Imelda May: Records that changed my life

Eva Mackevic 16 March 2021

Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Imelda May on the records that shaped her 

The Legend of Billie Holiday by Billie Holiday

I was brought up in a house with lots of music. There was one record player with seven of us living in the house. It was a really beautiful way to grow up just listening to so much amazing stuff. I loved it all but I specifically remember seeing a late night movie about Billie Holiday and being just so fascinated.

I had a voucher for HMV for my birthday around that time—I think I was about 15. My brother brought me in and I bought my first record, The Legend of Billie Holiday. And that was it. It started a love affair. It opened up a whole new world to me of Billie Holiday and then, as always, I started to delve deeper and discovered where she came from and where she went. Thanks to her, I discovered Bessie Smith, Teddy Wilson and loads of other artists. That was the starting point. Her voice really blew me away. She was so young when she started, which obviously influenced me because I was just a teenager and I started singing in clubs at 16.

I fell in love with Billie. I remember I went to art college when I was 17 and it was a time when everybody got a chance to put music on cassette tapes. I remember they used to hate it when it was my turn because everyone was putting on pop hits of the day and I would put on Billie.

The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

I was probably 17-18 and I was already singing. I had very few records and I was living in a little bedsit; it was a tiny room with a record player and a bed and a little kitchenette. I used to devour all these records and The Dark Side of the Moon was one of them. Already singing at the time, I was interested in how to move my voice. I never studied music or vocal coaching—these records were my vocal coaches, I had the best vocal coaches in the world! 

It was mostly the backing vocals by Clare Torry that really impressed me. The backing vocals on “The Great Gig in the Sky”—that blew my mind. I loved the whole album but I used to just sit and copy what she sang, every part of it because I loved that she lost herself in it. I never heard anything like it before, it totally haunted me. She was screaming and screeching at times, and I thought, What the hell is this? This is just insanely amazing. So I used to just try and copy it. And then it definitely went into my singing, she inspired me to have the confidence to just go for it and lose myself and see what happens. Without that record, I don’t think I would’ve felt that joy.

Read more: Where to begin with Pink Floyd?

The Real Folk Blues by Howlin’ Wolf

Dublin, where I’m from, was in a major recession when I was a teenager. There wasn’t much to the area, it was a tough time. The drugs had taken over massively, the unemployment rate was through the roof and it was quite a dark time for our area. There was no money. I remember at one point stepping over people lying shooting up in the stairwells of flats, and I had to go over them to get to my friend. The Liberties is such a proud area, we have pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and held each other massively and came out of it together. But it was definitely a tough time. So maybe that’s how I discovered the blues and jazz and it made sense to me.

The Real Folk Blues was an original Chess record that I bought really cheap and I went mad for this album. The groove, the grit, Howlin’ Wolf’s massive voice and the raw realness of it. When I heard “Killing Floor” and “Poor Boy, I was like, “What the f**k?”

That’s also when I discovered Willie Dixon. And I got to meet and hang out with Hubert Sumlin a few years ago, before he died in New York. He invited me to sing with him and I was about to get on the stage and he was ill, he was on oxygen. He gave me a big wink. And I was thinking, I’m gonna sing “Poor Boy”. Just as I was about to get on the stage, his nurse ran out and said he was running low on oxygen and we have to shut down the gig. I was like, “No! Just hold your breath!” [Laughs] They invited me backstage and I got to hang out with him for a while which was a dream come true. He gave a hat.

Imelda May’s sixth studio album, 11 Past The Hour is out on Decca Records on April 16 

Stream her latest single "Made To Love" and pre-order 11 Past The Houhere

 

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