herald

Saturday 18 August 2018

'I'm keeping Obama's M&Ms ... I just ate Brendan Gleeson's ones instead'

QUIRKY: Imelda May is big in France, not keen on Lou Reed ... and her ankle hurts

IF THE sheer number of summer festivals these days is such that music fans are beginning to tire of them, then spare a thought for the artists.

"It can," Imelda May notes wryly, "get a little repetitive."

A few weeks ago, May and her band were appearing at one such event in Canada.

Craving escape from the ennui of her backstage confines, she went for a pre-show roam and spied, through a hole in the high perimeter wall, a tranquil lake.

The fact that this lake was clearly off limits mattered little to her. She scaled the wall, jumped and landed awkwardly.

"I heard a snap," she recounts now. "My tendon snapping clean away from the bone, so the doctor told me later. You would not believe the pain."

Somehow, she made it back over the wall and, now in considerable agony, into the backstage area, where her band berated her, a member of the St John Ambulance team was summoned, and oxygen given.

Then, because May has always honoured the dictum that the show must go on, the show went on.

"I did most of it hopping on one foot," she says. "And the moment the last song was over, I was helped into an ambulance and rushed to hospital. It was all very dramatic."

Appropriately so, perhaps, for it capped a summer full of high drama for the 37-year-old 1950s throwback.

May's second album, Mayhem, has now spent almost a year in the charts and sold upwards of 200,000 copies and the past 12 months have been peppered with all manner of previously unthinkable highs: a mild snub to the queen; an audience with Barack Obama; and the unrivalled pleasure of having Lou Reed sneer at her in a contemptuous manner.

But all she can focus on now is the ankle. "It hurts," she says. "Like, a lot."

We have arranged to meet in a London cafe, but a call comes to say she is running late, in a taxi stuck in traffic eight miles away.

When she finally does appear she is furious and full of apology.

"I need cake," she says, sitting down, folding up her red polka-dot umbrella.

That she has emerged from the storm looking utterly glamourous -- quiff indomitable, lipstick red enough to attract bulls -- is no mean feat.

But then May, a 1950s girl at heart, never goes anywhere knowingly underdressed.

"I don't do grey," she notes. "I like my colour, my style."



waitress

Born Imelda Mary Clabby in Dublin in 1974, she was the youngest of five children; her father was a painter and decorator, her mother a seamstress, and everyone in her family was musical.

"But then all Irish families are," she points out. "Any excuse for a singsong."

May herself was appearing on stage regularly from the age of 16, and by 22 had moved to London.

Over the following decade, she sang wherever she could; lent her voice to advertising jingles; and held down countless day jobs, as a waitress, in launderettes, and nursing homes.

In 2006, she decided to stop singing in other people's bands in favour of going it alone.

"I could feel something rumbling inside of me, you know? It was time."

She recorded Love Tattoo on the very smallest of budgets, and it reached number one in Ireland.

She spent the next few years touring with Jools Holland, Jamie Cullum and even Meatloaf, so by the time Mayhem was released, May -- now closer to 40 than she was 30 -- was one of the few tangible "new" female singer-songwriters who could not be filed quite so easily alongside the raft of Winehouses and Adeles.

"I'm glad I'm a bit older," she says. "I think you appreciate it more if you've waited longer for it, you know? It'd be terrible having a big hit at 21, then realising that for the rest of your life you had to try to live up to it."

For the past few months, the rewards of her success have become increasingly apparent.

Earlier this year, she found herself in a recording studio at the behest of legendary music producer Tony Visconti.

He had been so taken with one of Mayhem's tracks, a gentle, Pogues-ish ballad called Kentish Town Waltz, that he wanted to record a version of it as a duet between May and Lou Reed.

"Meself and Tony hit it off immediately, a lovely, lovely bloke," she says. And what of Reed? Her smile comes hesitantly. "Yes, we got on as well... eventually."

When the great man first arrived at the studio, May introduced herself.

"I told him how glad I was that he was able to come down."

Reed, a famous curmudgeon, looked down his nose at her, and mumbled, "I'm only here for Tony."

It wasn't until he realised she was the song's author that he deigned to replace condescension with something approaching respect.

Then, earlier this summer, May was requested to sing for Queen Elizabeth during her state visit to Ireland. "But we were busy," she says. "We'd already committed to doing a gig for Sunderland Football Club."

No matter, for a week later another invitation arrived.

"We were asked back to Dublin to play for Obama, and that was just great, surreal.

"We did our bit alongside everybody else, and then we all lined up to meet him afterwards: us, Daniel Day Lewis, Brendan Gleeson, Gabriel Byrne, even Jedward.

"And then your man himself comes in, Barack Obama, and he says hello, but he's quickly off, busy working the room.

"His wife, though, she hung around to chat. Lovely woman."



souvenir

Before they departed, the assembled guests were presented with special parting gifts.

"Guess what it was?" she squeals. "Actually, don't, because you never will. M&Ms! Presidential M&Ms, stamped and sealed."

And has she eaten them? "God, no! Kept them as a souvenir, haven't I? I ate Brendan Gleeson's instead..."

Perhaps in pursuit of re-engaging with real life, May and her husband recently invested in a new house.

At the beginning of September, they left their Camden flat in favour of a house in Hampshire, with its own studio attached.

It is, she acknowledges, the perfect place for starting a family.

"Sure, kids would be great, but we're just trying to keep up with everything else at the moment, and that's difficult enough," she says.

"I mean, things are going great here, and they're taking off in America as well, in Australia, in France even. France! Then we've got the next album to consider, and, well, my head is still spinning with it all. I barely know what day it is."

hnews@herald.ie

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