Illustration: Peter Hanan
PROFILE IMELDA MAY:For years Imelda May’s unique rockabilly sound went against the grain – tomorrow she will become only the second Irish act to play at the Grammys. BRIAN BOYDcharts the rise of the Dublin singer
WELCOME TO AWARD season – a time for tears of joy and bitterness, of thanking God and lawyers, and of watching careers go into overdrive – or down the tubes. The music industry loves nothing better than a booze-filled, corporate table, mutual back-slapping shindig and over the next three weeks you won’t be able to move for Jay-Zs and Beyoncés waving their arms in the air and thanking most of the entire human race. The US Grammys, the Brits and our own Meteor Ireland Music Awards show all take place in quick succession between now and mid-February as the music industry desperately shines a spotlight on itself in a hope to boost terminally declining CD sales.
In terms of (in the lingo) “market penetration”, “cross-over sales appeal” and “profile enrichment”, only one music awards show really matters – the Grammys. The US is the biggest music sales territory in the world – make a substantial impression there and you can start flicking through the “Buy Your Own Private Jet” brochures. Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, who has been nominated 18 times and won six times, knows just what a successful turn at the Grammy Awards show can do for a career. “It is gigantic exposure to appear at the Grammys. The whole US music industry is seated there; it’s watched worldwide and it can send your career into overdrive” he says.
Only one Irish act, U2, has ever performed at the show in front of an estimated TV audience of around 100 million people but that will change tomorrow night when a young woman from the Liberties has her moment in the sun. Imelda May has been toiling her way through unemployment, disinterest and blank refusal for the past 12 years of her musical life. The songs she sings with the guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck at the award show tomorrow will place the 35-year-old singer-songwriter in prime position for a serious tilt at the lucrative US market. “This will be enormous for her,” says Moloney. “It could change everything.”
Given the parlous state of today’s music industry, you need to be either supremely deluded or remarkably robust to even consider a career as a musician. The only escape route seems to be X-Factor – the days of making it on the back of sheer talent alone ended sometime around the fall of the Berlin Wall. In so many ways, May’s story crystallises the nature of the hugely erratic and ruthlessly unforgiving music industry.
AFTER SINGING INany place that would have her – small Dublin restaurants, even smaller London clubs – and frequently operating at a loss (she’d have to pay the musicians who backed her out of her day-job wages), May decided her only option was to record an album and see if that would help her get bigger and better gigs – the sort that didn’t leave her broke and dispirited. Her English husband, Darrel Higham (also the guitarist in her band) built his own studio in London and the two of them “beg, stole and borrowed” to record the Love Tattooalbum.
It was turned down by every record company going, so May just sold it at her own shows. A giddy brew of old-school rockabilly, Love Tattoois severely at odds with the dominant soul/r’n’b sound so prevalent on today’s radio and did nothing for May’s career.
There is, though, quite a tight-knit rockabilly scene in London and word soon got to the major rockabilly aficionado Jools Holland about this “Irish Amy Winehouse”. Holland heard the album, was mightily impressed and invited May to be the support act on his UK tour.
Holland was astonished that no record label had picked up on Love Tattooand that May had to self-release it. He vowed to get her on his widely watched LaterWith Jools Holland BBC TV music show. However, the producers of Later, who select the acts, weren’t so enthusiastic and it took a lot of badgering from Holland personally and a last-minute cancellation by a big-name star for May to get on the show.
As some idea of just how capricious the music industry can be, following May’s 2009 appearance on Later, one of the record companies who had turned down her album a few weeks before rang her up and said they wanted to sign her.
Performing on Laterthe same night was Jeff Beck. Along with Eric Clapton, Beck is considered one of the best guitarists of his generation. He thought May’s rollicking rockabilly sound was the best thing he had heard in years.
Now that she had “got heat”, the offers flowed in. Last year, May was offered support slots with Van Morrison and Chuck Berry and appeared alongside Beck and Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall. With a substantial record company promotional budget behind Love Tattoo, the album – buoyed up by the single Johnny Got A Boom Boom– made a respectable dent in the UK charts and flew to number one in the Irish album charts.
When Beck found himself nominated, and asked to play live, at this year’s Grammys, his first phone call was to inquire whether May was available to perform with him at Los Angeles’s famous Staples Centre venue. The first thing May did after the call was to ring her bass player’s wife (a dress designer) to talk Grammy frocks.
THE YOUNGESTof five children, May grew up in a Liberties home full of “good ol’ singsongs and fantastic parties”. Immensely proud of her background, she did though witness first-hand the social problems that have affected the area over the years. She saw a heroin epidemic that wiped out entire families close to her and the food parcels delivered by the Society of St Vincent de Paul. May remembers walking up the stairwells of the flats and having to step over people lying unconscious with needles in their arms.
May’s mother had set up a local music and drama group and, at the age of six, that’s where she first got a feel for standing on a stage as she belted out songs from Broadway musicals. As a teenager she would sing along to her Wham! and Rick Astley albums but had a musical epiphany when she heard a mix tape of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent songs. She instantly clicked with the rockabilly sound and, overnight, put a quiff in her hair, put turn-ups on her jeans and bought a pair of loafers.
Dublin in the 1990s, though, was no place for a rockabilly singer (it was Nirvana and grunge or nothing) so after singing in Bruxelles pub and in restaurants around town she moved to London in 1997. She met up with Higham, a well-known guitarist in UK rockabilly circles, and the two married in 2002. She did shift work to allow her sing at nights in bars and clubs, but she found the going very difficult (in 10 years she had only one holiday – and that was a one-week honeymoon).
Those who have worked with her describe her as “great company. Imelda loves her frocks and dresses and her make-up but that’s just for her on-stage time where she needs to make an impression as a lead singer.
“Off stage, she’s very down to earth, very normal and very proud of her Liberties background. It has been a struggle for her over the years and now that the album has taken off and things are happening for her she is very focused and has come to really understand how the music business works.”
With a new album, tentatively called Mayhem, already recorded and ready for release in a month or so, May has already been booked as the support act for Jamie Cullum for a big US tour in March.
Her record company is ready to go on a big promotional campaign for Love Tattooin the US on the back of her appearance tomorrow night, and May has been let down enough by the music industry to know that when you do get a chance you grab it.
She has seen the very worst of the music industry, and now she will see the flip-side.
CV IMELDA MAY
Who is she?A bit complicated. She was born Imelda Clabby. Her married name is Imelda Higham. But Imelda May is her stage name.
Why is she in the news?She performs alongside axe-man supreme Jeff Beck at the Grammy Awards tomorrow night in Los Angeles. It’s about as big a break as you can get in the music business.
Distinguishing characteristicA quiff Eddie Cochran would kill for.
All in the familyOnly reluctantly accepted her husband into her band: “I didn’t want to be like bloody Ike and Tina Turner with the two of us trying to kill each other all the time.”