On 'Life Love Flesh Blood,' Imelda May Writes About 'Everything'

Irish singer Imelda May, known for a hard-driving '50s rockabilly style, has changed her tune. Her new album, Life Love Flesh Blood, is an autobiographical collection of smoky torch songs, soul and blues; it comes out following the end of her 18-year marriage. But May tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro that this isn't a straightforward breakup record.

"I wrote the album over the course of a year, so I wrote it about everything," she says. "So yes, my marriage breakup is in there, but then I met someone else — and feeling guilty for being happy again, and then having desire and sensuality, all these beautiful things that are certainly a different experience in your 40s than in your 20s, you know? You learn new things about yourself."

Hear more from May, including her explanation of how her career paralleled the movie The Commitments, at the audio link.

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Irish singer Imelda May has changed her tune. Known for her hard-driving '50s rockabilly styling, her latest album takes a turn towards smokey torch songs, soul and blues.


IMELDA MAY: (Singing) I could tell you all the things I do for you. But it's no surprise, and you'll just roll your eyes and say, here we go again. She's going to moan again. I should spare your love, just thing a or two. But you don't disguise when I'm just white noise. And it's done before it begins.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's "Should've Been You" off of Imelda May's new album "Life, Love, Flesh, Blood." This is an autobiographical collection that comes out of the end of her 18-year marriage. Imelda May joins us now from our London studios. Welcome to the program.

MAY: Hi.


MAY: How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm very well. I heard you bought a nice leather jacket (laughter).

MAY: I did. I did. I got the times for the interview wrong and went, oh, no...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I must go shopping.

MAY: I must go shopping. Spent all my money, so.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, you've said about this album, it's all in their - birth, sex, love divorce and death. It's the story of my life. Is it tough creating something so personal?

MAY: When I'm writing, I go inwards, you know? So it wasn't so frightening. It was more therapeutic if that makes sense. It was nice to just get it all out there and say what I wanted to say. It's like a diary almost.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it hard, though, to expose yourself like that - to know that there's a musical record of what you may have been going through?

MAY: In a way, yes. But when I wrote my first album, it's fine because you don't really think anybody is going to hear it in a way. So you just write what you want to write, and there's a freedom in that. And I wanted to get back to that on this album. On the other albums, I wrote honestly, but I'd be aware that people might hear it and, therefore, I almost hid things in there, you know? But on this album, I wanted to go back to basics and just say what I wanted to say and not think of anybody else.


MAY: (Singing) Try to resist you, but I couldn't. Try to not to kiss you - knew I shouldn't. But I was weak for you. You got to me. Thought I was stronger. Oh, how I was wrong. How bad can a good girl be?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Giving into temptation? Tell me about "How Bad Can A Good Girl Be." This sounds like it was a lot of fun to write.

MAY: (Laughter) It was. And I thought after a chord, and I thought, oh, my mother will kill me (laughter). On this one - I mean, I wrote the album over the course of a year. So I wrote about everything. Yes, my marriage break up was in there, but then I met someone else. And feeling guilty for being happy again and then having desire and sensuality - all these beautiful things that are certainly different to experience in your 40s than in your 20s. You know, you learn new things about yourself. And that's why I came up with "How Bad Can A Good Girl Be."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to give our listeners who may not be familiar with your earlier style a sense of what it was, of rockabilly Imelda. So let's hear just a little bit of "Johnny Got A Boom Boom."


MAY: (Singing) He got me with a hook, those big bass notes. Thunder in my chest, stuck in my throat. Pulling me down like a rumble in the ground. Crawls up from the depths wit a deep down sound. Johnny got a boom boom. Johnny got a bam. He got a.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've mentioned this that you feel that you wanted to get back to something more authentic or something more central. And you've said before that you felt as if you had been dressing up as Imelda May. You've changed your sound. You've changed your hair. Is this the real Imelda May or just a different one?

MAY: I am both - both. I love rockabilly. And part of the reason why I went so headfirst into it was I started off doing blues and jazz and roots music in Dublin. "The Commitments" is like my life, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) The film?

MAY: Yes. It was almost exactly like that. And I was in pubs and clubs and jamming with my friends and, like I said, blues and jazz and soul and gospel - all these country - all these roots music that made sense to me from where I was from. And then I had some rockabilly in there, as well.

And when I started to get more well-known, I got a record company telling me - a couple of them telling me everything else is great, but get rid of the rockabilly. It's a death.


MAY: Yes.


MAY: And that made me want to do it more, one, because I'm a stubborn cow. I'm a mule. But the other was I wondered why such an influential music was so shunned when, you know, everybody from the Beatles to Jimmy Page - they all tell you they wanted to be rockabillies.

And then the more I got to know it, it made me want to shed light on it. And hopefully, if I did it and did it well, I might introduce it to some new people. I didn't want to just stay in a box for the rest of my life. And it got to a point where it became this - Imelda May, you know, and the retro girl and rockabilly girl. And no artist wants to be wrapped up with a bow like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was fascinated to find out that you do all of your backing vocals. Let's listen to "Bad Habits"


MAY: (Singing) Spending money like I have it. A bad habit, spending money like I have it. Spending money like I have it. A bad habit, spending money like I have it. Oh, yeah, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Such a great tune. Tell me, doing your own backing vocals, why do that?

MAY: It's cheap.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's one answer.

MAY: Which is also why I produced my own records for so long. I'll be in little studios and think, all right, what can I do next, because I couldn't afford to pay everybody. And so I produced my own records, and I did all my own backing vocals.

But my sister taught me harmonies when I was like four years old. She brought me to church and got me to sing with her. And I try all kinds of things from textures and noises and little things like even a hidden (vocalizing). You know, kind of getting little weird textures in. I've tried all kinds of things.

And I did a gospel choir on "When It's My Time." And I tried to make my sound slightly different. And I named them all so it was easier to mix. I was going, can we go back to Gladys? And I was Gladys and Mable on the other one. And I named my different voices.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Your multiple personality of backing vocals - I love it.

MAY: Yeah, I loved it. And it's - I just find so much fun. I just thoroughly enjoy it, and that's the main reason I do it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've got time for one more song. And, of course, with a title like "Black Tears," I think it has to be that one. Set it up for us. What is this song?

MAY: I always write down, you know, little tiny notes in this book - choruses or verses. And I wrote down "Black Tears" about a time that it was a long goodbye and it was a heartbreaking goodbye. And I saw a reflection of myself in a mirror, and my face was black streaming with my mascara running. And I just start singing (singing) black tears.


MAY: (Singing) Black tears, one will fall for every good year. rolling down my face inside I'm dying. Outside I'm crying black tears.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Makes me want to break out the whiskey. Imelda May's new album is called "Life, Love, Flesh Blood." Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

MAY: Thank you very much for taking the time. And I love National Public Radio. I think it's a great concept, and thank you.


MAY: (Singing) Black tears... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.