Dublin icon Imelda May has always been prolific, and her current creative blend of heartfelt poetry and sparkling collaborative music – two things she largely keeps distinct – is no different. May’s determined to take the positives from lockdown, and while her current record dates back to some degree to what we’ll call ‘the before time’, it’s full of shining positivity, an ode to what she feels we currently need.
The Liberties-bred singer is still very much about fostering creativity, with a sweeping, experimental workflow that sees her explore time with various connections she meets along the way and connects with, as well as spending time exploring her own ‘wants’. In fact, she barely sees the whole process as work, the business aspect of it all aside. The latest record, ‘11 Past The Hour’, she feels is her best yet.
“If I could, I’d sit and write every day, if life didn’t get in the way, the business side of getting an album out,” she says. “Sitting and writing is something I love, it’s my time to wind down. But the poetry and songwriting are two different things for me.”
“I’m trying to make them the same, but poetry is something I find more liberating. I don’t have to think of a band, or time limits – length, and so on. I don’t have to construct a song, and arrangements. I just write and that’s it.”
“‘Solace’ [from the new record] is the only poem I’ve turned into a song. I’d been to see U2 in London with my friend Pedro Vito, and we had a stinking hangover the next day. We were supposed to write a song, which we did, and it was kind of rubbish.”
“I got some coffee, and when I came back, he was looking at my poetry book, which I’d left open, and he was working on the music for it. So ‘Solace’ was a poem that became a song, and not really changed at all. I think it’s one of my favourite songs on the album.”
In fact, focusing on what she considers her strengths and gathering talented assistance on what she feels less able for has become part of May’s modus operandi. The numerous collaborative efforts, including with Ronnie Wood, Miles Kane and Noel Gallagher, are a product of that.
“I’m predominantly a lyricist, so the lyrics and the melody are mine, my fortes,” she explains. “I want to concentrate on that, and free myself up. Everyone else who’s involved in the album did the other parts. I love that way of working, because it brings me somewhere else that I wouldn’t have necessarily gone.”
“When you see all those names on each song, they worked on a piece of music and sent it to me. Sometimes we work together to get it right, of course, but that’s more or less the way.”
“I like to work with people I meet and let things flow. I don’t sit around and make decisions about who to work with next, it’s normally someone I bump into. Davide Rossi I ended up working with through Pedro Vito, for example. I was working with Pedro first, and Pedro was playing me something with beautiful string arrangements, and I asked who that was. It was Davide. That’s how it flows for me, it’s natural.”
The weeks before the release, in some ways, are the most stressful times around an album for May.
“This time before release is when I listen back and want to change loads of things,” she says. “It’s hard to let it go when you’ve worked on something so much. Every aspect of it, from the writing, to recording to my co-producing, mixing, mastering, working on the artwork… it’s really hard to decide when to stop. When I need to send it in, I always feel there’s something I need to fix and check or tweak. The hard bit is letting it go.”
“Now that it’s done, I’m really excited for people to hear this. It’s my favourite album I’ve ever made, and I think there’s so much positivity in it, which I hope people get something from. I think we all need that at the moment. I think I’m the most excited of any album to get this out.”
Positivity is at the very heart of that. “With anything, sometimes the darkness brings out the light. It makes you realise what’s important. The album is all about love in different forms. Not romantic love, though there is some of that, it’s about mental health, supporting each other, standing on your own, fighting for love, and sticking up for people who died for love. It’s also about mother earth. There’s darkness and light.”
As well as the music, May’s recently been in the news for her poem ‘You Don’t Get To Be Racist and Irish’, something she feels extremely strongly about, and plastered on posters across much of the city.
“Of all people, we should know what it’s like to seek refuge and try and make a better life, and have empathy because of that,” she says of the message to Irish people. “I felt the posters around the city were the right thing to do, I was just trying to do something good, although I wrote it for myself. On the one hand it got a great reaction, but on the other hand it got so much anger and negativity, which I’m getting on a daily basis since I wrote it, for ten months now.”
“Sometimes the haters are just louder, and most of those who don’t like the poem don’t know what it’s about. Most of them haven’t read it. If you read that poem and find it offensive, you probably are racist. If you hate people and tell everybody to get out and don’t notice the similarities to the stories of our history as an oppressed country, that’s crazy. The oppressed become the oppressors and I find a real sadness in that. I was just pointing out the irony of that.”
Inspiration, for May, comes from her surroundings, but she’s careful, too, how she curates them. “I need books around me, and I dip into them all the time, and that inspires me,” she says. “Poetry for me is a fast way of getting art into you. Having a poetry book near you is good for us, not like staring at our phones. It takes minutes and gives you a lovely thought for the day, or for life, sometimes.”
“I think you need to drink that nice wine, and wear those nice clothes. Don’t wait for the moment. This is the moment,” she finishes. “Each album is where I am at that moment in my life. I don’t use what’s leftover. It’s about that moment.”