Interview: Rockabilly Singer Imelda May Discusses Her 'Mayhem' Album and Working with Jeff Beck
The past two years have been pretty incredible for Imelda May.
She sang on Jeff Beck's hugely successful Emotion & Commotion album, which was released in March 2010. Three months later, she performed two shows with Beck at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. The Iridium event was released on CD and DVD earlier this year as Rock 'n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul.
And let's not forget May's appearance with Beck at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards in 2010, which included a stunning performance of Les Paul and Mary Ford's "How High the Moon." And then there was their performance at the Grammy Museum and her appearance on another live album by Beck (Live and Exclusive from the Grammy Museum) ... . Well, you get the idea.
The next thing the Irish rockabilly singer knew, she was part of the US Iridium Tour with Beck, and her albums -- 2005's No Turning Back, 2008's Love Tattoo and 2010's Mayhem -- were getting noticed outside the UK -- and outside rockabilly circles -- for the first time.
Mayhem was released in the US this summer via Universal Records, and May and her band -- including her husband Darrel Higham on guitar, Al Gare on bass and Steven Rushton on drums -- toured the US as stars in their own right.
I recently spoke to May about Mayhem, working with Beck -- and the undeniable importance of an adopted crow named Dave.
GUITAR WORLD: Mayhem features a variety of styles -- certainly more than just rockabilly. How would you categorize the music on it?
I don't know how to describe the music. It's a mixture of the music I like. Obviously, there's a big chunk of rockabilly, and there's blues and jazz, there's country, there's punk and there's some traditional Irish somewhere. It shouldn't really work, but it does to me. I'm happy how it came out, but I don't know how I'd categorize it, which is why I nearly didn't get a record deal -- because they couldn't categorize it. And that went against me; they turned me down.
But I was fine with that. But they kept thinking of a change, and they said, "Get rid of the rockabilly or do more of a jazzy feel." I was quite happy to do what I was doing, so I said, "No, thank you." I didn't hear back from them, and then I made the first album. Then I got to make the album that I wanted, so it worked out really well. And then everything took off after that. But I don't know what I'd call it; it's just my own concoction.
How and when did you get into rockabilly?
Well, my brother was a rockabilly, so I liked to see him. He still is. I took his tapes from his room -- Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. I thought it was absolutely fantastic; I loved Gene Vincent's band, the Blue Caps. I loved Cliff Gallup's guitar playing.
He was a few decades ahead of his time, wasn't he?
He blew my mind. I thought he was brilliant. And, of course, Eddie Cochran -- I thought he was unbelievable. His guitar playing is brilliant. Then I went into blues, jazz and ska. All kinds of stuff.
When you were a teenager in the '80s, were you into the hit '80s radio music?
Not really. All my friends loved stuff on the radio, but it didn't do it for me. But I knew what was going on; I wasn't sitting in my own corner, not knowing what was popular. But it just didn't do for me what rockabilly and all the rest of it did.
Your music is clearly vintage-inspired. In the studio, however, do you use vintage recording methods or embrace new technology? Do you use Pro Tools, for instance?
We used Pro Tools on Mayhem. On the last album, we used reel-to-reel just because it was what was in the studio at the time. Friends built the studio, and they had lots of second-hand gear, and that was terrific. Of course, the sound on the tape is terrific. I was very happy with it. I loved it. But I just wanted to try different things. I wanted Mayhem to be a step forward without losing track, you know? I want to move along, like anything you do.
I was at the Iridium in New York City in June 2010 when you performed with Jeff Beck; I also caught you on the Iridium tour in New Jersey earlier this year. How did the Jeff Beck association happen?
Well, Jeff has worked with Darrel, and Darrel was in the Big Town Playboys, and Jeff made the Crazy Legs album with the Big Town Playboys in 1993 [Note: Higham joined the Big Town Playboys after Crazy Legs had been released]. But Jeff didn't know me and Darrel were husband and wife. So somebody had told him about me singing, so he came, and I happened to be doing a gig, filling in for another singer who got ill. Jeff came down to see me sing at Ronnie Scott's in London. Then Darrel came to pick me up at the end of the night, and Jeff was asking him, "What are you doing here?" And Darrel says, "I came to pick up my wife." So he didn't know we were together. Funny how we both worked with him separately.
Then I didn't see him after that. But around that time, I rescued a crow, and we were hand-feeding him. So I brought the crow -- the crow was called Dave -- to the gigs 'cuz it had gotten feathers. I mean at first it was only a baby crow but it got bigger and I brought him to the gigs. And he came on my shoulder and I let him fly up in the trees and come down.
Darrel was trying to find out what we were going to do with the crow. "Do you want it to go back to the wild?" And I didn't know what to do, because if you let a crow fly out, then all the other crows will kill him. So we didn't know what to do. So we were bringing him to the gigs, and at this stage he'd be able to fit in the palm of your hand, and then he grew about the length of your arm. He was about a foot tall. He was huge.
And then Jeff saw him; they were at the gig because it was near where they lived. Jeff's wife said, "Oh, my god; is that your crow?" And I said, "Yeah. I don't know what to do with him." She said, "Well, I have an aviary. So If you want to leave him with me, I could get him back to the wild slowly for you." And I was obviously sad to see the crow go, so she said, "Why don't you come to the house to have a look at the aviary to see if you're happy with it?" So we went to their house. We had some brandy and had a jam session by the fire, and Jeff said, "We should work together."
Isn't that bizarre, how life goes? If it wasn't for Dave the Crow, I probably wouldn't have met Jeff Beck.
How would you say that association has aided you?
Oh, it's brilliant. I mean, anybody who's associated with Jeff Beck -- it's brilliant. Jeff Beck is highly regarded and rightly so. He is a genius. Most readers of your magazine would know about that than anybody else. He does things with the guitar that shouldn't be really possible to do. He's just a very talented man -- and a very nice man. I enjoy his company. I was glad to work with him. On a personal level, I'm very glad to know him.
Speaking of guitars, what sort do you play?
I play rhythm, enough guitar to write on. But when I met Darrel, he kind of put me off it 'cuz he picked up guitar duties and that was it. I'm never doing that (playing as well has Darrel), so I'd quietly go off in a corner and write my songs. So I know enough to write some songs, and whatever I don't know, I just work it out.
Is there any particular make or model you prefer?
I've got a Martin, and I'm really happy with it. It's really beautiful. And it fits me. I've got one of the Elvis ones that they've done recently. There's a bigger one, the normal-size one with the leather. But then there's the half-size one, and I like smaller guitars, because I'm small. I must be only like 5 foot 3, so it fits under my arm better. That's my favorite guitar. Before I had a six-string ukulele guitar. And that's so handy, because you can put it in your handbag and bring it around with you and use it in the back of the car.
At the original Iridium shows and on the Iridium tour, exactly how did you replicate Mary Ford's multiple-part harmonies?
I just figured it out. I prerecorded the backing vocals in the studio. I am not musically educated yet. I don't read -- I make my own language that works for myself. But I play by ear. So I had one night to do it all. I think I recorded like 12. It was a full, 18-hour day of recording. We did like five-part harmonies. And none of them were an octave higher or anything. They were harmonies, and then there be quadrupled tracks, so I had to -- sometimes I ended up on my knees, with my head on the floor, trying to hear where one vocal went in the background, and then I'd hear it, and it would pop in, and I could hear it.
When we got to playing it live, I just put a click on the beginning on the count-in, and then we put it in the drummer's head set. So he'd hear the click and then he'd press the button, and then he'd start to play the drums. So you figure the trick is to make sure the backing vocals and us playing live all run at exactly the same time, otherwise it would go horrendously wrong. So one night, the track skipped, and I was on the line and then the backing vocals came in somewhere, but we all pulled it together. Thank God. Well, I think we did anyway. I'm not sure if anybody noticed. I don't even want to think about it.
So he'd hear the click of the intro and would be able to count in the track and then Jeff playing at the same as he pressed the button, and then the backing vocals would click in, and I'd sing the lead vocals live. Mary Ford did it the same way; she sang the lead vocal live along with the backing vocals. She was a clever woman, and Les Paul was a very clever man.
What are your top five rockabilly albums?
Ooooh! Oh, that's really mean. Can I give you my top five rockabilly songs?
1. Eddie Cochran, "Somethin' Else"
2. Johnny Burnette, "Train Kept A-Rollin'"
3. Wanda Jackson, the queen of rockabilly, "Hard Headed Woman"
4. If I can flip a cheeky country song in there, it'd be by Johnny Horton.
5. I'll finish with the King, Elvis Presley. Oh my God, how do you pick one of his songs? "Hound Dog" or "My Baby Asked Me."
Also, I love Grady Martin -- and I didn't know I loved Grady Martin until Darrel pointed it out. I kept saying, "Oh my god, that guitar solo is amazing, I'm jealous." It's Grady Martin. I'd listen to a different song, and I'd say, "That was a mind-blowing song. Who was that?" And every time it would come back, "Grady Martin," so it was kind of a Pepsi challenge, but with Grady Martin instead!
Mayhem by Imelda May was released in July 2011 via Universal Records. For more information, visit imeldamay.com.
Photo of Imelda May and Jeff Beck at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards: courtesy of imeldamay.com