Irish World award winner Imelda May told David Hennessy about her new album, that love is the only way forward and that Molly Malone ‘deserves better’.
Well known Dublin songstress, and more recently poet, Imelda May releases the sixth album of her illustrious career this week.
Born and raised in The Liberties area of Dublin, Imelda has become one of Ireland’s most famed female artists.
Discovered by Jools Holland, who asked Imelda to go on tour with him, Imelda has gone on to perform duets with artists including U2, Lou Reed, Sinead O Connor, Robert Plant, Van Morrison, Jack Savoretti and Elvis Costello and has featured on albums and live tours with Jeff Beck, Jeff Goldblum and Ronnie Wood.
It was early in her career that Imelda picked up an Irish World award at the Galtymore in Cricklewood and has received many honours since.
Her last album landed at No.5 in the UK Official Album Chart and she can count artists such as Bob Dylan and Bono amongst her fans. Last year, her 2008 album Love Tattoo was named the bestselling album of modern chart history by a homegrown female Irish artist by the Official Charts Company.
Imelda’s new album 11 Past the Hour features the former Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher, as well as long term friend and Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, on the track Just One Kiss and Miles Kane on What We Did in the Dark.
Imelda told The Irish World: “This is my favourite album of anything that I’ve done. I think it’s my best album.
“I’m very excited for it to get out there. I’m chomping at the bit. I’ve been holding it close to my chest for too long and like a child, it’s time for it to go out into the world and find its own way. I can’t wait.
“Noel’s amazing. He’s absolutely amazing. He’s such a talented writer and singer and musician.
“Of course I loved working with him and Ronnie Wood, Miles Kane. I’m very lucky I get to work with some of the best people in the world.”
The current single, the powerful and catchy Made to Love, features some additional voices but it is not well known musicians that feature but the activist Gina Martin and the lawyer Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu who both fight regularly for justice and equality.
“Both of them really inspire me. Doctor Shola Mos-Shogbamimu works for equality, for human rights and she’s always the voice of reason. If I see her on any TV programmes, I wait for her to speak and she just talks common sense and she’s beautifully eloquent and clever and thoughtful. I’m a massive fan of everything she does. I like to listen and learn from her and the same with Gina Martin. She’s another voice of reason and a very, very beautiful soul. I wanted them on this album.
“For instance, Gina Martin went to a festival one day. A guy upskirted her. He put his camera between her legs and took a photograph up her skirt. She managed to wrestle him and get the camera off him, ran to the security guards because she felt violated, as you would. And the security guard gave the camera back to the guy and said he’s done nothing illegal.
“He said, ‘It’s wrong’. And he said, ‘I’ve just looked it up and it’s not against the law’. So she decided, ‘Well, I’m going to change the law’. And she did and that’s a massively commendable thing to do and it took a huge amount of work and stress and campaigning and she did the right thing.”
Gina’s campaigning to make upskirting illegal in England and Wales resulted in the Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019.
“I was so delighted to have Gina and Shola on this song because their voices need to be heard in more ways than one.”
Just last year Imelda joined RuthAnne and a host of other Irish female stars to form part of Irish Women in Harmony. The group raised funds for Safe Ireland while highlighting the gender disparity when it came to Irish radio airplay.
Imelda is passionate about equality: “It should be a passion of everybody’s. Equality, for me, it’s balance. It’s as simple as that. It’s balance.
“If I go to a party, I don’t want to just talk to half of the room or hear from half of the room, I want to hear everybody’s story and that’s the way life should be.
“It sounds beautifully simple. Wouldn’t it be lovely if it was as simple as that? So within art, within music, within songwriting, literature… If you look at your books and your poetry and your music collection, it’s predominantly men. They’re wonderful men and I want to hear all those but I want to hear all the women too because then we’ll get a better picture of life.
“You ask any person to name you their top influential people in their lives and I can guarantee you there are strong women in there so if you’re hearing from them at home, you should be hearing from them everywhere as well as the men.
“I’m for equality. I think everybody should be because that’s balance.”
Imelda refers to the family photographs she can see in the background as we chat on zoom when she says: “I’m looking at those photographs behind you and there’s plenty of women on that wall. Wouldn’t it be terrible if the only photographs on there were of the men? You would feel that there was something missing. You would feel, ‘Hang on a second, that’s not a balanced view of my life or my family’. I think that’s the same within art and literature. You think, ‘This is not the right view. We need everybody in there’.
“And Made to Love, that single is about love and acceptance and that we all have love in us and I think that’s the only way forward. It’s not always the easiest path but it’s certainly the one we should all strive for and I do think it’s fighting for. Isn’t love worth fighting for?”
Last summer, Imelda released her debut poetry EP Slip of the Tongue to critical acclaim and received global recognition for her poem You Don’t Get To Be Racist and Irish which was used in the Irish government’s ReThink Ireland campaign for billboards across the country. In the wake of the George Floyd’s death last year, a conversation about racism was opened in Ireland like never before.
“I think anything that opens a conversation is a good thing. I think conversation’s always a good thing and it’s good to not just have the conversation but listen to it too.
“I think Ireland is in a wonderful place at the moment in that as a nation we’re evolving beautifully. Obviously, there’s always the good and the bad in any country.
“But when I’m travelling and when I’m away a lot of people in other countries have this vision of Ireland that’s like Hollywood Ireland and that’s in the past. It isn’t Ireland now. They’re not aware that Ireland was the first country to have a people’s referendum to vote for gay marriage and I think that’s a beautiful Ireland and an Ireland that’s more open and willing to evolve. That’s the Ireland that I’m happy to be from.
“Also, an Ireland that’s starting to become free from the tight grip that the church and the state have been in cahoots holding people’s wings down.
“A lot of people away think that the Ireland they saw in the movies a hundred years ago is Ireland now and it’s not. I love that Ireland is starting to get its emotional and spiritual freedom back and it’s a beautiful position to be in.
“Yes, I’m glad it opened the conversation but I think it’s time we heard from the people in Ireland that haven’t been heard from. I think that’s who we should be listening to now.”
Imelda had to address the subject matter. She saw incidents of racism in Ireland and it angered her due to how the Irish themselves have emigrated to all four corners of the globe and often been on the receiving end of harsh treatment at least to begin with.
“When I was seeing a lot of racism growing in Ireland, it didn’t make any sense to me because we had our time of fleeing and we were able to take refuge and rightly so. Maybe it’s our time to return the favour.
“A lot of people said I was anti-Irish. I got a lot of hate mail from that and I’m still getting it.
“I found a lot of people that felt negatively towards that poem hadn’t actually read the poem.
“My point within is that any nation that has suffered and been oppressed surely shouldn’t become the oppressors.
“We should certainly have empathy towards other nations in the same way that the Irish and the native Americans, the indigenous tribes in America, have a beautiful relationship because we can understand each other a little. We have different stories of course but there’s empathy there and that’s what was on my mind around that time.
“The basis of that poem is love as well. Love is the way, if we can. Like I said, love isn’t always the easiest option but it’s the best, it’s the only option I think.”
In 2015 Imelda announced that she and her guitarist husband Darrell Higham had split up after thirteen years of marriage that had given them one daughter. Imelda has been open about her struggles in recent years.
Asked if she feels a lot happier now, because she seems it, she says: “I’m always good. People love to write stories saying you’re falling apart because it makes for a better story but I’m always good. I go through my ups and downs like everybody.
“Yes, I write my songs honestly but I do think when you do that, it helps us all connect a little more. I like to think that I can maybe put into words something that somebody else feels but can’t write down or say.
“But I’m certainly on a high at the moment. Life is good. I suppose like everybody with lockdown we appreciate the smaller things much more than ever and I have a lot of love and I’ve been very lucky to be brought up with the best family and I miss them greatly and I can’t wait to see them again.”
Reflecting on the last year, Imelda say she is most grateful for her family and her health.
“I think you miss the people you love. We all do. It just puts things into perspective. People were asking me, ‘Where do you want to go on holiday?’ I don’t. I just want to see my family. That’s it.
“But I’ve been busier than ever for this last year. I worked on the album. I managed to mix it in lockdown, somehow do photoshoots and videos with all the restrictions out in forests and woods and outdoors with very few people.
“And I’ve been writing the guts of a poetry book, I’m now promoting the album and I’m already in the middle of another project so I’ve never been as busy.
“But I was a little frustrated with the delays it (Covid) put on my album because my album was ready to go out a while and normally you would coincide an album with a tour.
“As you know and can imagine the tours just kept getting cancelled so we would put the album back and then book another tour and release date for the album, and the tour would get cancelled.
“That continued so I said, ‘You know what? To Hell with it, let’s just put the album out. Let’s get it out there’.
“We all need new music so we’ll work it out. They have now said my tour is next year but the album’s coming out now which is quite odd to have an album out and then a tour a year later but I just need to put it out. I can’t keep it to myself any longer. I need this out in the world. I’m too excited.”
Having moved to London all the way back in 1998, Imelda May has long been an active member of the Irish community here. Recently she could be seen taking part in the London Irish Centre’s live streamed show for St. Patrick’s Day. She was proud to perform alongside names like Paul Brady, Conor O’Brien and the Gloaming at the Royal Albert Hall for President Michael D Higgins at the Ceiliúradh celebration which was part of the state visit of 2014.
“Wasn’t that beautiful? That was amazing. That was a beautiful night. Backstage the vibe was just gorgeous. There was a lot of love.
“There was myself and Glen Hansard and Elvis Costello and Lisa Hannigan and the President of Ireland. I remember it was such a lovely, lovely night and I enjoyed it very much. The music was stunning. It was just such a classy, nourishing night. It was good nourishment for the soul.
“The London-Irish community is a wonderful community to be a part of and I do a lot with the London Irish Centre who are wonderful.
“Going back to that poem, You Don’t Get to Be Racist and Irish, I got a lot of people contact me, a lot of the London-Irish community. I discovered from a lot of the older generations that they felt what it was like to be somewhere and not be accepted and the difficulties that came with that and the stereotypes we fell into as well. That was actually lovely, to hear those stories. I had a lot of second generation Irish people get in touch with me telling me the stories of their parents and grandparents which was lovely. I’ve really enjoyed hearing people’s lives.”
On those big Trafalgar Square celebrations of Irishness that have been missing the last two years, Imelda May says: “Well, we will again. This is not forever. We definitely will again.
“I mean when I came over here first I remember there wasn’t a big St. Patrick’s Day like there is now. It’s just grown and grown and grown and I think it’s lovely that we celebrate so beautifully and that we celebrate all over the world.
“What I’m actually aiming for is I want to celebrate St. Brigid’s Day. I think we should have a matron saint of Ireland as well as a patron saint because St. Brigid is regarded so highly within old Irish culture, even pre-Christian Ireland celebrated Brigid as a goddess and the patron saint of poets so I think we should have a second day.”
To a comment that Brigid is certainly forgotten compared to Patrick, Imelda exclaims: “I know and Saint Patrick was a Welshman. She’s a Kildare woman.”
The Irish World was at the Barbican last year for a night of entertainment that featured Imelda May, Denise Chaila and a host of other Irish acts and authors. Entitled Imagining Ireland, it was in late February and remains her last show with an audience in front of her.
That night Imelda sang a beautiful version of the Irish ballad Molly Malone while also sharing her view that the Irish figure has been unfairly represented as selling sex as well as ‘cockles and mussels’.
“Even the statue of Molly Malone has a very low cut top on and her breasts are half exposed and everybody takes their photograph with their hands on her breasts and I remember thinking, ‘Hang on a second…’
“She’s worth more than that. I know it’s only a statue but she’s this emblem, this icon of Dublin history and of Dublin itself and I thought, ‘Let’s give her back her dignity’. She was this woman that worked hard and she followed in her parents’ footsteps and she died of a fever that was sweeping across the city. Nowhere did it ever say she was a prostitute.
“I dunno, I always felt saddened by that. I always thought that her story and for all those people and those women at that time I think she deserved a little more gratitude than that.
“If you just listen through to the song it’s such a beautiful song actually, such a beautiful song.”
11 Past the Hour is out now.
The single Made to Love is out now.
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