She’s not quite the household name in the US that she is in the UK and Europe, but across the pond, Imelda May is one of the biggest female vocalists there is. Mixing jazz, rockabilly, blues and whatever else she’s feeling at the moment, May has performed and/or recorded with Jeff Beck, Tom Jones, Jeff Goldblum and many others. She’s more than just a singer, though, writing nearly all the material for her albums for almost two decades, and always has a hand in the production side, working side-by side with such producers as Tony Visconti (David Bowie, John Hiatt) and T Bone Burnett (Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss).
May’s new single, “11 Past the Hour,” is the title track from her upcoming album, due March 26. May is coming off having most recently recorded a spoken word EP, Slip of the Tongue. The dark-haired chanteuse spoke with American Songwriter via phone from Ireland about her influences, the upcoming album, and more.
“I started out singing blues and jazz, I went crazy for Nina Simone and Billie Holiday,” she said. “But as a songwriter, the writer that I really latched onto and devoured every word was Leonard Cohen. And Patti Smith, I loved her poetry and her writing. And [Thin Lizzy’s] Phil Lynott, he wrote some beautiful poetry.
“I’m not just a vocalist,” she continued. “One of the last things I do is put my vocals down. I write the music, write the lyrics, work on arrangements, try every mic in the building to find what works well. That just how I work, I enjoy every second. When all of that’s done I put my vocals down. I know exactly what I want to do and I know exactly what I want to hear, and I’ve always been like that. It’s not an interest, it’s what I do. It’s just what I love, it’s what drives me. It’s my passion. And the producers I work with, we work together, and I expect them to bring as much to the table as I do.
“There’s never been an album that I haven’t been involved in the production of,” she said. “I produced Love Tattoo, I co-produced Mayhem, I co-produced Tribal. T Bone would say to me that I’ve got to be feeling it, because I’d stay in the studio 16 hours a day mixing. It’s my thing. It’s my music. It’s my baby, it’s what I love to do, it’s what I enjoy.”
The title of her new single and album “is about intuition, it’s like the witching hour,” she said. “Sometimes you’ll see ‘11/11’ and you don’t know why, and it’s the universe calling you, your intuition, the awakening time they say. And I kept seeing it everywhere when I wrote the song, and I wanted to call the album that.”
Coincidentally—or maybe not—11 Past the Hour has 11 tracks. “There were a couple songs on there where I wanted to do a duet,” May said. “One of them is called ‘Just One Kiss,’ it’s just simple, pure, sexy rock ‘n’ roll. And my record company was sweating because the studio was booked, and they asked me who I was doing it with, and I said, ‘I don’t know, it’ll happen as it happens.’ And it was like three days away and they were dying. And then I got a call from Noel Gallagher [Oasis] and he asked what I was doing, and I said, ‘I was going to record a duet’—he asked, ‘who with?’, and I said I didn’t know, I was thinking of calling him to see if he wanted to do it and he said. ‘Sure, let’s do it!’ And I already had Ronnie Wood [Rolling Stones] playing on it. Noel is one of the coolest guys, and Ronnie just kills on the solo.”
May makes it clear that it’s not about the money or the fame—for her, the music comes first, and everything else is a reward of the fruits of her labor. “You can say it’s about business, but it’s really not,” she said. “It’s about art, it’s about making music, it’s about creating and connecting. I get to work with the most amazing people in the world. I’m drawn to the passion, I love seeing the passion, and you realize that’s why they’re the best in the world, because they’re obsessed and love what they do. And I can really relate with that.”