‘I had my heart broken … Dad told me it would help me sing the blues better’
I am the youngest of six, but one of my
brothers died at birth. He was taken from my mam and buried in a mass grave, but later my dad and my uncle found where he was and put up a headstone. He has never been forgotten; he is part of us. Another of my brothers has named his son Patrick after him.
My mother was 48 when she had me – I was the surprise. I was brought up on the old movies she loved: Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Norma Shearer – all the big names of the 30s and 40s. My dad had been an old-time-dance teacher; he used to say the 60s had put him out of a job, because dancing changed after that. He became a painter and decorator instead. They lived in two rooms in the Liberties area of Dublin until they were expecting me. At that point, they moved into a two-up, two-down, which even had an indoor toilet. It felt like a mansion to them.
Both my parents were musical. My mum had been a seamstress and she wasn’t allowed to talk when she was working, but she was allowed to sing; she would sing all day long. My dad would play the harmonica. The record player was on the whole time and everyone liked different music, so there was a huge range of sounds: David Bowie, the Specials, Bing Crosby, the Carpenters, the Clash, Ella Fitzgerald, the Undertones. I soaked everything up – I remember spending hours by that record player copying out lyrics over and over again.
Our family wasn’t rich, but we had amazing travels. We went camping – in Spain, in Italy. When we went back to school after the summer holidays, they would ask all the children what they had done and everyone else would be like, “I was in London,” or, “We went to the beach.” I would say, “We went to Pompeii,” or, “I went to Morocco,” and they would say, “Put your hand out for the strap, Imelda Clabby [May is her stage name],” because they didn’t believe I could be telling the truth. My mam took a little stove with her and, wherever we were, she would get it out and produce a meal. Sometimes we had to choose what we wanted to see, because they couldn’t afford to take all of us to every attraction. The others would come back and tell you about it.
My ex-husband, Darrel Highham, and
I were together for 18 years. It is hard when you have spent so much of your life with someone. It is easy to ignore what’s going wrong; you don’t want to hurt or disappoint anyone. You want everything to be a fairytale and it is hard to admit it’s not. But we are very lucky: we have a great relationship and the focus is our daughter, Violet, who is five. We know we have to be a good team for her and we are.
I still love Darrel, but life got in the way. I am not the same person now, at 43, that I was in my 20s. When I was very young, my dad was driving me to a blues club and I was crying because some boy had broken my heart, and Dad said: “Good, you’ll sing the blues better tonight.” He was telling me to channel it into my music. My mum would say: “It’s a story – tell the story.” So that’s what I’ve done with my latest album. I haven’t held back. It has been liberating and scary. But Darrel understands: he’s a musician too, he also did an album earlier this year – I sang on it.
After the break up with Darrel I fell for
someone and it didn’t go well, so I had my heart broken again – I was writing my way through all these feelings of anxiety and excitement and lust and desire and sensuality. And right there in the mix, too, is hundreds of years of Irish Catholic guilt – feeling guilty because I just split up with my husband, and here I am feeling desire again. Imelda May is on tour until the end of December: imeldamay.co.uk/#live. Her album Life. Love. Flesh. Blood is out now
When I was young, I was crying because some boy had broken my heart, and Dad said: ‘Good, you’ll sing the blues better’