Touring America for the first time, Irish rockabilly/blues singer Imelda May sounds like a giddy schoolgirl. Except she prefers to go back to old school.
There's a lot of U.S. history behind the music May loves, which she is eager to study. That's why, during a brief visit in September with her band to promote her latest album, Love Tattoo, May planned some sightseeing excursions to places like Chess Recording Office and Studio in Chicago, then former punk nightclub CBGB in New York before opening up for Chuck Berry at B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill. She previously visited New Orleans, where she played in the House of Blues with Dr. John and recorded vocals for Dark Streets, a gangster movie set in 1930s New York starring Bijou Phillips.
Now she hopes to teach Americans a thing or two about herself. May is a genuine throwback, a sexy seductress who'll knock you out just as quickly with her dynamite voice as her sultry looks. Wearing a tight leopard-print dress and with her trademark quiff, a streak of blond running through brunette hair tied back in a long ponytail, May seems made for the Fifties. More Bettie Page than Betty Boop, she wasn't born yesterday. But make no mistake. This is one fresh face.
Americans often hit the pause button while the rest of the universe fast-forwards to check out the latest talent. It's time to press play for Imelda May. Voted "Best Irish Female" singer (Lisa Hannigan and Gemma Hayes were among the nominees) at the 2009 Meteor Ireland Music Awards (on St. Patrick's Day, no less) and declared "The Next Big Thing" by The Daily Mail, May also has some heavyweight support behind her. Among those included are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarists Jeff Beck and David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and influential British TV icon/former Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland. Watch out world. May Day has arrived.
"I don't tend to set out on huge world domination goals or have anything in mind. I just like to play; I like to gig a lot; I like to write music," May said humbly over the phone after landing in Los Angeles last week.
But she wasn't discovered overnight. May has paid her blues dues, working in the business for "about 19 years," singing with accomplished musicians who performed with such Irish acts as Van Morrison and Hothouse Flowers.
The youngest of five children growing up in the Liberties area of Dublin, May has a brother (Fintan) who continually rocked to Elvis, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran records, a father (Tony) who was a dance teacher and a mother (Madge) who listened and sang to the radio every night before falling asleep. She credits all of them with providing musical appreciation and inspiration.
"I started gigging when I was about 16, and I was way too young to be in the clubs," she recalled.
These old players in the blues bands ... used to be down there jamming away late at night and they used to sneak me in; so I'd be jamming away with them; I think I was the novelty kid that could sing a bit. And I watched and I listened and I learned.
And I went down there every Monday night and my parents let me; my dad used to pick me up early in the morning before he went to work. They knew I was obsessed about music. I just absolutely loved it; I couldn't get enough of it, you know? So it was a good thing to learn. And I suppose it was the proper, old-fashioned way of learning music. Instead of going to a big, fancy joint, you just go to a natty old club (laughs). I was really lucky to be working with some of the best musicians in Dublin and they took me under their wing and I listened, I watched and I learned a helluva lot those couple of years down there.
After singing in burlesque clubs ("I still do sometimes," she said) like the Candy Box in Birmingham, England, playing in Mike Sanchez's rhythm and blues band and the Blue Harlem swing troupe and - as Imelda Clabby (her birth name) - making a record of mostly covers (2003's No Turning Back) in her bedroom, May decided to break away and form her own band. "I was really itching to do my own thing," she said. "You know, you get itchy feet. It spurred me on then to record my own album with most of my own songs. And I've been writing since." Another album is already in the works, and she uses timeless tools like a pen ("I wreck the back of most of my envelopes scribbling on them") and a ukulele to compose her material.
Love Tattoo has been out for more than a year in Europe (it's been on the United Kingdom charts since October and was No. 1 in Ireland this summer), but wasn't released in the U.S. until August 11, by Verve Forecast. Ten of the 12 songs were written by May, and they include swinging singles ("Johnny Got A Boom Boom"), smoldering blues romps ("Big Bad Handsome Man," "Smotherin' Me") and Dave Edmunds/Rockpile-like rave-ups ("Love Tattoo," "Wild About My Lovin' "). Listen with your eyes closed to the romantic ballad "Meet You At The Moon," though, and you'll swear you've been transported in a time machine back to Hollywood's Coconut Grove of the Forties.
All are Big Daddy-O, hep-cat retro-cool, yet done with a fresh take. The boogie-woogie, doo-wop sound is powered by guitarist Darrel Higham, an exceptional musician who has released about 20 CDs as a solo artist and leader of his own band, the Enforcers. While he has performed with legendary artists from Paul McCartney (at the wedding of Sir Paul's daughter Stella) to Jeff Beck to the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, his relationship with May goes beyond music. They have been together since May moved to London in 1998, then she and her "Big Bad Handsome Man" got married earlier this decade. (May and Higham are shown at The 100 Club in March 2008 in a photo taken by Eric Guy.)
Also on the record were a slap-happy Al Gare on double bass and hot horn player Dave Priseman, who round out the touring band of Billy Boppers, along with drummer Steve Rushton, who also has played with Beck and Hynde.
May, Higham and the band will continue to work with Beck, beginning with a September 21 date at the O2 in London, with tentative plans to play in the States by the end of the year or early in 2010.
Last summer, May opened for Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, then he invited her to be on his BBC2 television show, Later ... With Jools Holland. The break came sooner than expected when she was asked with two days' notice to fill in for Natalie Cole, who fell ill during that time. Beck and Gilmour were in the star-studded audience in September 2008 to see May's debut on the popular music show that has featured ground-breaking acts along with accomplished veterans. That's when things got crazy, May said.
A major record deal with Universal followed and she went on to sing with Beck and Gilmour this summer, opening for Beck at Royal Albert Hall on July 4. "That was a great honor, a great thrill," May said. "(Beck has) become a good friend now."
She and the band were also on the same bill as the Pretenders in July at the Cornbury Festival in Oxfordshire in England. Told her snarling voice on "Johnny Got A Boom Boom" sounds a lot like Hynde's, May seemed delighted. "Oh, cool. She's great," May said. "I hope to get to work her some day. She has it all, hasn't she?"
Of course, May has been compared with a number of other exceptional singers. One British newspaper wrote she has "the retro appeal of a Duffy or (Amy) Winehouse," and when asked about possible similarities to the UK's recent pair of Queens for a Day, you could almost sense May wincing all the way from L.A. "Well, they are women," she said before unleashing a hearty laugh. "I think that's about it. I don't know; I don't mind either way. I just do my own thing. I don't know if it's a good thing or not but I know I have a good 10 years on them (laughing again)."
If the Duffy and Winehouse comparisons weren't complimentary, what about this statement about May in The Guardian? "(She's) yanked her vital crackle from the lungs of Janis Joplin and ballsy stance from the soul of Patsy Cline," Leonie Cooper wrote in the UK's national publication.
"Oh, I like that better," she said, almost sighing.
That's a huge compliment. I'm absolutely not worthy. ... I used to sing along to Janis Joplin and sing along to Patsy Cline all the time. I actually used to try and copy that. Try and get that clear, crisp vocal sound that Patsy Cline had and then be able to shriek like Janis Joplin. I hope I managed to do that in some shape or form. Somebody told me that when I was a kid singing in those clubs, 'You need to be able to rough it up some times.' And they were right.
Even if she is 10 or so years older than Duffy and Winehouse, age isn't an issue for May, who turned 35 this summer. In fact, her personal list of favorites leans more toward classic artists like Billie Holiday than any recent or contemporary singers. "I never did style myself after anyone," she said. "I did fall in love with Billie Holiday's vocals, of course. ... I'm glad I did, because that opened the doors (for me, musically) from blues to jazz. Because she did it quite easily between both."
And there's a place in her heart for Wynona Carr, LaVern Baker and Wanda Jackson as well. "For a girl, (listening to) those female vocalists, and some males, they seep into you ... especially as a teenager," she said with unabashed zeal. "They get into your head, your ears, it's like thunder. You can't get enough. You soak it all up."
Of course, she has a well-grounded respect for traditional Irish music, too, and is more than willing to turn the tables and give lessons to out-of-touch Americans who may be unaware of the late great Luke Kelly (of the Dubliners) or songwriting talents like Christy Moore, Paul Brady and Sharon Shannon.
"It's like dealing with country music here (in America), isn't it?" she said. "The rhythms are similar, they're hypnotic, the continuous rhythms," she said. "The same for blues as well. The traditional Irish is very similar, the way it keeps going round and round and you get into the feeling."
In the end, though, it's the fire, the rebelliousness and the "in-your-face" nature of rockabilly that May enjoys the most. And though she thinks the genre has remained popular since its Fifties glory days, May contends, "People are going back to it more; I don't think it's any coincidence that it's around recession time when people tend to go back and try to find out where music came from."
Now that she has passed her test with flying colors, get ready for May to educate the masses.
See a clip of Imelda May's debut on Later ... With Jools Holland:
Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas