Imelda May

‘I had my heart bro­ken … Dad told me it would help me sing the blues bet­ter’

The Guardian - Family - - Front page - Imelda May Interview by Joanna Moor­head

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’

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