“I know it’s been billed as a break-up album, but I did not sit crying over a piece of paper with a guitar in my hand” - hmv.com talks to Imelda May
Having no plan when set out to make the follow-up to your most successful album to date is an unconventional approach, but it’s exactly the way that Irish singer-songwriter Imelda May did things for the making of her new album Life Love Flesh Blood.
Ditching the rockabilly and toe tappers of her early LPs, she teamed up with country and blues maestro T Bone Burnett to make the new album, her first since she split from husband and former bandmate Darrel Higham, a mark that’s definitely present on many of the songs.
We spoke to May about making the album, why she headed out to Los Angeles and why their split has given her and Higham a new lease of creativity…
This is a very different album from your last LP Tribal, how did the change in direction come about?
“Life. Life changes and you go with it. I had no plan and that was what I wanted. I wanted to not know what album I was going to write, all my other albums I’ve known exactly what kind of album I’m going to write before I’ve written them and what direction I wanted to take. I wanted to make everything stop and just start again, it was very liberating and I really enjoyed it.”
It must have daunting, though. Sometimes it’s nice to have a routine and a sound in mind before you start...
“No, I never felt like that. I just felt free. When you write your first album you’ve got no sense of anything, you don’t know what you’re writing or who it’s for and I wanted that again. I’ve always done what I wanted, but without you noticing you get into grooves, when you know you’ve got fans and a genre, people expect you to stay in that. I wanted to be free and go back to basics.”
Did having such an open approach mean you wrote lots of different types of songs?
“Oh yeah, I wrote a lot of songs for this album, different styles, it was all over the shop. I wanted to do what I wanted and then whittle it down to an album. It was great, there were lots of different vibes and there still are, I feel sorry for hmv, I don’t know what rack you’re going to put it in.”
How did you come to work with T-Bone Burnett? And what was he like to work with?
“He was great. He’s a really strong character and he’s got a fascinating mind. I wanted to be open to new things on this album, I co-wrote songs for the first time, there are five or six of those on the album, that was great, I loved seeing how other people worked. So once I had the album written my manager asked me who I’d like to produce it.”
Was he the first name you suggested?
“Normally I do it myself, so I wasn’t sure how it would be working with T-Bone. But I really wanted him and he was amazing, he’s a creative badass, but he’s got an edge to him, I love that. He also has this amazing ability to get a velvety sound. He’s great at getting a good band around you, I literally met the guys who played on the album on the morning of recording and that meant every take had to be full of adrenaline because it was so new fresh.”
How did you like working in Los Angeles?
“It was fantastic. I’ve always worked in London or Dublin before and it was fabulous to have some sun! Normally you go in when it’s grey and come out when it’s dark, so it was brilliant to have some warmth. I took my daughter along and she got a lovely little holiday too.”
You’ve got guest appearances from Jools Holland and Jeff Beck on the album, how did those collaborations come about?
“I love them both dearly and they’ve been instrumental in changing the course of my career. Jools got me a support slot on his tour and then on his show, that gave me my record deal, then after that, I recorded and toured with Jeff and he’s always been really supportive of me. I wanted them on this album before I felt like I was starting again and I wanted them with me. I sent Jeff a few songs, I was hoping he’d like and pick to play ‘Black Tears’ and he did. He plays this beautiful, haunting solo, while Jools added some piano. It was wonderful for them to both be part of it.”
This album has been billed as your most personal yet, how did you find writing the lyrics?
“Writing this album has just been all about embracing the changes in my life. It’s definitely a reflective album and the most like a diary I’ve ever done. I know it’s been billed as a break-up album, but I did not sit crying over a piece of paper with a guitar in my hand. There was a lot of love and guilt to process, but there’s a lot more to this record than just heartbreak.”
“I know people know more of the background, but me and Darrel are fine, we’re all good, he’s got a great album out of it too. He’s written this great rockabilly album called Hell’s Hotel and I’ve sung backing vocals on that and we’re both in a good place now. So two albums came out of it, which is an upside.”
Finally, are you ready to sing these songs live? Are you worried it’ll take you back to the place you were when you wrote them? Or will it just be cathartic?
“I’ve no idea and I don’t know if I thought it through. I’ve written a really deep and honest album as a diary and forgot that I’ve got to sing these songs for the next two years! Let’s hope it’s cathartic because I’ll be a quivering wreck otherwise. Watch this space!”