With her fifth album, Life, Love, Flesh and Blood, sees artist Imelda May take a big shift in sound.
And it also came as the singer-songwriter emerged from a turbulent period in her life.
But Imelda says that she was already looking to ditch her signature rockabilly style and head in a new direction as far back as five years ago.
‘I knew it wasn’t going to be in the same vein,’ she tells The Guide. ‘I knew that before I wrote the previous album. When I started writing for Tribal it was with the conscious decision that was going to be the last one in that style, but I didn’t know what the next one would be – so I knew that probably five years ago, and I was quite happy with that, my plan was not to have a plan, and it was quite liberating.’
During the writing period she split with her husband, guitarist Darrel Higham, who had also been part of her band since 2008.
But Imelda says that their separation wasn’t the only influence on the album: ‘I wrote for over a year, that’s why I called it what I did, it seemed to encompass everything in that year – some heartache, but plenty of joy and hope – everything in human experience, I just wrote all of that.’
With its more straightforward rock and acoustic sound, Life... became her third consecutive top 10 album, debuting at number five in the charts. During recording super-producer, 10-time Grammy winner, T Bone Burnett was behind the desk.
‘He’s amazing – my manager asked me who I would like to produce it. I always aim high because you never know, and he said yes. It was as easy as that. He said he had been watching me for a while, and I wasn’t ready for him before, but he heard my demos and now I was ready
‘He was great to work with. Very interesting, and very intricate – I like his view on the world so we got on really well, which is half of it.’
Burnett also brought hugely acclaimed guitarist Marc Ribot onto the project.
‘T Bone said he wanted to get the right people in the right place at the right time and the rest would happen naturally, and he was right.
‘He put a lot of thought into it, he listened to my demos a lot. We sat and listened to them and talked about them, and I would tell him about the mood and the vibes I was having. I was giving him visual references, movie references, and he would write it all down, and then he would come back with who was going to be on it I was thrilled. When he came back with Marc, Dennis Crouch on bass, Jay Bellerose on drums, the three of them were phenomenal. I met the band on the morning of rehearsals and we’d just start recording – we had it finished in seven days.
‘Luckily we got on really well, but that’s down to T Bone picking the right people, not only what would match musically, but personality-wise, it’s imperative really. It was a joy to record, it was intoxicating.’
While Imelda says she typically records as live in the studio, she would normally have the songs well-rehearsed beforehand. I always like to record live, you don’t get the right atmosphere otherwise, and you can replace parts later if you need to.
‘I wanted to do some more developed demos and work on the songs a bit more, but T Bone wanted my raw demos, of me singing into my phone and playing guitar badly. He wanted the bones of it, so that’s what I sent him.
‘That’s what Ribot was listening to, which made me want to curl up and die – one of the best guitarists in the world listening to me and my awful demo of playing guitar,’ she laughs. ‘He wanted to get our own vibes on it, as opposed to something that I’d already worked on to within an inch of my life.’
The track Should’ve Been You, encapsulates much of the album’s tone – Imelda says she wrote it ‘as a personal story of heartbreak, regret and eventual empowerment.’ But the video that accompanied its release as a single took the personal and made it relate to something bigger, calling on solidarity among women in response to current events.
‘When I wrote that song it was in my bed covers, if I’m honest. It was one of those where you wake up in the middle of the night, and luckily I grabbed a pen and paper, because if you don’t, you think “I’ll remember it in the morning”, but it’s gone.
‘When it came to making the video it was probably nearly a year later. I’d been in America a lot and it was around the time of their election and my friends were freaking out, and we’d had Brexit over here, a lot of things were changing. The song seemed to take a new life and new meaning, so I wanted to reflect that in the video. It gave the song a new dimension. I called up a load of fans and friends and got them involved and I was happy how it turned out. It wasn’t an angry video, it felt like a positive thing, and it felt like we were doing something good.’
The album has received some excellent reviews, but as Imelda says: ‘I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about the reviews. But when you have a finished product you’re thrilled with – I was so happy with how the songs had turned out, and the musicians on the album and the production – at that point you just hope that other people love it as much as you do.’
O2 Guildhall, Southampton
Thursday, November 16