Sodajerker presents… Imelda May
Podcast kings Simon and Brian chat with an Irish rockabilly star whose new album is her most reflective to date
Irish singer and songwriter Imelda May was born in Dublin in 1974. The youngest of five children, May was influenced by her brother’s love of rockabilly. Alongside the likes of Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane, she was also drawn to the distinctive voices of jazz artists like Billy Holliday and country singers such as Patsy Cline.
Imelda began writing songs at a very early age and kicked off her performing career when just 16, touring the local club circuit and attending all-night jam sessions with Hothouse Flowers, Van Morrison’s band and even Ronnie Wood. Having moved to London in the early noughties, she juggled various jobs and sang in a swing band whilst pursuing a solo career.
Her debut album, No Turning Back, was released in 2003 and was followed by Love Tattoo in 2008, which proved to be her critical and commercial breakthrough. Up next came Mayhem in 2010, another Irish No 1, and then fourth album Tribal in 2014.
Her latest offering, Life Love Flesh Blood was recorded over the space of a week in Los Angeles and produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett. It’s her most soulful, personal and intimate record yet and gave Sodajerker the perfect reason to sit down with her for a conversation.
So it’s over to Simon and Brian to delve a little deeper into the mind of this talented young star.
You must be delighted with the new record, it’s a fantastic listen?
“I am, I’m really happy with it. I’m happy with how it all turned out and enjoyed the whole process of it.”
The vocals are just unreal on it. We think they’re fabulous…
“Thank you very much. We did it all live. We recorded fifteen songs in seven days and then I spent a day or two doing all my backing vocals. I sent everyone away except me and the sound engineer, Jason Warmer, it didn’t take long to make. It took ages to write and ages to edit. So all the work went on it then more than anything.”
Should’ve Been You is a song we’re hearing a lot. The size of the chorus really struck us on that one, it sounds like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound…
“That was the aim and I had to fight for that one with the record company, and I won. I wanted to have a soft vocal and a heavy band, I liked the contrast between that and it confused them a little bit. T Bone was definitely with me on that and the two of us just juggled it around until it worked. He’s up for trying different things but if I wanted to stick with it he was right behind me.”
Is he someone who gives a lot of feedback in terms of the songwriting?
“I had the album written before I met him. He’s a very clever man and he might have different ways of working with different people, that could be the secret of his success, so I don’t know how he is working with anyone else…
“…I knew he was such a big character and such a genius and I love what he’s done but he tested me with a few questions to make sure that I was doing it for the right reasons, not because I wanted the name T Bone Burnett on an album. I obviously passed that because I am a big fan of his and I knew what I wanted. The other thing was I think he picked up that I was nervous to completely hand over the reins, because I was so protective of my own stuff before. Not in a control freak way, but when you do anything that’s not mainstream you often get people trying to get you to compromise to help it go well. I don’t mind compromising a little, of course, but if you compromise too much then you end up making music that you don’t like. So he involved me in every way and he was brilliant and he had his own ideas, of course he did, and everything that he came up with I absolutely adored, which I knew I would.”
“Part of his thing is to pick the right people in the right place at the right time and he said everything else should fall into place, if you have the right songs and you have the right ban. He thought a lot about who he was going to get on this album and he juggled it around a bit. I could actually see him moving names around on the table, trying to see what would sit. He gave me loads of space but he didn’t go into songwriting other than on one of them he was going, ‘That middle bit you’ve wrote, I think you could write stronger,’ so I just went off into his kitchen and sat there for a while and wrote a different middle on How Bad Can A Good Girl Be.”
We know you play a few instruments, where will you start with the musical side of things?
“Somebody has the idea that I play bass, I don’t play bass. I play a bit of percussion and I play enough guitar to write on but not that I’m confident enough to play for everybody. Then I hire a guitarist to do it well. But I have a little guitar so that I can sit in the corner with, a Martin that fits me because I’m only small. I’ll mess around on that and see what I come up with but I’ll take it whatever way I can get it. It’s like fishing or something, sometimes it feels like they’re given to you in a way, but you have to be ready to catch them. If you’re fighting it and pushing it different ways, you’ll miss it. If you just open your mind a bit it tends to come to you and then I’ll rework it.
“Sometimes I’ll come up with a melody and lyrics in my head. 80% of the time they come together from me and it will be when I’m walking the dog, from something monotonous like the rhythm of a footstep as you walk or the drip of a tap, just something that gets me going. I go crazy because my brain is always on, so if I ever get bored my brain goes into overdrive and I entertain myself in my head. Sometimes I walk and I feel like I’m walking in a glass box, I’m not involved and I’m just observing. It’s kind of weird, like an out-of-body experience and I’m just watching everything and seeing little things that people do and things they say. You can’t live like that all the time or you’d be mental and not be part of society, so I’m not like that when I’m with my daughter and we’re going to the playground, but I do have moments like that and that’s when I tend to write. When I’m writing I find it all-consuming. I don’t listen to music or anything like that, the house goes quiet, but I’ll take it where I can get it and then I’ll work it out on the guitar and on this album I did a bit of co-writing which I’d never done before.”
How did you find that?
“I loved it mostly and the ones that I didn’t love, the songs will never see the light of day, but I go through with it as it would be rude to just leave, but I wouldn’t be feeling it. Like speed dating or something, you know as soon as you meet that this is not going to click. There’s nothing wrong with any of them, they’re just not a match in any way. Some people I wrote with were professional songwriters and I found them very methodical and I feel that’s soulless. It was like painting by numbers, like just do it and get out of there. They probably sent their song into their publishers so there might be terrible songs with my name on them somewhere because I’d just say, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s fine, bye,’ and go.
“There were a few that I really clicked with and it was beautiful and I found it very interesting to know how someone else writes, because I’ve never got to do that. I also found that it was quite disciplined, because there would be a start and an end time… and that’s part of the reason why I did it – I want to discipline myself. Sometimes it would fly and we would do two songs in one session and at one point I went a bit mad and my manager had me doing three songwriting sessions a day. My brain was about to melt and they weren’t the best songs I’ve written, I have to say. But I really enjoyed the ones that I did write. Paul Moak I wrote really well with, we wrote three songs together. Patrick Davies, I wrote two songs with him and Angelo Petraglia, we wrote a couple of songs but only used one.”
The choruses across the album are really strong. When you’re writing are you bearing in mind your vocal range; do you write with that in mind or is it too limiting?
“I knew on this album that I wanted to sing, I wanted to let my voice be free. I was loving the rockabilly and the punk and all that because I was getting to punch out songs. Not a lot of women get to do that and I was really enjoying flying that flag, but then I got to the point where I wanted to sing again, because I didn’t always do that kind of stuff. I did soul before and I started off with blues and so I wanted to get back to my roots and to be able to sing again. I wanted to not know what I was going to write and just do what I felt like doing. Feel it rather than think it.
“Leave Me Lonely, I nearly dropped that song and it was T Bone who told me to keep it. I wrote it with Patrick Davies who does a lot of country stuff, so the demo was him playing and there’s a country feel to it and it’s not how I had it in my head at all… It was all acoustic and I was thinking, ‘No, no, no,’ and I said, ‘I’m not feeling it, let it go,’ but T Bone said, ‘That’s what we’re here for, what are you feeling?’ So I said, ‘None of that, nor that. Pluck that out for a start,’ and then we worked on it and it still wasn’t hitting for me and then Zach Dawes the bass player just did this really nasty effect on what he was already playing and I just went, ‘Yes, here we go!’ That glued everything together and what we did all made sense and went to where I wanted it to go. I wanted it more as a rock song and I changed the vocals so I was really happy, so that was because of T Bone. I could just hear him in my ear saying, ‘Keep going babe, you’ll get it.’ So it was thanks to T Bone and Zach Dawes.”
You’ve won some praise from other songwriters. Bob Dylan’s a fan and Bono was involved in this one wasn’t he?
“I nearly fell over when I heard Bob Dylan saying he liked me. It makes you feel like you must be doing something right when you get a good lyricist say that about you. I was absolutely thrilled and then Bono was just very helpful on this. I met him at a lunch and he asked what I was doing. He’s such a poet, he really is. He talks poetically, he texts poetically, you have to try to decipher what it is he’s trying to say to you. He’s such a writer and such a creative thinker, I love being around him. He helped me focus. He gave me his email and said, ‘If you get stuck on anything we all need someone to lean on and we all need a critic, just give us a call,’ and I didn’t think about it until I actually did get stuck and I really did not know what to do.
“My record company are great, I have to say, and they back me up all the time but then you’ll get the call saying, ‘If you just did this and lost a bit of that then we could get it played on here. We’re not trying to change it but just help us out here, we want to get this out there,’ and it’s just decisions like that. I’m all about the song, the song, the song and Bono would say, ‘Focus, what do you want to make, do you want to make a hit or do you want to make art? If you want to make art, make art.’ He was really and then T Bone would give me the other side, ‘There’s no point in making great art if nobody plays it! Get a fucking radio edit out quick.’ They were both really good and I loved working with both of them, Bono was there in the background to advise me and he knows his stuff.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have more than 100 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Paul Simon, Ben Watt, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Dan Gillespie Sells and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the 40-minute interview with Imelda May – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.