salt-of-the-earth | 

Dubliner Imelda May insists she may be famous, but she 'still worries about money'

Singing sensation Imelda May opens up about the terrible loss of her mam and why sticking together when times are tough matters

Imelda May

Eddie Rowley

When Imelda May was a child growing up in the Liberties, Dublin, her dream was to join the colourful world of the circus.

"In a way I did," Imelda laughs, when Magazine+ catches up with the star at the end of her UK tour and just before she sets off for her current run of shows around Ireland.

As we speak, the songwriter, poet and performer is tackling the less glamorous side of life on the road - doing her laundry. "I'm getting ready to wash loads of everything and repack," she says.

What you see is what you get with Imelda. There are no delusions of grandeur. She's a quintessential salt-of-the-earth Dub whose talent has taken her to the top of the music world.

Imelda lives for the stage. "I've been performing live since I was a teenager," she reflects. "I love music, I love writing, I love recording…but I love then getting out on the road and performing for people.

"It is a bit like being in the circus. You roll into town, set up the show, perform it, send everybody home happy and then you pack up and head off again.

"It's not for everybody, but I love seeing the reaction of people to the music after all the work of writing and recording it."

Imelda kept herself busy creatively during lockdown by releasing a new album (11 Past The Hour), a book of poetry (A Lick and a Promise), an acting role in the Fisherman's Friends 2 movie, presenting a TV documentary (Voices of Ireland) and dreaming up a new stage production.

'My mam set up the Liberties Music and Drama Group with pals of hers. My dad made the backdrops. They complemented each other well'

But she admits to stressing about what life after Covid would be like during that period. "It's been hard emotionally and mentally. There were the worries that come with 'will it ever get back to normal again?' There were the financial worries as well."

The public perception when you're famous is that you're well off financially, Magazine+ interjects. "No, it doesn't work like that," Imelda says. "People think because they know your name that you have no financial worries anymore, but you do. And certainly female performers do because we tend not to get paid as much.

"Also, I have a whole crew and band. I have people that are relying on me, so the pressure is there to get on the road for everybody. I have to make sure that everybody is ok.

"We are a family when we're on the road and we look out for each other. I make sure to keep a happy vibe for all of us. If there are any problems I'll find out how we can fix it and we work it out together. We're all in it together."

Poetry has always been a creative outlet for Imelda, and she's thrilled by the success of her first published collection.

Her circle of close female friends in England ask her to recite some of her hilarious poems to them at the end of a boozy night.

"There's loads of humorous ones and they get me to read those," she jokes. "There's one about a vibrator called GBH, which stands for Grevious Battery Harm. It's about a housewife whose relationship has gone a bit dull. She's fed up waiting on somebody to please her, so she takes matters into her own hands. It's humorous, it's funny.

"The book has all kinds of poems, romantic and sensual. Everytime we do a reprint it keeps selling out. I've had a few people telling me it actually introduced them to poetry and they are going to look into more, which is so wonderful."

A Lick and a Promise also features a poem dedicated to her father, Tony Clabby.

Imelda with her mam Madge, who died last year aged 94, and her dad Tony in 2017

"The Dancer and the Dream is all about him giving up his dreams for us," Imelda explains. "My dad was a dance teacher and photographer, but he wasn't making enough money to feed us and look after us, so he gave it up and became a painter and decorator for Dublin Corporation.

"I'm so glad that things have gone well for me because I feel like I can give him some of his dream back by bringing him on the road and giving him the best seats in the house.

"We have everybody giving him a big cheer and he loves it. It's been wonderful for me to be able to do that for him and for mam before she died."

Imelda's beloved mother, Madge, died last November at the age of 94. "My mam started the Liberties Music and Drama Group with friends of hers. My dad made the backdrops. They complemented each other very well," she says.

"They were salt-of-the-earth, really grounded, but also away with the fairies in the most gorgeous way. They had an attitude of anything was possible. To be able to be grounded, but also fly up to the stars was from them."

How is her dad coping these days? "He misses his best pal that he's had for 60 years," Imelda tells. "They were joined at the hip and he misses her dreadfully.

"We're taking good care of him and keeping him busy, bringing him out and giving him loads of love. He's coming to a load of the gigs, Cork and the three gigs in Dublin."

Imelda herself sounds like a woman who is loving life these days. Is this the best stage of her life? "Oh God yeah, and it keeps getting better," she smiles.

"I think for a writer, as time goes on and life unfolds it just gives you more and more to write about. I suppose you don't take things for granted either, and at the same time you couldn't care less what other people think.

"There's a beautiful liberation in that. There's a beautiful freedom. You just think, 'To hell with it - this is what I want to do', and you do it. So I'm having great fun."

Imelda previously had a distinctive rockabilly look

Her new partner, Niall McNamee, a singer-songwriter and actor, has also been on the road with her. "I have Niall McNamee, who is my fella, now opening the show, as is Rachael Sage. So audiences are getting a little mini-festival," continues Imelda.

"Niall's on the road with me because he's brilliant, not because he's my fella. He's an absolutely brilliant artist. His songs are phenomenal and it's not just me saying it. He's flying."

Mum-of-one Imelda reveals how Niall, who is 19 years her junior, was also her rock when her mother died. "When my mam died he cancelled every single one of his gigs that had just come up, and I'm very grateful for that," she says.

"Niall is not on the full tour with me because he has his own gigs, but when he is we sing our duet, Don't Let Me Stand on my Own. It's all about mental health and sticking together when you need each other.

"It's good to be back and we finish every night on a high."

Imelda May's Made To Love tour is at Cork Opera House from May 9-10, the National Opera House in Wexford on May 11 and Dublin's Vicar Street from May 13-15

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