Dublin singer Imelda May: 'Women want to be treated as equals'
Ahead of her Belfast gig this month, Imelda May tells Joe Nerssessian how the pain of divorce and the joy of motherhood allowed her to create her most searing, honest record yet.
Dublin at night. Imelda May roams the streets she grew up in, a brief escape from the chaotic conveyor belt of reporters eager to talk about divorce, motherhood, and her latest album.
Walking where her mother and grandmother did before her, she observes the touch of a hand on someone's back, a conversation in a dark alleyway, brief interactions. A few weeks later she compares it to being in a glass box, detached from reality.
"It's unsettling and beautiful at the same time," the 42-year-old explains down the phone from her garden in London.
"It just sparks something in your head, a few lines of song or poetry. I walked into the town and it all poured out of me, just a 20-minute walk."
She can't be in that head space all the time, with a four-year-old daughter, but describes it as an escape, "Especially when you're writing about bad times".
Those bad times are rather prominent in Life. Love. Flesh. Blood, the fifth studio album from the Irish songstress. In 2015, after 12 years of marriage, she divorced her former band member and father to Violet, Darrel Higham.
Writing allowed her to channel the negativity into something positive and produce a piece of work, produced by T-Bone Burnett (Elton John, Elvis Costello), which ditched her signature rockabilly sound for soft rock and acoustic ballads.
It also coincided with a new look for the singer, as she swapped her trademark highlight cowlick quiff for a fringe.
And the transformation began with scrapping any kind of plan for the record.
"I didn't intend to do anything other than write an honest album," she says, "I was fed up of planning I was going to write. That freedom was lovely and life was changing so I dug deep and now I'm feeling the pros and cons of doing it."
Those negatives are having her soul pulled apart by "cut-throat journalists" (kindly, she says I'm an exception) but the pros include connecting to people on a greater level and flung her into place where she has rediscovered an urgency for learning.
"I feel like I got so stuck for a while and somehow got unstuck and I'm running with it and I can't get enough of it," she says, "I want to hear every album, I want to know every lyric, I want to see every play, I want to read every book. I can't get it in quick enough.
"I want to walk and look at the clouds and take time and work my a** off at the same time. I just want to do everything. There's so much wonderful creativity around and I seem to be in a hurry to absorb it all. It's strange when you get periods like that."
I query whether this burning enthusiasm has come from being a mother. The question is greeted with a long pause, a stutter and another shorter pause.
"Do you know what?" She finally muses. "I never got that link before.
"It never dawned on me that's why I've been like that," she continues, "Because I keep getting these questions that I can't answer asking me 'how has motherhood changed you?'.
"And people want this big hippy answer and of course it changed me. It changed my whole perception of the world, it changes what world you want to live in, it changes your time management, it changes your sleep pattern so it changes everything. It really does.
"But I don't know how to answer that for an interview because it's so all-consuming and such a massive question. But you're absolutely right it's exactly where it comes from," she says.
"It's being with her and her open-mindedness and seeing the world with new eyes, it definitely rubs off on you. Having no preconceived notions of how things should be and no blinkers on, it's beautiful. I never realised that."
She continues for a minute or two longer, seemingly overwhelmed at the realisation of how much motherhood has invigorated an intensity to learn. Perhaps fortunately, the interview is briefly paused as she rushes to the door to sign for a parcel, and after composure is regained all round, we move, of course, to the world's political climate.
Although the album was written prior to the Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump as US President, May, like dozens of artists has decided to take aim at the controversial Republican.
Drawing on inspiration from the women's marches that took place across the world in response to his inauguration, she came up with a similar march for a music video to Should've Been You.
Shot in one continuous take, the video stars her fans (invited to appear on Facebook) walking through Brixton market holding dozens of placards emblazoned with slogans such as Love Not Fear.
The song was written as a personal track, she explains, "But a year-and-a-half later and I'm making the video and things had obviously changed.
"I'm not trying to be a politician, I'm not trying to change the world but I wanted to say what I wanted to say.
"And it's not an angry aggressive anti-men thing, which is the often the way things are misconstrued. But we're contributing to society, we want to be treated equally regardless of gender."
But, she continues, one positive from Trump, Brexit and the creeping tide of the far right, is the outlet from pain which forced May to create her most searing, honest record yet.
"It makes people more creative and certainly for me growing up in Dublin music was my saviour, It gave me an outlet and people need an outlet."
Life.Love.Flesh.Blood is out now on Decca Records. Imelda May plays Belfast's Waterfront Hall on Saturday, May 27, at 7pm. For tickets, visit stubhub.co.uk