Imelda May: 'I bought a onesie for all the guys on our bus'
Imelda May tells Barry Egan about combining her role as mum to daughter Violet with the demanding schedule of touring around the UK
Imelda May is ordering an Irish Coffee in a bar in Liverpool. Notwithstanding, this being an Irish bar, the barmaid has never heard of an Irish Coffee and looks at the alt. Queen of Rockabilly like she'd just asked what time does John Lennon get in at. So Imelda goes for a Guinness, and cheese and onion crisps, instead. There is a band playing tunes on the makeshift stage in the other room by the pool table. Imelda goes for a look. She taps her toes and nods approvingly. The three old men at the table recognise her.
"I'm George Clooney's better looking younger brother," says the man who is in his late Seventies.
"I thought you were Brad Pitt in that light, actually," says Imelda, before saying goodbye and walking into the Christmas chill of Liverpool city centre.
Her signature look of red lips, cat's eyes and blonde-wave above her head soon alerts a passing woman who professes herself to be Imelda's biggest fan and asks for a picture with her. An hour later, via a quick detour to a funfair where the star wins a toy Santa for me, Imelda is sound-checking on stage with her actual biggest fan: husband Darrel Higham, the inspiration for songs like Big Bad Handsome Man and Falling In Love With You Again.
They first met over 17 years ago when Reb Kennedy, the owner of Wild Records, introduced them in The Engine Rooms, in Bermondsey. Darrel asked her to dance. "Actually, just as he asked me to dance it turned into a slow song. It was like a movie!" she laughs. "I was getting chased by two other fellas that night as well. They were very drunk and one of them spat in my ear a lot," she says meaning when he tried to talk to her. "And the other fella was hammered! So that didn't go well for him. And then Darrel came over, asked me to dance and I thought: 'Thank God! Hallelujah! I'm getting saved!'" ("I was the biggest of the three," Darrel will later tell me.)
After her salvation, Imelda went home to Dublin (where she was born Imelda Mary Clabby on July 10, 1974). It was not long, however, before her big handsome guitarist came over to "chase me, to convince me to go back. And I did! It was great. I was 23."
And they have been together ever since "So far!" she laughs.
What's the secret? "There's no secret. It's the same as everybody else. You have your ups and downs. It's not a fairytale. It's just normal life. We have great times and we have bad times, like any marriage." They married in 2002 and have a daughter, Violet, who was born on August 23, 2012, who is, happily on tour with them.
"There is sixteen and a half of us on the bus" - Violet is the half - "so I had the bright idea of going out and buying 16 onesies for us the other night. Big Boy Bloater joined us on tour," she says of the blues musician, "and he had a bottle of rum for me. It ended up with all of us in our onesies drinking lots of rum in the tour-bus." Imelda was an Elf. Darrel was a Santa Claus and other members of the team were, variously, a lion and tiger in their onesies.
"The stairs of the tour bus are really steep," she relates of that night's shenanigans. "I was on the top step and the bus jolted and I went flying backwards and did a full back-flip somersault. Somebody said it looked like somebody threw a onesie down the stairs. I am completely black and blue. I don't drink that much but I think it" - she says meaning Big Boy Bloater's bottle of rum - "worked in my favour that I'd had a few too many, and I think it helped because I bounced better. Rum helps you bounce."
"And then a leopard and a tiger came to my rescue," she says referring to certain onesie-clad members of her band.
Despite the global acclaim, Imelda is implacably not-full-of-herself. Say to her, "Your parents must be very proud of you" and she'll immediately shoot it back at you, "I'm very proud of them. They raised us well! They gave us all a great childhood. You couldn't ask for anything more. That's what I want to do for Violet. That's what any parent wants.
"You want your child to say they had a lot of love. I had a mad childhood," Imelda says, meaning the youth that she and her five siblings (sisters Edel and Maria and brothers Brendan and Fintan) enjoyed in a small two bedroom house in the Liberties, courtesy of parents Tony and Madge; and "the adventures" they had on their very budget holidays growing up. They could rarely if ever afford hotels ...
"Every time I go to Paris, I see that stretch of grass," she recalls, "and I can't believe that we actually camped under the Eiffel Tower as kids! My dad set up the tent for all of us, thinking: 'This is a nice spot!' But we woke up to police wanting to arrest us! I took a photograph of the grass under the Eiffel Tower a couple of weeks ago. So I have great memories of my childhood. And I want loads of fun for Violet. Good times and loads of love. She is having a ball on the road. She is speaking different languages and trying different food. She loved tapas in Spain."
Imelda and Darrel, who once lived together, many moons ago, "at the top of the Northern Line tube," now live in some comfort in a big old house in leafy Hampshire. It took over a year to get their home right. "It needed electricity, new piping. It was old. There was no heating in it." The style of the house, she says, is a bit "of a time-warp - with little knick-knacks I pick up in antique fairs or charity shops or anything interesting. There is loads of bits and pieces around. It is cosy, though. There is a jukebox in the music room."
Are you filthy rich? She looks at me like John Lennon had just walked in and sat down beside us. "No! I'm not filthy rich! I'm not as rich as people think. It's funny, isn't it?"
How rich do people think Imelda May is? "Actually, my brother was telling me that a woman in work thought that I could just walk in and buy a house with cash! I couldn't. I'm on the road earning my money. I didn't get any million pound record deals. Not unless you're Jedward! I'm doing very well but I still have a mortgage to pay off. So I'm on the road."
Imelda was on the road in Barcelona when her 40th birthday came around. "I breastfed for 18 months, so I hadn't touched a drop of alcohol. I was like, 'Let's hit the bars in Barcelona.' The bartender said, 'Have you ever had a Margarita? I said: 'No. We'll have five!" she laughs. "I discovered Margaritas at 40!" Apropos of the fact that she breastfed for 18 months prior to marking the big Four O in Barca, the alt.Queen of Rockabilly tells me why she "never expressed ... "
"Because," she begins, "it was easier when you don't have to sterilise or have bottles. During the making of Tribal I was breastfeeding Violet every three hours. There is a poster of me where I looked like Dolly Parton because I missed a feed! People were saying to me: 'Did you have a boob job?' When you miss a feed," Imelda May says physically exploding with laughter, "you just go 'Bllllluuuuuurrrggh'!" I am so speechless at this anecdote that John Lennon might as well be sitting on my lap with George Harrison beside him singing I Am the Walrus.
The last time I met Imelda was in Dublin earlier in the summer. She was in floods of tears, having just taken a call with the news that her cousin Caroline had died. "If you want me to pour my heart out," she says now over Guinness and a shared packet of cheese and onion crisps, "when my cousin died, I wasn't very happy with anything, to be honest with you. I'm still not very happy with that, because she was young, and she left two lovely kids and a husband behind. I can't get my head around that, I can't understand it. I'm still annoyed. It is so unfair. That gets me," she says almost tearing up.
"I know that's just the way life is and I know that's the way death is as well, but it still pisses me off. I miss her. She was great."
Imelda May, you're not so bad yourself.
- A special edition of Imelda's current album Tribal, featuring the new track Tears Of Clew Bay, is out now