tells how her new poetry-based record gives her the freedom to talk about sex and other subjects in a way she couldn’t do in song
One of the most frustrating aspects of being a well-known singer is that people often leap to conclusions as to what you are singing about.
Such was the experience of Imelda May, who was surprised to hear that her 2017 album, Life Love Flesh Blood, was all about her split from her husband.
“It wasn’t about my marriage breakup,” says May, who separated from her romantic and musical partner Darrel Higham in 2015 after 13 years together.
“A couple of songs, sure. But in between I’d had another relationship that had run its course.
"I wrote about falling in love again, I wrote about it not going well. Love and loss and sorrow… and then you read it back and it’s ‘Imelda May’s marriage break-up album’.”
She isn’t particularly bothered. She and Higham, with whom she has an eight-year-old daughter, Violet, are on good terms. Nobody is hurting.
“It doesn’t matter in the greater scheme of life,” she says.
“It is a little frustrating, sure. Darrel and me, we’re real pals. We’re lucky we can laugh off a lot of things. I’d hate to be in a situation where it would cause trouble.”
However, that’s all in the past. May’s focus right now is her new nine-track spoken word EP, Slip of the Tongue. ‘Life Love Flesh Blood’ was her biggest hit to date, peaking at number two in Ireland and at number five in the UK.
Why put rock’n’roll on hold for a life of rhyme?
“I am a poetry lover. I always have been,” says May -45-, in lockdown in her home in the UK.
“The fact is poetry, as much as music and dancing and story-telling, is part of our culture.
Ask anyone – almost anybody can recite at least one poem that they love. They remember the words. It means something to them.
Slip of the Tongue, it goes without saying, is a departure for an artist who has filled arenas and dueted with Bono. Against shifting musical backdrops she ruminates on hope and heartache, anger and joy.
All of the pieces are striking — but some more so than others.
Talk about sex
One composition, in particular, stands out. GBH — short for “Grievous Battery Harm” — goes to places pop stars rarely venture.
Suffice to say the sort of people who were calling Joe Duffy about Normal People would probably combust spontaneously if they heard its lyrics, which frankly discuss female sexuality and the art of self-pleasure.
“That’s the freedom of poetry,” she says. “You can talk about anything. Why isn’t music that free? Why do we curtail ourselves? With poetry I feel unlimited in where I can go.”
She’s received many positive reactions to the pieces on record, and ‘GBH’ especially.
However, not every response has been positive. More than once it has been suggested that she keep her opinions to herself.
“People telling me how shameless it was. Embarrassing, going too far… or whatever. I don’t believe so.
"It was written about women’s sexual pleasure. It’s a story with a lot of humour. I don’t see the problem. No guilt comes from pleasure.”
May was born Imelda Clabby and grew up in the Liberties in Dublin. The youngest of five, she attended Senior College Ballyfermot, studying art, graphics and print-making.
Her music career started at age 16 when she began performing around Dublin.
In 1998, aged 24 she moved to London, where she thrived on the city’s rockabilly scene.
“I’ve made it my home here. I always think, I’ll go back. I do miss Ireland.
"There’s a poem I wrote on the album called Liberty Bell… it’s all about the Liberties. I’m getting involved with Penny Dinners in the Liberties who are feeding people… they feed people every day, for as long as I can remember.
"They are having a really tough time at the moment. The Liberty Bell poem is about that area.”
Her feelings about home and her family had become especially acute during the lockdown. As is the case for us all, she’s found this to be a disorientating time.
“At the beginning, a lot of people went through this thing of trying to keep schedules,” she says.
“You’re trying to keep a normal life in an abnormal setting. And then you get into a major slump when you realise this is going to go on for a while.
"And then you kind of accept it and crack on.
There’s part of me now that’s weirdly enjoying it. And part of me that’s totally fed up. It’s going to be weird, going back into the world.
May toiled in obscurity for years. Perhaps that is why she doesn’t rest on her accomplishments.
She rarely even pauses to reflect on how far she has come. As a creative person, it’s about constantly moving forward.
“You don’t think about it until you’re about to go on stage and someone introduces you and lists all those things. And I’m standing in the wings going, ‘god, that’s very impressive’. I’m blown away by my own introduction.”
She is level-headed about what she’s achieved.
Yes, she has sung with Bono, toured with Jools Holland, recorded with Lou Reed and Jeff Beck. But she understands it doesn’t do her any favours to dwell on that.
For May, success means the freedom to continue making music on her own terms.
“I’m from a working class family,” she says.
“I’ve worked hard all my life. When I was in bands and touring around and I decided to start my own band, it cost me – hundreds of pounds every night. I had to pay all my musicians.
"I had to rent a van. You get paid pittance by the venues. You spend more on petrol. I was doing two jobs during the day to pay for that.
"Success for me is not having to do that. I’m very grateful to be able to put out music and not have to work two jobs in order to do it."
- is released June 12