“I’ve made myself stick to a narrative and I don’t want to do that anymore…” - hmv.com talks to Imelda May
The last time Irish singer Imelda May had an album to promote, it was 2017’s Life Love Flesh Blood and all the questions in the interviews leading up to it were aimed at how much of the LP had been inspired by her split from husband and former bandmate Darrel Higham.
It was the first time the singer had started the writing process for an album without a defined sonic goal and it took her away from her trademark punk and rockabilly sound into something different entirely.
Clearly enamoured of her new free approach, the singer has stuck with that method for her new LP, 11 Past The Hour, which finds her continuing to move away from rockabilly and into a mix of rootsy soul and folk.
The LP is a star-studded, guest-heavy collection, with contributions from Noel Gallagher, Ronnie Wood and Miles Kane with political activists Gina Martin and Shola Mos-Shogbamim also featured.
Largely written with co-producer Tim Bran and string arranger Davide Rossi, the album is an upbeat collection, and, as the singer reveals, a celebration of all kinds of love.
11 Past The Hour is out today in hmv stores and we spoke to May ahead of the album’s release from the set of Fisherman’s Friends 2, where she will make her film debut. She opened up about the writing process, how the number 11 took her down a very strange path and how Bono helped her pull one of the album's highlights out of the dustbin...
When did you start work on the songs for this album? Were you writing on tour?
“I need to wind down after tours, I can’t just set the wheels straight in motion. It was lovely this time. I didn’t give myself a timetable, I just wrote for myself, as and when I wanted to. I mostly finished before the lockdown, but I added a couple of extra bits. I ended up with a lot of songs.”
How did you find streamlining that down for what became the final album?
“There were a few songs that I really wanted to keep, but I don’t like long albums. I don’t like overstaying my welcome, I want to leave people wanting just a little bit more. These are my absolute favourites and the songs I knew would work alongside them.”
Did you have a goal of how you wanted this album to move on from Life Love Flesh Blood?
“No, I just write as I feel. If I let myself move and progress on a personal level then I know my writing will follow. I was happy with where I was in my life. I didn’t need to feel like I was driving at something, I knew I’d progress in my own way.”
You’ve got some great guests on there. Noel Gallagher, Ronnie Wood, Miles Kane, how did those collaborations come about?
“I knew each of them. I don’t believe in things being set up by labels or management, things are better unfolding naturally. I’ve known Miles for a long time and I was delighted when he said yes. I don’t know if ‘What We Did In The Dark’ would have made the record without him. I just knew he’d be perfect, we had so much fun. It was the same with Ronnie and Noel, they liked the songs and we went from there.”
Were you able to physically be there with any of them? Or did it have to be done remotely?
“No, I was there with each of them. It was done within all the rules, hardly anybody in the studio, all the doors opened, separated appropriately. I like to be in the room with people I’m working with, the vibe is so important to the song.”
Must have made for a different experience, having to be careful when you’re used to being free in those scenarios…
“Recording was done all before lockdown and I was able to get the bones down with the musicians. It is weird. Of course, it is. But the vibe is still there and that transcends everything. The vibe of the songs was bigger than the Covid-19 guidelines.”
Would the album have come out sooner if it wasn’t for the pandemic?
“Oh yes. Much sooner. I think everything was just figuring out how to go about putting out an album in the midst of all this. I’ve had three tours cancelled now. In the end, I’ve just decided I want this album out. Normally it’d coincide with a big live plan, but I just want it out. The tour isn’t until next April now, but I can’t wait another year. I feel like we need new music. People are gasping for new music. The love I’ve felt from these latest singles has been more than for anything else I’ve ever done. That convinced me. I love this album, I want people to have it.”
Speaking to a lot of artists, it seems like things move slowly enough when there’s a major label involved…
“Absolutely. It was already feeling like that. It just kept getting pushed back and back. In the end, I had to drive the label to put it out earlier.”
You’ve always toured really hard, has it felt odd having time away?
“I’ve enjoyed it. I loved touring, but I’ve never struggled to find things to do. I was really busy. As well as co-producing the album, which I had to do from home and a lot of emails back and forth, I made a spoken word EP, Slip Of The Tongue. I’ve made videos and I’ve been writing like mad. Being in one place has been good for me.”
You’ve talked in other interviews about it being an album with a lot of love. Is that something you were aware of during the writing or something you’ve only discovered after it was all done?
“That was definitely afterwards. In other interviews, they’ve been trying to make me nail down a theme. I don’t know. I love letting the song lead me. I’ve restricted myself in the past and I’ve made myself stick to a narrative and I don’t want to do that anymore. It kept coming up, so I thought about it, I was lying in bed going over the songs and it’s love, all kinds of love. Romantic love, lustful love, fighting for love, acceptance and opening yourself to love. There’s even a song written from the perspective of Mother Earth, written during the bushfires and laying waste to the Amazon. ‘Made To Love’ is from love’s own perspective. Now I know it’s the theme, I’m very happy about it, I just didn’t know it beforehand.”
If a song needs to lead you, does that mean you discard songs very quickly if they’re proving difficult?
“Not necessarily. I do during the writing process. I co-wrote with a few different people, mostly with Tim Bran and Davide Rossi, but also with Pedro Vito and Sebastian Sternberg. I’m a lyricist. I write lyrics and poems daily. I need people for the arrangement who can lead me somewhere I wouldn’t go myself. Every session they’d come along and play me things they’d been working on, then we’d take it on. That takes you in all kinds of different directions. You have to wait for something to move you, then my hand can’t keep up with my head. That’s in the writing, but if a song makes it through that and into recording, sometimes it’s tricky.”
Do you lose something?
“Something just doesn’t sit with it. That’s when you have to decide, is it worth working on or should I let you? If I know I’ve written a good song, I’ll stick with it, I’ll try and find a way. I won’t give up easily when you’ve got that far.”
Is there a track on the album that’s a particular example of that?
“‘Made To Love’, I almost let it go. I was happy with the song and what Tim and Davide had done. It moved me from the start and I came up with the lyrics and melody quite quickly. We had the bones of it down, but when it came to recording, something really didn’t gel. Everyone had done everything right, but it didn’t gel with me, it didn’t feel like it had enough rawness.”
How did you fix it?
“Everybody needs people who are very, very honest. People who will be straight with you. Bono is one of those people for me. I don’t talk to him a lot, but he’s there when I need him, especially if I’m really stuck. I told him what was happening and he said ‘Send to me and I’ll have a listen’. I asked him what he thought and if I should get rid of it? He said: “Absolutely not! Keep working on the chorus. You have something”. It was ‘Don’t Be Afraid To Love’ and he suggested flipping it and giving it a positive spin and he was right. It changed the song completely.”
It’s a messy, unpredictable process…
“It is, but it helps to have people who know what they’re doing and who’ll be straight with you. If you play it to family and friends, it’s difficult for them to disassociate from you personally. I just couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. I’m so glad Bono told me to stick with it and keep going.”
He’s written a hit or two in his time…
“He knows his s**t for sure. Sometimes if you have a negative lyric with a positive chord sequence, if you flip that on its head and have a positive sequence with a negative sequence, it turns the song around. Gives it a new balance.”
When did you decide that 11 Past The Hour was the right title for the album?
“It had been in my head for a while. ‘Breathe’ was the first song I wrote for the album, I’d just met Tim and Davide, it was the first day we wrote together and that was what came out and I was so happy. And I kept seeing the number 11 everywhere. It was weird. I started looking up some things and it turns out it’s a call in lots of different cultures over time. It’s a call for intuition and awakening and it’s led me down this path that includes paganism and pre-Christian Ireland."
"I started to dig into my heritage and it went into astrology and numerology. In Ireland, there’s this place called Newgrange, it’s 2,000 years older than the pyramids, it’s 5,000 years old! You can go inside and put your fingers in the grooves that somebody chipped away at 5,000 years ago. People who were creating art that they knew would last, art that they knew they would never see the end of, leaving things for future generations."
"That was all because of seeing 11:11. I wanted to tell a story with that song. I wanted to write a song that tells people it’s okay to still feel like a child and want to be scooped up and comforted and told it’s all going to be okay. That’s the perspective I wanted. Somebody to tell you ‘Dance with me, darling, everything’s going to be fine’. And, if you look on the album cover, I got this perspex piece of artwork made, it’s beside me on the bed. The reflection reflects off the headboard of my bed and it says 11:11. No planning at all!”
Started with a loose idea and you had no idea where it would take you…
“I didn’t want to look into the past specifically. I’m not big on looking back. But I do think we can learn from the past. With all our intelligence as humans, something’s really gone wrong. There was a respect for nature in those days that was beautiful and we can take a lot from.”
You’ve got a few festivals, but the bulk of your touring will be next year. How’s your setlist shaping up? Will it go heavy on the newer songs?
“When I have a new album, I always do that. I’ll do a few from other albums, but I’ll do all the songs from this album. I’m dying to do them. I can’t wait to tweak and make them work for a live set and for the songs to evolve as we can. By the time you’re picking later singles, you’ve already got some audience feedback and know what works. I can’t wait to get back with my band and work these songs out.”
Finally, you said you’ve been writing like crazy, are you planning the new album already?
“I’m in the middle of another project and I’m contractually obliged not to say a thing. I’m also finishing my poetry book and I’ll be gathering a lot of poems together. I’ve got 150, 200 poems to sift through and get down. I do have in my mind what I want from my next album, I’m not going to get it down yet, but I’m inspired. I’ll just have to leave it dormant in the back of my mind for now…”