As charming and cool in person as she is on record, Imelda May has just released her new album 'Mayhem'. She talks to Harry Guerin about happiness, success and keeping a dream alive.
Harry Guerin: I've seen you play live a couple of times and what always come across is the sheer joy you get from what you do and how lucky you feel to be doing it.
Imelda May: I love it. I'm not jaded; I'm really loving it. For most musicians, I suppose, or anyone self-employed it's great to get work. That's out of this world compared to some of the jobs I've done, where you're counting every second of the day. And I don't do that now. When you've good songs and a good band - and I have a terrific band, if I say so myself - and a good atmosphere and a good audience everybody's up for a good night.
HG: With your new album 'Mayhem' your sound is moving out in different directions. People may have had you down as a rockabilly singer from your breakthrough album 'Love Tattoo', but it's getting harder to pigeonhole you.
IM: I hope so. I think most people, same as myself, have a broad taste in music. Most people like a good mixture of stuff and life throws up different stuff as well - mad times and soft times. So it wasn't thought out [the variety of styles], but I don't think it was too accidental that it happened like that either.
HG: You didn't take much of a break from touring 'Love Tattoo' to recording 'Mayhem'. Did you feel any pressure or stress finishing up one very successful album and then going straight back into the studio?
IM: This new album, I didn't feel any pressure on it. People have being saying to me, 'Oh it must've been hard doing another album' [but] it's what I do and it's what I love to do. The only stress I'd say that I had was convincing the record company to let me produce it, because that's unusual. I'd done quite a decent job on 'Love Tattoo' but it was very basic. I wanted it to be basic; I wanted to capture a live sound. On this one I wanted to do a bit more production on it but I didn't want to lose the charm of the last one. I wanted just to have a bit more fun with it and maybe get better mics in or better equipment in - you can hear the slap of the bass, that kind of stuff. I wanted it to be a step up but [to] not lose the plot either.
So that was my only stress, trying to convince them [the label] because they were trying to set up meetings with big shot producers and I wasn't into it at all. When they heard what I was doing - because I secretly went in and started working on it! - they were happy with it and then they backed me.
HG: One of the standout songs on 'Mayhem' is the ballad 'Kentish Town Waltz', which chronicles the lean times you experienced living in London before your success. Was that a difficult song to write?
IM: No. Once I get an idea for a song I don't find them too difficult; I start running away with it. Then I'll leave it for a bit and I'll go back and I'll arrange it and fix it and make sense of it more and give it a structure.
HG: And it was easy to write lyrically?
IM: Yeah, I was just remembering how it was. Once I got into there [those times] it was easy. It was just true. It just comes out and that was the way it was.
HG: Was there ever a time when you thought about abandoning your hopes of a career in music?
IM: I wasn't always doing it [singing] to make it as such. I was doing it because it's what I do, and definitely it's a big part of me. Same as songwriting: I'd never stop writing songs, even if nobody ever heard them. There are plenty of people who write songs and poetry and stories and nobody ever hears them.
It just so happens... I don't know whether it's ambition or what, but I just like to push it and see what happens. If you're doing really awful gigs you think, 'Oh surely we can do better than this!' and you'll push for a better gig and you'll push for a better standard on stage. 'Will they feed us?', 'Let's try and do somewhere that has a dressing room'. Bit by bit, I'd push it along. I'd just move and constantly go with it [by] trying to work hard, improve my own abilities, improve my songwriting, make sure the band were nice and tight. As you improve and work hard things just naturally follow. I'd still be doing it if it didn't go well, though!
HG: The other thing that really comes across when you play live is that your success is as much for your family as it is for yourself - you're getting just as much joy out of seeing them enjoy it as you are from the success yourself.
IM: Well noticed. I love them to bits, they're great, and they've always been supportive. There was no 'Ah stop this and get a real job'. My Dad would ring me up and say, 'Go on!'. When times were hard and there weren't gigs coming in I'd still strive to get gigs, but I would get other jobs to keep going - cleaning, working in a garage, a launderette and nursing homes. I did all kinds of stuff to be able to afford to do the gigs. Sometimes you wouldn't get paid at all [for the gigs] or you might get £50 off the door but I would still have to pay my band. So I would have to make sure that I got some money to pay them.
My parents and my family, all my cousins, my aunties and my uncles, you wouldn't believe how supportive they were. Sometimes we hadn't got an audience; it was just my family! I remember we did a gig in Power's in Kilburn in London, not that long ago, and I rang up and said, 'How's the ticket sales?' and they said, 'We've sold like seven'. I rang my cousin Martina who lives in London and she said, 'I'll ring around'. She brought all her friends, more family came over… and we got 20! [Laughs]
'Mayhem' is out now on Decca.