‘I may be famous but I still worry about money’
Dublin singing sensation Imelda May opens up about the terrible loss of her mam, keeping the vibes happy with her musical family, and why sticking together when times are tough matters. By Eddie Rowley
WHEN Imelda May was a child growing up with dreams and fantasies, she wanted to join the colourful world of the circus.
“In a way I did,” Imelda says, when
Magazine+ catches up with the Dublin-born singing star at the end of her U.K. tour and before she headed out for her current run of shows in her native Ireland.
As we speak, the songwriter, poet and performer is tackling the personal side of life on the road – doing her laundry. “I’m getting ready to wash loads of everything and repack,” she tells me.
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 the lockdowns 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.
But she admits to having been stressed about life after Covid 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. “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 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. There are 12 of us on the tour bus.”
Poetry has always been a creative outlet for Imelda, and she’s thrilled by the success of her first published collection, A Lick And A Promise.
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 laughs. “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.
“It has all kinds of poems, romantic and sensual, so I’m delighted that’s going so well. Everytime we do a reprint it keeps selling out. It’s brilliant that poetry is being bought and being devoured. I’ve had a few people telling me that 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.
“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 mum, 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, so I think that’s where I got a lot of my ideas from. 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 says. “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 says.
“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.”
Her new partner, Niall McNamee, a singer-songwriter and actor,, has 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 and a huge production for the price of a normal ticket.
“And people are really coming more than I’ve ever seen to see the opening acts, which is gorgeous.”
They’ll be going early to see Imelda’s fella. “Well, he’s on the road with me because he’s brilliant, not because he’s my fella,” she says. “He’s an absolutely brilliant artist. His songs are phenomenal and it’s not just me saying it. He’s flying.”
Imelda revealed how Niall, who is 19 years her junior, had also been the rock in her life when her mother died last year. “When my mam died he cancelled every single one of his gigs that had just come up, and I’m very grateful for that.
“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 includes Cork’s Opera House tomorrow and Tuesday and Dublin’s Vicar Street next Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
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