Irish songstress Imelda May is back with a new look and a new outlook on life
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Irish songstress Imelda May is back with a new look and a new outlook on life

MOST will have seen the images by now. But for anyone who hasn’t heard, Imelda May has had a makeover.

The ‘cinnamon’ bun, as she called the bleached blond swirl, has gone and the iconic quiff traded for a trendy black fringe.

But it isn’t only her hair that’s changed. Imelda May, the ‘femme fatale of rockabilly’ has decided to tone down the glam and adopt a more natural look.

Now, instead of slinky leopard print dresses, its silk shirts and casual denims. Initial reaction, especially to the hairdo, took her by surprise.

“Who’d have thought a haircut would attract so much attention?” she laughs. “Some people even asked if it was part of a career move. But there’s no big mystery. I just fancied a change.”

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Judging by recent events, including the breakdown of her marriage to guitarist and band member Darrel Higham, not to mention the failure of a subsequent relationship, the past few years have wrought some major upheaval in Imelda’s personal life.

Perhaps, she’s trying to re-invent herself?

“No, I wouldn’t call it a reinvention,” she says, her Irish accent undiminished, despite twenty years living in London. “I see it more as a journey of self-discovery.”

While she’s tight-lipped about her personal life, her latest album Life Love Flesh Blood charts a lot of the emotion.

You only have to listen to the gorgeous ballad Black Tears to realise it’s the sound of a heart breaking.

Imelda confesses there is heartache in her new album. (Picture: Eddie Otchere)
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I’ve poured my heart and soul into this album

“I’ve poured my heart and soul into this album. I’ve given it everything. I see it as a kind of journal, a way to express my feelings so yes, there is heartache in it. But it definitely isn’t a heartbreak album.

"I mean it reflects the changes both in my personal life and as a songwriter so, as well as pain, there’s also humour and a sense of optimism, a kind of looking forward to the next bit.”

Wherever the future leads, Imelda May has come a long way since she made her public debut at Bruxelles in Dublin.

“I was just 16 and my sister’s boyfriend got me up to sing. That was it. I went on to sing with various bands, working shifts to pay my way.

"It was a lot of fun, yet all the time I was learning my trade, listening to older, more experienced musicians.”

She picked up a lot of tips over the years. But no doubt the best advice was given by her dad, who managed to turn a painful incident into a life lesson.

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“I’d broken up with a boyfriend and my dad noticed I was a bit down. He told me ‘you have to feel the emotion before you can sing it’.”

Maybe it’s this sincerity that enables fans to empathise and gives May’s songs an emotional edge.

Unlike many manufactured bands today, her success didn’t happen overnight.

Imelda was amazed that a haircut could attract so much attention. (Picture: Eddie Otchere)

I don’t think I’d have coped very well with overnight success

“I don’t think I’d have coped very well with overnight success. Looking back, those little pubs and clubs allowed me to grow as well as make my mistakes. I’m sure instant fame would have messed with my head.”

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Although the band was formed in 2002, May’s real breakthrough came about when her album Love Tattoo caught the attention of Jools Holland, who invited her to accompany him on tour. She also appeared on his show Later with Jools Holland.

“I love the way life twists and turns, you never know what’s gonna happen next. Sometimes, I look back and think ‘wow, so that’s what that was all about’.

"More often than not it’s the little incidents that lead to something big and unexpected.”

It could be argued that her appearance, alongside Jeff Beck and other notable luminaries, at the Les Paul tribute in New York had a lot to do with a crow named Dave!

“Oh yeah, that’s quite a story,” she chuckles. “To cut it short, I found a little fledgling crow that had fallen out of a tree and decided to look after him until he was big enough to release.

"I named him Dave and as he got bigger I brought him to gigs with me and let him sit on my shoulder.

“As it turned out, Jeff Beck’s wife had an aviary and was used to working with wild birds. She offered to help me so I took him round to their place and Jeff, whom I already knew, just happened to be home.

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“Naturally we started jamming together, playing How High the Moon. Afterwards, he invited me to accompany him on the Les Paul and Mary Ford tour.  So, technically, I suppose there was a link.”

Nowadays May no longer plays surrogate mum to a bird, she’s too busy looking after her own little girl.

“I love being a mum. She’s a great kid, I love her to bits. It’s amazing how a child totally changes your life.

“I tend to find myself worrying about things like the state of the planet and run around doing the whole recycling bit, trying to keep the world tidy.”

Imelda May live in Birmingham. (Picture: Chris Egan)

A concert tour combined with the demands of a young child, sounds exhausting. Considering reports of illness during a previous tour, how does she find time, as well as energy?

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“Since becoming a mum, I’ve become very good at managing time. I mean, you have to make it work. I tend to look for little pockets in the day when I can get things done.

I’m feeling good at the minute.  My diet is great now. At one stage, I became quite ill through not eating the right stuff.

"We were on tour and, as a vegetarian, I simply couldn’t get hold of my usual ingredients. Anyway, my doctor said I should add a little protein, and since then I’ve been eating small amounts of meat and fish.”

Whatever fans make of May’s new look, the sound of Life Love Flesh Blood is bound to be a winner.  Her distinctive voice takes the listener on a musical odyssey through smouldering jazz to a joyful exploration of the blues.

As well as Jeff Beck, who accompanies May on Black Tears, Jools Holland also makes an appearance, with When It’s My Time.

With a tour of Britain already underway, May is enjoying being back on the road.

“Although I was born in Ireland, I’ve been living in London for over two decades. We go back to visit now and then, but I love London and the people I’ve met there.”

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As for the future?

“Who knows what life has in store? But I’m happy just to wait and see what happens next.”

Imelda May's new album Life Love Flesh Blood is out now.