One of Ireland’s brightest musical talents is back, and after well-documented changes in her personal life, her look, and, more importantly, her sound has also changed dramatically
In a special showcase of her as yet untitled new album, which is due for release in 2017, the Dubliner played a set of seven songs in front of industry professionals, writes Fiona O’Brien.
In what could quite likely be her breakthrough album which propels her from acclaimed singer-songwriter to international superstar, May was invited to showcase her material in the famed BBC Maida Vale studios. And it truly was something special. Introduced by none other than T Bone Burnett, who has worked with the likes of Roy Orbison and Elton John as well as composing the soundtracks to Nashville, Crazy Heart and Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, May opened with an acoustic number.
Burnett produced the album, where she said they recorded 15 songs in seven days, and she shared some humorous antidotes about her time in the Nashville studio with him in between songs. Opening number Call Me is the first single, released on November 18, and is sombre and stripped back.
The lyrics are heartfelt and quite clearly about the loss of a loving relationship, and allows May to showcase the more vulnerable and raw tones of her voice, using it as almost an isolated instrument to reinforce the heartbreak.
Following that, May was joined in the living-room esque style room, which held about 70 people, by her large backing band, which allowed her to ‘belt out’ in the familiar way her fans are used to. But it is still nothing like they would have heard before, with a gospel number as well as some upbeat and folksy songs reminiscing. As she says, it’s about losing love, finding new love and losing that again.
During the performance she joked, “this is my most honest record yet. I’ve always been honest in my songs, but I suppose I tried to maybe hide the meanings sometimes in case anyone would be listening to them!”
Earlier this year May revealed that Bono had given her advice on recording her new album. After her well-documented 2015 divorce from husband, and band member, Darrel Hingham after 13 years of marriage, it was clear that May would set her sights on using her new album as a way of expressing her feelings through song.
And Bono, one of Imelda’s biggest fans, told her that this could be the ‘game changer’ of an album, and thus there is a song with that title on it. In May she told an Irish newspaper: “Bono has been like a mentor with this record. So he’s been hounding T-Bone about me.”
And so T-Bone’s involvement was born. And he is as much as in awe with the 42-year-old as she is of him, introducing her at BBC as a ‘legend’. “I’ve never met anyone quite like Imelda May. She is full of life. When I first happened onto her music, she was a punky Irish Rockabilly singer with a great band,” he says.
“I was intrigued by her deep feeling for and understanding of that American art form, much of which, of course, had originated in Ireland.
“When I ran across her several years later, she had gone through a change of lives and was writing about it with a wild intensity and singing about it in the most open hearted way. I was inspired by her honesty and her generosity, and I continue to be intrigued.”
Abandoning her signature rockabilly look, Imelda May graced the stage donned in a modest dark grey tee and black leather-look leggings. It’s a far cry from the style she’s sported since bursting onto the music scene well over a decade ago, and although the absence of her signature quiff might unsettle some fans, what she lacks in voluminous coif, she more than makes up for in brand new soulful music and powerhouse vocals.
“I always loved the Fifties rockabilly style but there was a point where I felt I was almost dressing up as Imelda May. It was as if I was getting into character for a gig. And I didn’t want to do that anymore. This is me.”
After this, she is joined by the remainder of her band, which at first appears excessive in quantity, but once the set is in full swing, listeners realise it is completely necessary. They occupy the entire length of the stage area and add a fullness to each number that aids in achieving that really polished finish to each performance.
Sultry guitar riffs
One of the highlights of the evening is track Sixth Sense, which one already knows is going to be special from the start because the double bass gets whipped out. The song’s minor key, with sultry electric guitar riffs, makes it easy to envision as part of a cabaret show.
Should’ve Been You highlights the singer’s abilities: there’s a unique quality to her voice that is enviable, she seems able to effortlessly upgrade her vocals from a smooth, buttery coo to a coarse roar with such speed and ferocity that it almost takes spectators aback. Describing this latest as her most honest and personal record to date, May has pulled out all the emotional stops and delivers a moving, refreshing performance that leaves the audience eager for more.
It is clear that one of Ireland’s biggest exports has found a new groove, here presenting one of the most personal and intimately autobiographical songs she has ever written. Imelda’s life changed considerably in the run up to recording, and Call Me is one chapter that needed to be covered.
In the past she would sometimes “hide things in my songs and twist them around.” but this time the singertells it exactly how it is.
“It’s therapy, like keeping a diary that a lot of people read” Imelda explains. “Some of my favourite songs don’t say much, but they reveal everything.”
Accompanied by a stylish and extremely moving black and white video, Call Me tells the tale all too familiar to anyone who has ever been in love. Imelda’s striking and tender vocal is breathtaking as it draws the listener in closely to a song of quiet desperation. The result is a beautifully gentle but heartbreaking ballad, with Imelda’s soulful voice standing strong alongside warm guitars and restrained drums, which has all the makings of a classic.
The showcase finished with The Girl I Used To Be, which is a memoir of May’s time growing up in Dublin, and the lessons learnt that she will pass on to her own four-year-old daughter. After the big band session, May rounded it off with this acoustic performance, which she introduced in her typical humourous fashion.
“When we were little we had a great life. But then the brewery shut down and all of a sudden around us there was all this unemployment. “I remember the Chicago Choir came over and performed in our local church, and I was fascinated by them. I think that was the start of my love of gospel and American music. “But I remember them saying, ‘it gives us great joy to perform here to the underprivileged children of Dublin’. And me and my friends all looked around to the back of the church saying ‘where are they?’.
“We never realised we were poor! So that’s a lesson, don’t tell people they are as they are just as happy going through life not knowing anyway.”
Imelda’s first public show since the recording will be at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho next Monday on 28 November. It’s sold out.
Call Me is out now.