Since writing and launching her debut, but especially since sophomore album ‘Love Tattoo’, the biggest selling record by any Irish female artist ever, Imelda May has been part of the folklore of a certain distinctive part of Dublin city.
The Liberties has its own special character, and Imelda, despite having moved to the south of England with her daughter, still holds the place in the highest of esteem. “My heart and soul is in The Liberties, and I’ll be coming back,” she tells us. “I wouldn’t be a musician or a writer if it wasn’t for being from there.”
“It’s so pervasive and colourful, a place where eccentricities are really encouraged. I used to put my demos in the fruit and veg store on Meath Street, and they’d make everyone who came in keep quiet and listen to them. You never forget that kind of support.”
“Poetry was everywhere, too. People have been asking me recently if I think poetry is elitist. It absolutely is not. My dad used to read me Spike Milligan. I have an uncle who was a taxi driver and a poet. Another guy did beautiful oil paintings and drove the delivery trucks, and my aunt used to dance. The place is so creative, it’s part of its spirit.” Some of May’s own work is used in support of the Penny Dinners in the area, with the poem ‘Liberty Belle’ a particular dedication.
Imelda May, of course, is best known for her music, but after a two year period in which she’s been writing relentlessly but doing far less in public, she tells me poetry has become an equally natural outlet for her. More than 100 poems and around 60 songs have come from this period, in which she typically takes her daughter to school, does the things that need doing around the house, and then settles in to write whatever comes to her.
It was intended that the next album would be a more conventional record; instead, lockdown has contributed to May producing a 9-track EP of spoken word work combined with the lightest of musical backdrops. It’s a short-sweet record that packs plenty of punch, not least on the the track ‘GBH’, on which May’s lead character finds escapism in a certain kind of pleasure.
“I wrote what I felt,” she says of the EP. “Whatever I feel, I go with it. I’m always open to a bit of vitriol, and sometimes I do worry that this stuff will haunt me, that I could regret it, but so far I never have. My girlfriends get me to recite that track over a margarita all the time now.”
“When it comes to writing, I really have to follow the flow,” she says of both her music and poetry. “It’s a little freer with the poetry, as it doesn’t have to fit a structure. When you get in that zone, I find, that’s when you can’t quite write quick enough. I sometimes say it’s like catching a cloud. If you don’t get it in that moment, it’s gone.”
May tested her writing to the limit in a brave recent exploration at music festivals, something she hopes to do again. Building a perspex box in the chillout area of UK festival Latitude, she sat inside with wine and cigarettes, challenging herself to pen a poem in just 45 minutes, and then perform it for the assembled audience.
The project, called ‘Hallowed’, was a great success. “It was just a reflected space, but it was a massive challenge, terrifying,” she recalls. “45 minutes is really not much time. I do find though that for art, comfort is kryptonite. You really have to push yourself out of a safe space. I did ‘Hallowed’ for three nights, and one of the poems was good enough that I think I’ll use it on another EP. This freedom to do things is really what the last couple of years have been about for me, I’m really lucky my record label have been so supportive.”
When she does return to playing live, May will be looking to find ways to integrate poetry between her music, though she’s not entirely sure how just yet. In the meantime, she’s finding isolation productive, if a little uncomfortable.
“It’s horrific, worrying, terrifying,” she says of the shutdown, “my moods have been swinging rapidly though, I think like all of us, between being a bit afraid of it all, and enjoying this time and almost not caring. I know that sounds harsh, but we rarely get to be peaceful and relaxed like this.”
If the ‘Slip of the Tongue’ EP is any indication of where May stands amongst it all, it’s a clear indication that the creative vibrance is, whatever her challenges, shining boldly through.
Imelda May’s spoken word EP ‘Slip Of the Tongue’ is being unveiled at a trac a week right now. It’s full launch, on Decca Records, is on June 12.