THE BRUISED BUT STILL BEATING, BRILLIANT, BURSTING HEART OF IMELDA MAY
From the very first time I heard Imelda May‘s new single, ‘Black Tears’, what struck me about it – and in equal parts because of how Imelda conveys the song to the listener as to the sheer emotional honesty and beauty of the song itself -, is that ‘Black Tears’ is, in essence, the same kind of gorgeous, vulnerable, naked-truth country song that Patsy Cline would have loved to sing. Indeed, had ‘Black Tears’ been a song recorded by Patsy before her untimely departure from this worldly stage, I believe it would now be ranked among the most classic of Patsy’s own recordings, from ‘Crazy’, to ‘I Fall To Pieces’, ‘Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray’, and more.
As a country music fan, I don’t know if I can pay Imelda any higher compliment.
But the brilliance of this song, and the brilliance of Imelda as a performer, and an artist, is that ‘Black Tears’ travels down a road that weaves from country to soul (channeling Patsy Cline one moment, Aretha Franklin the next) but importantly…., no, vitally…,there’s never even a moment’s doubt about whether song or singer might be gambling their integrity in an attempt to ‘act’ out a role they think the public will embrace.
This isn’t acting out a part. This song, ‘Black Tears’, is from the heart. And this artist, Imelda May, is a born storyteller. Of that there’s nothing surer. Simple, honest, storytelling from the heart, now that’s about as country as you can get. And as far as this writer is concerned, on the evidence of ‘Black Tears’, and the preceding single, ‘Call Me’ (which also sounds like it was written with an almost magical, timeless quality somehow imbued), Imelda‘s new album, ‘Life.Love.Flesh.Blood’, is going to be one of THE country albums of the year.
It was my pleasure to chat to Imelda late last week, and my first question was how did she decide on those two songs in particular to be the first new music we’d get to hear from her in quite a while….
“Good question. Well ‘Call Me’ I wanted as the first one out, although it’s funny because it was the last one I wrote for the album, and yet it was the first one that we recorded. I had just finished writing it when I was in the studio with T-Bone (Burnett, the album producer), so it was the first one we recorded. And it just seemed to set up the mood right for the whole album. So it seemed to fit well for releasing it as a single too, because it’s quiet and simple, and I think I just wanted something with…a little stillness, if you like, to start off the rest of the album.”
‘Call Me’ is so much different to what many would have expected in a new single from Imelda. And in truth, lesser artists would have gone down the much safer route of coming back with something they already knew their fans would love and accept. So given that ‘Call Me’ is such a departure from Imelda‘s signature and adored rockabilly sound, was she in any way nervous about how it would be received?
“No, I was confident about it. I normally know what I wanna do, Anthony, and I’m not easily swayed [laughs]. I will listen, of course I will, but I knew [this was what I wanted]. The record company were putting up different options, but I knew all along that I wanted to start with ‘Call Me.’ Because like I said, it was the first song that we actually recorded and I really feel that it set up the whole record so well. It got rid of all those preconceived ideas of what people might expect me to do. I hoped the mood of the song would resonate with people.”
The response to Imelda‘s recent performance with Jools Holland on his annual Hootenanny is probably best described as phenomenal! In fact, if you haven’t seen it yet, drop everything, RIGHT NOW, and go check it out. Then come on back to us here… We’ll wait for you….
So, as you guys will already have known, or will have just seen if you followed my advice, the reason why Imelda‘s performance has drawn the kind of response it has is quite simply down to it being one of those rare moments where you know, even as you watch something happen right in front of your eyes, that it’s a moment destined to replayed and rewatched, and relived and spoken about for…., well, forever in all likelihood! It was as if Imelda‘s spirit had been unleashed, but in the most perfectly controlled, passionate, and dignified way. If you watch it back again (go on, you know you’ll want to anyway), keep an eye out for the biggest smile on Jools’ face right at the very end. He knows something special is after happening.
I wondered if, during that performance, Imelda had any sense of how it was coming across to people in the studio and at home? Can she feel that kind of a connection even during a song, or does it just sweep over her at the end?
“Sometimes you can, sometimes you can feel the stillness in the room, ya know. But there were so many good artists on that show. I love Jools to bits, by the way, he’s a great man and a really, really good friend. I love him, he’s such a good soul. And after the rehearsals the day before we went out for dinner and had a lovely evening just catching up, and everything was all calm and nice. When we went in to record it then, when the cameras started rolling, I was aware of everybody else who was going to be on the show, and that it was such a high standard. I love Seasick Steve, I love Gregory Porter, all these great, great acts. So I knew I only had one shot. I didn’t have three songs, so I wouldn’t be able to redeem myself [laughs]. I had one shot to get it right, and that was it. So the best way for me to do that is to forget about everybody else and go inward. And I think it helps if you write a song too. Because as soon as I went to where I was [emotionally] when I wrote it, and I start feeling it, I just mean every word that I sing. It’s almost like telling a story. And then I just hope that it’s a good performance. It really is more like a story put to music than anything, and all I’m doing is just being honest and saying what I’m feeling to that music. So I’m not thinking, ‘Oh my God, THIS is the performance’, or ‘Oh my God, there’s a camera over there.’ I just close my eyes, and centre myself, and then sing from my heart. And hopefully the rest will follow.”
On the subject of Imelda‘s songwriting, she had said that where this new album was concerned, she had written about everything – the good and the bad, the happy and the sad – as it was happening in her life. I wondered if she would most often write when she’s in the midst of whatever might be going on in her life, or would she more often prefer some distance from things in order to write with a clearer or different perspective on what might have happened?
“I have a notepad with me at all times, and if for some reason I haven’t, I’ll find the back of envelopes or something! And I have sort of an ‘album-bag’ for each album, where if I write something I just shove it in there, and then go through them all later. I write down titles, and I scribble, and I doodle, ya know. So for ‘Black Tears’, that was one I wrote down the title of after I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror when I’d been crying, and my face was streamed with black [make-up]. And the image just hit me, ya know, so I wrote it down later on that night. I co-wrote that with a great guy called Angelo Petraglia, who’s written with the Kings of Leon. I turned up to his place and spent a few days writing with him. So he just started playing this riff while I was looking through my notepad, and I tried a few other things but as soon as I started singing ‘Black Tears’ (at THIS point, Imelda May sings to me down the phone….Best. Friday. Ever! Part 1…), it just sat so well. So we kept at it, he kept playing that riff, then he goes into that beautiful middle, and I continued to write…And it was one of those songs where, yeah, there was a little distance. Now ‘Call Me’ I wrote when I was literally in the middle of that situation, I was sitting watching my phone! So it depends. Whatever works! Sometimes I just use it as therapy, ya know, to write. When I did another song, ‘Should Have Been You’, I recorded it into my phone under the covers of my bed. Ya know that moment where you could actually fall asleep, or you could actually do something? So I sang it into the phone, the beginnings of it, and then I worked on it more the next day.”
And then came my Best. Friday. Ever! Part 2….
Imelda: “You’re obviously a writer by the way you ask [your questions]”
Me: ‘Well, a little bit…’
Imelda: “You are, because you know too much! [laughs].
Me: [Blushing] “I’ll take that as a compliment…!”
Imelda: “It is a compliment, the way you’re asking your questions, I can tell.”
Regaining my composure, and with one eye on the clock because I was aware there was somebody else in the queue for Imelda‘s time and waiting for the chance to speak with her, I wanted to move on to one last question, this time about the new album, ‘Life.Love.Flesh.Blood’, as a whole body of work. Imelda could hardly have picked four better words to encapsulate the totality of the human experience. So I wondered if this new album would reveal more of Imelda May ‘the person’, as opposed to previous albums which were probably more focused on Imelda May, ‘the performer’?
“Yes. Absolutely. Very much. And it’s slightly nerve-racking! [laughs].But yeah, I mean I always wrote honestly. But when you’re writing, with your first album say, you have a freedom to just write. When things go well, though, it gets kind of weird to be aware that people might actually listen to it! [laughs]. So if you’re writing honestly, as you’ll know, there’s ways of writing honestly but also hiding things in there that only you know the key to, the secret of. I always wrote everything into my songs, but I’d hide them. I’d hide things very well and only I would know that secret code, if you like. But on this one, I didn’t want to do that. You know that poem, ‘Sing like there’s nobody listening/ And dance like there’s nobody watching…’, I wanted to do that. To just write what I actually felt, and what I wanted to write, without thinking about anybody else. It’s quite a selfish process, but I think it has to be to get it right. You need to not think of anybody else and just write for yourself and what you feel at that time. So now I’m just gonna hold my breath and see how it goes! [laughs]. This album is very transparent, everything’s there. So we’ll see how it goes. Fingers crossed!”
I also happen to work in a record store, TRAX, in Tullamore, in Offaly in Ireland. And every day for about a week after Imelda‘s performance on Jools Holland, we had five, six people a day, at least, asking about Imelda‘s new album. And this was a little piece of news that gave Imelda reason to smile…
“Oh wow! That’s really, really, really good news to hear! And I love that you work in a record shop, and I love people going out and buying records! I’m one of those people, too, I like to have the physical record.”
I could have happily stayed on the line to Imelda for at least another hour or so if I had the chance, but as is the case when you’re talking to someone who’s such a big star and who has a new album to promote, the demands on their time are simply huge. And anyway, even as it was, I was delighted to have enjoyed my share of her time.
New albums generally mean new tours too, so my very last question was to ask Imelda is she looking forward to getting back out on the road again with ‘Life.Love.Flesh.Blood’?
“I cannot wait! I cannot wait! I’ve been in rehearsals, and I’ve added to my band, it’s now a ten-piece band! And all that brings with it, which is gonna be fun! [laughs]. Loads of people on a bus! But yeah, I can’t wait. I’ve been getting such a thrill out of rehearsals, having my band play these new songs, and just having the guys around me and everything sounding how I heard them sound in my head. Cos’ when you’re writing, you’ll hear them a certain way. So now to have them sound that way, yeah, I’m absolutely thrilled with it and I can’t wait to get out there on the road. I can’t wait!”
Having gone about a minute over my time, I mentioned to Imelda that I didn’t want to upset her record label by running any further over, but her playful and charming side came to the fore once again in reassuring me that there was no problem…
“Ah look, it’s always good to rebel! [laughs].”