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Imelda May

A Champion of Wonderful Women

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Born and raised in The Liberties area of Dublin, Imelda May has become one of Ireland’s most famed female artists in history. Her sixth studio album, 11 Past The Hour (mostly written with co-producer Tim Bran and string arranger Davide Rossi) brims with sensuality, emotional intelligence, spirituality and intuition. These past 12 months, she says, “I’ve never been busier – I think it’s because people know where I am and realise they can get hold of me the whole time! I’ve been mixing, recording, promoting in lockdown, and then doing impromptu live videos to make people happy. I’m hearing everybody saying they’re bored but I haven’t got there yet.” From her Hampshire countryside home – outside which a large hare (“highly regarded in Irish mythology”) is present at the start of the conversation – she talks admirable women, tomato sauce, and working to live.

Your space looks lovely.

Oh yeah, I’m very lucky. I’m out in the middle of nowhere which is great, plenty of space.

That’s a blessing during lockdown – how have you been emotionally these past 12 months?

I think, same as everybody else, I’ve probably felt every emotion, ever, sometimes all in the space of one day!

Under normal circumstances, are you a family of big gatherings?

Yeah, normally there’ll be plenty of family and friends. I’m in the countryside, most of my friends are in London, so I’m the summer house, the country estate. When they come here, there tends to be a gang, and they stay for a weekend, a week, or more. This is a good party house. When I say party, I mean with kids and dogs; we just sit around and eat, yapping for days. I’ve missed that incredibly. 

Moving onto 11 Past The Hour, we’ve been listening all day, it’s beautiful.

Thank you, I’m glad you like it, and thanks for taking the time.

It’s your first album in a few years and it’s an explosive return. For your new single, ‘Just One Kiss’, you’re joined by Noel Gallagher on vocals and Ronnie Wood on guitar… how did that come about?

They’re both pals of mine and I just asked them. Ronnie said yes, Noel said ‘send me the track’, I did, and he said ‘yeah, let’s do it.’ I was lucky we got to record it together; it was one of those times where you could have six people – all that kind of stuff – so we managed to record it live which was amazing. You cannot replicate the vibe when you’re recording remotely, it’s much nicer to be together. We had a really good time, and they’re both amazing, so cool in their own way.

Both pros in the studio, right?

Oh my God, Ronnie’s solo is insanely amazing, as soon as he plays the whole place just stops and looks. People are knocking on the door from other studios, going ‘oh my God, is that Ronnie?’ He just has that sound that you know is him immediately, and Noel’s voice is amazing – I’m a fan of his anyway, his songwriting is great, I love High Flying Birds.

Who else joins you on the album?

I have Miles Kane on ‘What We Did In The Dark’. I’ve known him for a long time, I think we met at T in the Park a million years ago and stayed pals. He’s perfect for that song and I knew he would be. I asked Gina Martin and Shola Mos-Shogbamimu to join me on ‘Made To Love’ – Ronnie as well – they’re wonderful activists and feminists and both really important to me. I wanted them to bring their wonderful energy to ‘Made To Love’, about acceptance and love. The whole album is about love in all its forms. Romantic love, human love, interaction love we miss so much. ‘11 Past The Hour’ is about wanting to be scooped up and told everything is alright in a kind of childlike love. ‘Breathe’ is from the viewpoint of the earth, trees, and planet, and how we have to love those.

It’s about self-love too.

100 per cent. I was raised Catholic and I remember I was taught to love your neighbour as yourself and love your god. A lot of people thought that was two loves, but if you read into it, it’s actually three: your neighbour, yourself, and your god. I’m not Catholic anymore, or anything, organised religions haven’t served us well, but I think that’s quite a lovely thing whether you’re religious or not. It’s the basis of everything, isn’t it? Love people around you, love yourself, and love something bigger than all of us – whether that’s Mother Nature, the earth, or planets. I still try to live my life by that in a non-religious way. It’s a really basic and beautiful way to live.

We interviewed Cerys Matthews in our January edition –

I love Cerys, she’s a pal of mine, wonderful woman.

– so cool. She put out a poetry album this year with Hidden Orchestra and a whole assortment of great poets. She wants to bring poetry to new territory, so it isn’t just stuck on academic shelves. Is that in keeping with your ethos in terms of poetry? (Last year you released a poetry EP, Slip Of The Tongue.)

Yes, and I bought Cerys’ album, it only arrived last week, I’m delighted, I’ve got it on vinyl. I’ve been writing poetry for a long time, and Cerys has been reciting poetry on her radio show forever. I think we are similarly minded in that way; that art involves so many parts but it’s all linked, whether it’s songwriting, poetry, or cooking (I have a fabulous cookbook that Cerys wrote). I think maybe the Welsh have a similar view to poetry as the Irish. In Ireland, if you’re sat in the back of a taxi and ask the driver to tell you their favourite poem, they will have one and recite it to you willingly. We have such a rich culture and it’s embraced by all, it’s not elitist. I was brought up surrounded by music, literature, poetry, dance, and art. One of my uncles was a newspaper delivery man, and an oil painter in his spare time. My other uncle was a taxi driver and poet in his spare time. My dad was a dance teacher and ended up giving it up to be a painter and decorator for the local council – but still had dance in his bones. So, in Ireland art is part of life – and it’s accepted that you work to live, not live to work.

Back to cooking, have you always found time in your career to get in the kitchen and prepare a family meal?

Always. The hub of this house is the kitchen. A few years ago, I knocked down a wall, so I have a big kitchen. It’s not flashy, it hasn’t got shiny granite tops or anything, but it’s open and you can feel the love and laughter in the walls. It’s normally full of people. Before COVID happened, I had one of my best friends Sarah’s hen night in my house. I think I had 16 women here. I was feeding them massive breakfasts – and champagne mostly.

Speaking of your house, you had to record bits of 11 Past The Hour there.

Oh yeah, loads, and I had to mix it from home which took way longer than it would have done had I been in the studio, but I’m delighted with it. Tim Bran and I produced it (and Cam Blackwood did a couple of songs) and were just back and forth the whole time on email into the wee small hours. I recorded a few of my backing vocals just into my phone and we managed to fit them in.

Does recording at home mean you don’t worry about making mistakes?

I’ve always recorded like that; I’ve never been afraid to make mistakes. I’ve been gigging and recording for most of my life. Whether I’m recording in a studio or whether I’m live, I’m ok with making mistakes on things. I like it to be real, I like it to be what it is. I’ve never used autotune, I’ve never mimed, every vocal you hear on every album I’ve ever done is real. That’s the way I work, otherwise I don’t see the point.

You also managed to do a gorgeous photoshoot during the past 12 months.

That was when, if you were working, you were allowed six people at a distance, and you were allowed outside. So, we just went for a walk through the local woods. Blistering hot day, a couple of outfits, changing behind the trees, I was doing my makeup, at one point I was even cutting my hair in a little mirror. Eddie Otchere is the best photographer and did such a great job. It’s one of my favourite photoshoots ever, there was no pressure, and I’m really comfortable because it’s not a big setup photoshoot which, to be honest, I hate – I’m not a fan of fuss.

When live shows are a thing again, which places are you eager to play?

All of them!

Glastonbury has been cancelled again but hopefully Cornbury Music Festival will go ahead in 2021 – how many times have you played Cornbury?

More times than I can remember! I’m definitely the Cornbury queen. I’m not crowning myself that because I’m the best at Cornbury, just because I’ve almost never not done it! Every time I go back, I always see a gang of familiar faces, so I love playing there – it’s a beautiful festival. It lands around my birthday so every time I’ve played it, it tends to be me and a gang of my family or friends turning it into a party. Also, my first manager, Hugh Phillimore runs it. I don’t get to see him anymore, so I use it as a bit of a catchup. He’s a great man, lovely, he really believes in Cornbury and he’s put his neck on the line for it quite a few times – I’ve always admired him for that.

It’s always a risk, putting on a festival.

Anybody who puts on a festival is mad, and I’m delighted they are, and very grateful. It’s a really tough business and I admire all those who run festivals.

With regards admiration, this is our women’s edition, which women do you most admire?

I’m certainly influenced by my mother, a strong, opinionated woman. She did her own thing, got married later than all her friends, married a younger man, and had me when she was 48. She loved dancing, she was a headstrong woman, a massive influence – like my auntie. I fell in love with Billie Holiday when I was 16, then I got into Bessie Smith, and Patti Smith, and Debbie Harry. It has greatly helped me to look at the Vivienne Westwoods of this world, who dance by their own tune. That’s the woman I aspire to be. The Joan Jetts, Janis Joplins, Aretha Franklins, you know they must have been extra amazing because they had to work twice as hard to be heard. I am certainly a champion of wonderful women and try to spread the word about women I admire. I’m a massive fan of men and women, it’s not a competition, but if you look around your room now, at your books, records, and paintings, I guarantee it’s almost all men – and almost always white men. I have Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats, Grayson Perry, Francis Bacon, Leonard Cohen, and they’re all absolutely amazing, but I want to hear everybody’s voice. So, I’ve got many women and people of colour as well – poets, writers, artists; Frida Kahlo, Kate Tempest, Nina Simone, Reni Eddo-Lodge – to have a full view and a much more colourful story. If you were to go into a room full of amazing people, you wouldn’t say ‘I’d like to hear just the guys in here speak.’ Look at your collection of art, in whatever form, and realise what it is you have. Keep that and value it… but add to it. Think, ‘What female poets do I want to hear from?’ It’s our duty to improve our personal collections of the arts, to let the next generation know that – whether they’re boys, girls, trans, gay, straight, black, white, or mixed race – all their voices are valued.

What have you got planned for this evening?

I’m off to do TikTok’s feta cheese and tomato pasta with my daughter. I’ve been doing it for ages without the feta and nobody’s taken a blind bit of notice, but because it’s a hit on TikTok they’ve all realised it’s a thing! My friends have known me to do this for ages, the best tomato sauce you can do: fill a baking dish with cherry tomatoes, garlic, oil, salt and pepper; throw it in the oven for 20 minutes, take it out, add a bit of basil, stir it all up and that’s it. And now people have started putting a lump of feta cheese in the middle.

11 Past The Hour (Decca Records) is out 23 April.

Photography: Eddie Otchere

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