria Mary Clarke (an Irish journalist and writer) actually, said: “maybe that’s your job, maybe that’s your role in the world to put into words what other people are feeling but can’t necessarily put into words” I was thinking, why do I do this? Why am I so honest? I have to write honestly, and she said: “because that’s the way you connect, that’s the way people connect to what you’re saying because it’s how they feel at that particular time” I’ve learned that, its life.
EP: I think that our great songwriters, and I’d include you in that group for sure, …
IM: Oh, wow…
EP: …. are able to articulate their feelings and I think a lot of people, normal people, are not allowed to, um, not able to articulate their feelings quite so well and so records like yours allow them to piggy back on your emotions a little and think: “that’s exactly how I feel” ….
IM: Yeah, you had a slip of the tongue there when you said “people are not allowed to..” and I think that’s also correct. A lot of the time people get themselves stuck in certain situations in life and you just have to hold it all in. You just have to crack on a lot of the time; there’s too much going on, especially now. I’m happy…. if somebody connects with a song of mine then its theirs, you know. It becomes theirs.
EP: Away from the music, and you spoke about turning your diary into poetry earlier, I read your poem about the rising tide of racism called ‘You Don’t Get to Be Racist and Irish’, which is incredible. Is that something you do a lot of? To be honest I didn’t realise you wrote poetry until I read that.
IM: I write poetry more than writing songs. If I could, without life getting in the way, I’d write poetry daily. I always have something on the go; I’ve got three at the moment that I’m just waiting for the opportunity to start working on. I love that, it works for me. I rarely turn them into songs…. there is one song on the album I turned from a poem into a song; it’s called ‘Solace’. I was writing with my friend Pedro Vito…we wrote a few things together. Actually, sidestepping for a minute, I co-wrote most songs on the album and for almost all of them it was because musically I’m not good enough as a guitarist to make them go where I want to go…. I’m a terrible guitarist. It limited me and it made me not want to pick up a guitar which made me get worse so I’m predominately a lyricist… I’ll do lyrics and melodies; that’s my strength so I decided to play to my strengths and working with other people, and their musical arrangements, was taking me to places I wouldn’t have gone without them. Pedro Vito was one of those and he plays so beautifully and we were writing together and we wrote this song. The two of us were incredibly hungover and I went out to get us a coffee to try and recover, and when I came back, he had my poetry book open on the table and said: “do you mind if I work on this, write some music to this?” They rarely bleed over but I’ve been writing poetry for a long time and its part of my life, it’s part of me; it’s something I have to do and if I don’t do it, it doesn’t feel right. It’s how I process things sometimes, it gives me time to process and articulate what it is I’m feeling, what I’m trying to say and that works for me. That’s why with interviews I like to take time with my words and what I want to say. That’s partly why I love writing.
EP: Were you surprised at the response to that particular poem? It obviously struck a nerve. It was a big thing, especially in Ireland.
IM: Yes, it was all over billboards all over the place. It was used for a beautiful inclusive campaign. I was one of many people they used but I was really glad about the response to that. It’s just what I was feeling at the time; I was cross, I was appalled and I was also confused. I was seeing the Black Lives Matter protests and then I saw a huge number of Irish Americans shouting that they were Irish and far-right and it made no sense to me. I thought, of all things, Irish people should have been the most understanding and empathic in somebody else’s struggle and rise from years of oppression and trying to fight for their culture. We’ve had so much of that and emigrated en masse, certainly after the famine, which wasn’t a famine at all; everybody knows its rightly called genocide which it was and it was one of the worst hungers ever recorded. People emigrated, went to other countries for a new life and then when you see the descendants of those brave people who left then becoming the oppressors….it blew my mind and that’s what made me write that. Then I saw the far-right movements getting stronger and gaining momentum in Ireland and England and all over Europe, it was ridiculous and so I’m happy it had a good reaction for sure but I think it’s also time for us to hear not my voice but the voice of the people that are being oppressed.
EP: Well, to be honest your words, like your songs, were able to articulate the confusion and strength of feeling that lots of people had, but were unable to express as beautifully as you did.
IM: It’s all about love isn’t it. That’s the big lesson in life; if you can learn just one lesson then it should be that it’s all about love. That’s really the crux of everything and I discovered somewhere along the line that there’s only two basic emotions. Scientists have discovered that all our emotions don’t come from love and hate, they come from love and fear and once you can get that into your head you can make sense of everything else around you; I’d rather live in love than in fear.
EP: Yes, I agree. It’s definitely a time for us to be kind to each other. Do you think lockdown and being thrown into very limited spaces has forced people to confront their feelings more because I’ve really noticed a theme in recent interviews …music releases and song writing has seemed much more personal and introspective than maybe it was in freer times?
IM: Good. I always write honestly so I’ve been there a long time. It’s not really changed for me; I’ve always gone deep, that’s the way I live. I’m quite extreme in that if I feel something, I really feel it. I am sensitive, I pick up on other people’s emotions as well and that’s what helps me write I suppose. I can pick up on what someone else is feeling and start writing about that, but I think for me lockdown is more to do with showing value definitely. It’s shown us the value in life and it’s shown us what we really miss isn’t being able to go out shopping or going on holiday. What we really miss is people; family and people we love. I couldn’t care less about going to another party, I miss being able to wrap my arms around all the people I love and we will do that again.
EP: On that theme, and please feel free to tell me to mind my own business, I understand that your Mum has not been very well. That must be heart-breaking for you that you can’t give her a hug and be with her. I understand that sadly she suffers from dementia. Have you found that music has enabled you to communicate? One of the incredible things about music is its ability to break through the fog of dementia.
IM: Oh yes, we sing. We always sing. I was singing over the phone with her and she joins in of course. Music is amazing. I worked in a nursing home for almost three years and that was one thing that I found magical there. We used to sing to people that had lost the ability to speak through strokes and couldn’t string a sentence together. I’d sing with them and the relief in their faces when they’d start singing back and, for some, the tears would be coming out of their eyes with the joy of being able to string a sentence together. It all works from a different part of the brain. Imagine being trapped in your own self, not being able to string those words together and then to be able to sing it. I think the power of music is magical.
EP: There’s an amazing video that went viral of an old lady who used to be a prima ballerina who has lost control of her body but when she is played the music from Swan Lake, she regains the body movement and grace of days gone by; it’s incredibly moving.
IM: I saw that…
EP: I really hope you get to hug your Mum soon.
IM: Thank you!
EP: You said that music is magical and the title of the new record, ‘Eleven Past the Hour’, has magical connotations doesn’t it. I lose track of the number of times I glance at my bedside clock and see 11:11 flashing at me. I’m glad it’s not just me….
IM: Well, I wrote a song about the fact I kept seeing 11:11 everywhere and I looked up to see what that was and, apparently, it’s a calling to be more intuitive and tuned in to the universe and the world. I was really interested in that and lately I have been delving into and studying all kinds of stuff about ancient ways of life.
Paganism is one of those with its symbols, and I’m finding it absolutely fascinating reading all about how, for me being brought up Catholic, a lot of their beliefs and rituals were taken from Paganism that had existed long, long before. They couldn’t stop it in people so they just changed it and adopted it, they totally took it.
I’ve been delving into that and the beauty of it and how much its attached and connected to nature. It makes way more sense to me with ancient Irish beliefs and Celtic beliefs. I’ve been looking at Aztecs and American Indians and it’s all linked and it’s all very beautiful but it’s all tied with the earth and the land and respect for nature. It seems to have less of the power struggle, greed and corruption that a lot of religions seem to have evolved into. So 11:11 for me was the beginning of a lovely journey. It awoke me.
I thought that if I am being called to be more intuitive and creative and tied into that, I should have a look so I’ve been reading and researching like mad and its very, very beautiful and fascinating to me how the planets align themselves at the right time, and numerology… it’s mind blowing when you start getting into it and I wrote a song about that. I wrote it with Pedro Vito and he’s very much of the same way of thinking too.
I was writing what I wanted to hear, what I wanted someone to say to me and I wrote it with a childlike need to be scooped up and told everything’s gonna be alright. We are all walking around pretending to be adults but we all need to be scooped up, arms wrapped around us and be told everything’s gonna be alright.
EP: And a record with that message couldn’t come at a better time. An album that looks at the whole spectrum of love is just what everyone needs right now.
IM: There’s love and there’s lust and there’s regret. There’s songs about the planet, about activism. It’s all those things because I was feeling all those emotions. I don’t know about you but we are almost feeling all of those emotions every day. I hope people will connect with that and I hope the album reflects all those things that we have going on. The theme throughout it is love and I mean universal love, for sure.
EP: It is tremendous and I wish you every success with the new record. It’s definitely an album for the times we live in. Take care and thank you.
IM: I’ve loved every second of making this album and I hope you can hear that in it. Thank you.