Imelda: ‘I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and all my mascara was all over the place, literally black tears dripping down my face’Ahead of three gigs in Londonderry and Belfast, singer Imelda May speaks about the break-up of her marriage and how the death of her cousin made her realise just how life should be fully embraced. By Barry Egan
Because love is such a powerful emotion - perhaps the most powerful - one never goes straight to happiness after a big break-up. There are complicated stages of pain and hurt to go through before you can get close to a good place again. Two years down the line from the disintegration of her marriage, Imelda May is definitely in a good place today as she emerges from a hotel elevator, styled to the max. She has had a glass or two of Champagne already.
The 42-year-old belle of the Liberties has a lot to celebrate: her new album is amazeballs.
After such a public break-up, Imelda could have hidden in plain sight by releasing an album of catchy but disingenuous, even emotionally untruthful, cover songs of obscure old blues hits. Instead, Imelda has stayed true to her heart and recorded an album, Life Love Flesh Blood, that is as real on the subject of the end of her 13-year marriage to Darrel Higham as Bob Dylan's 1975 masterpiece Blood On The Tracks was about the end of his marriage to Sara Lownds.
There is blood, as well as tears, heartbreak, hurt, pain and lust on these tracks. Almost an hour into our 90-minute conversation, Imelda admits that "a big moment" in their decision to finally end their marriage was the death of her cousin Caroline a few years ago. Caroline was young, and left two lovely kids and a husband behind, which Imelda, try as she might, couldn't get her head around. "We were close when we were kids and she was the same age as me," Imelda says. "That was my wake-up call. I thought [after Caroline died]: 'Jesus, I need to grab life. Grab it and live it as opposed to make do'. I really needed to live after she died."
Imelda suddenly didn't want to live her life in a way that wasn't fully honest to herself? "No. You don't know how long you have left. You presume you are going to live life to a ripe old age, but who knows what is around the corner. So I had to live life - not half live it."
Miss Champagne Supernova lives happily in London with her daughter and is just as happily single. She is playing Northern Ireland dates and is on a career high, travelling around the planet to promote her new record. It seems like another world for the girl who grew up in The Liberties and shared a bedroom with her brother and parents until she was 14. She once told me, in a story straight out of a Roddy Doyle book, that one of her brothers shared with two of her sisters in the second room of the house until he got too old to be sharing with girls. He was on the top bunk and "If he woke up too quick, he'd smack his head off the ceiling." Her father expanded the tiny house when her brother needed his own room, removing the staircase and building a box room. This implacable sense of being real transformed Imelda into the grounded goddess that she is today.
Born Imelda Mary Clabby on July 10, 1974, she started doing a line with a young fella called Darrel when she was 23. They were married in 2002 and have a daughter, Violet, who was born on August 23, 2012. I spent the afternoon with Imelda and Darrel (and, briefly, Violet) in Liverpool as recently as December 2014, so I was as shocked as anyone when the news of their sad split emerged in the early summer of 2015. That afternoon, Imeda waxed lyrically and lovingly of her husband in their special whimsical onesies (she as an elf, Darrel as Santa Claus) drinking lots of tequila on their happy tour bus, with Violet sleeping soundly downstairs.
I was shocked when you broke up, I say to her - I always thought you and Darrel were - ''solid", Imelda interrupts, finishing the sentence about the apparent state of her marriage for me. "Ah, we were solid for a long time. Stuff happens."
I ask her to tell me in her own words what happened. "I have no idea. Life." You appeared like the perfect couple that day in Liverpool, I say. "But is anything ever perfect? Isn't that the illusion? When things go wrong, people can be great actors for everybody, sometimes. Darrel and I are good. That's the weird thing. We are still really, really good. We have to be for our child," she says, "but we have an immense love for each other. We have gone through crazy journeys together. You hear of people splitting up and they say, 'oh, we're good friends' and it's a load of rubbish - but we actually are good friends and we get on."
So, what happened with her and Darrel? "We just grew apart over the years. We have been together over 20 years. You can just grow apart over time.
"I wrote the album over the course of a year and a half," she continues. "After Darrel and I split up, I fell in love again. Then that ended. So both of those relationships are on the album. Darrel was obviously a huge part of my life, but I think each relationship can be meaningful to a person in a different way. Otherwise you wouldn't have it," she says. "For me, anyway. I'm quite fussy in that way, with whoever I connect with. I wrote about Darrel and breaking up. I also wrote about meeting somebody else after so many years of being with one person."
What's that feeling like?
"It's desire! It's lust! It awakens things in you. And those moments of desire are different when you're 40 to when you're 20. It is a different experience of falling in love or going on a date to when you are a nervous 20-year-old. You discover things about yourself as well. A lot!" she laughs, before stopping to order her innermost thoughts.
"I wrote the album to make sense of a lot of things. And get it out of my head. It is quite therapeutic: put it onto paper and read it for yourself."
Imelda says that being with someone new after being with Darrel for so long made her feel "guilt about feeling happy. Because there is that too when you finish with somebody and you get to a point where you think you're happy and then you feel awfully guilty for being happy.
"I think that's definitely an Irish Catholic thing," she says. "Mea culpa!"
How did Imelda let go of all that heavy baggage? The song Levitate is, she says, about letting herself rise to what she is drawn to in life and just follow where her soul takes her. "And go with life, as opposed to constantly fighting against it. Trying to constantly fit into other people's boxes, or what you should do because of hundreds of years of religion. 'You're married! You need to stay married!' All those things. All those things that go through your head when you have a child."
Imelda wrote Black Tears after she and Darrel broke up. It was their "very difficult goodbye". 'Inside I'm dying/Outside I'm crying' she sings on the track. "I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and all my mascara was all over the place. Literally black tears, dripping down my face." She can remember closing the door - "and there was this awful, heart-breaking vision."
How did Imelda feel when she was in the house and Darrel was no longer there? "It was really difficult."
Some people who are unhappy in their marriage stay for the sake of it, I say.
"Most people do," Imelda says.
"Compromise is a massive part of marriage. Both people compromise. You have to, in order to live with somebody. But it comes to the point where you think: 'How much of a compromise is it?' Darrel and I get on really well. And people probably thought that Darrel and I doing music and touring together would split us up but that, actually, kept us together a lot longer. Music was our passion. But on other things we were just completely different, as you do when you get older. I suppose I was changing and Darrel was quite happy as he is.
"There was just so much going on, so much emotion. Thinking - are you doing the right thing? It was good to get down on paper..." Lines like, 'How did it all go wrong' reflect that? "Exactly," she says.
And how did it all go wrong?
"How do you grow apart from somebody that you have been with for half your life? That's the question, isn't it?''
'It's broken and I'm running and I'm scared' is another line that reflects what was going on inside Imelda's head, inside Imelda's marriage. Was that fear empowering? Feel the fear and do it any way? Or was it just terrifying?
"No - it was terrifying."
Because Imelda had a child?
"I was trying to make the right decisions for her. I was trying to imagine the future. I think for any couple that splits up, you are trying to figure out what is the best decision for our child here. And our child, not my child," she stresses.
"Would it be better to stick together and plod along, where both of us aren't happy any more? Or should we just be happy and call it a day and raise her? It is a difficult decision and I don't think there is an answer. You will find it, maybe, in 20 years' time when she blames you for everything. All I can say is that Darrel and I came to the conclusion and made the best decision for her, with her completely in the front of our minds," Imelda says of Violet, who is now four years of age.
Imelda takes out her mobile phone to show me pictures of the young child. "She is a happy child. And so far we think we've made the right decision. Darrel is there all the time. You can't hide things from kids. They are very perceptive. They pick things up easily and I think that is what we were concerned about. Darrel had a happy childhood and so did I," Imelda says in reference to her happy upbringing: thanks to parents Tony and Madge with her siblings (sisters Edel and Maria and brothers Brendan and Fintan). "So Violet deserves to have a happy childhood. And we were just trying to figure out the best way to achieve that."
Imelda says she changed her famous look not because she was no longer that person with Darrel any more but simply because - "I just felt like it. It wasn't a deep strategy."
Over our long lunch of beetroot salad and chunky chips on the side, Imelda admits that it was a very conscious decision to put her heart - and her soul - into Life Love Flesh Blood. "I wanted to...[long pause] I wanted to not censor myself. It was quite a personal thing, quite a personal process writing this. I wasn't writing this for anybody else. I was writing this for myself."
I have interviewed Imelda six or seven times over the years and she is generally guarded when talking about her personal life to the point of being a closed book. That's why Life Love Flesh Blood is something of a revelation. "Everything is in there."
I say to her I felt like I was reading her diary. "I know. I wrote it in that way. I wrote it like a diary. I wrote it as things were happening. I was writing it as I was going through everything. On this album, my only plan was to have no plan, and it was very liberating."
Was that liberation a therapy for her?
"It was, yeah, because go to a therapist, that's what they do. I have always written honestly before, but I found a way in the past of hiding things in there. It was like a little secret that only I knew the code to. On Life Love Flesh Blood there was no code."
With this brilliant new album, Imelda says she "just wanted to write down how I felt". Those feelings on Life Love Flesh Blood leave Imelda emotionally naked from virtually the first track to the last, as Imelda reveals everything.
To quote one of the lines from the album, how did she 'chase' her 'demons away'?
"Have I?" she laughs. "I don't know whether I have chased my demons away. It is always good to keep a couple of them. It's good for writing."
- Imelda May's new album 'Life Love Flesh Blood' is out now. She plays the Derry Jazz Festival on April 30 and the Millennium Forum in Londonderry on May 1 (Box office 028 7126 4455 for both) and Belfast's Waterfront Hall, May 27 (Box office 028 9033 4455).