“Twas 11 past the hour/darkness in the air/lay down on wildflowers/the moonlight didn’t care/give me your heart/I’ll hold it with mine/so you can feel free my love/free for a while”
With a tale-telling flourish, against a musical backdrop recalling the romance noir of a lost David Lynch soundtrack, her voice seeming to reach down into your very heart, Imelda May opens her new album with characteristic poetic vividness.
This is 11 Past The Hour, the title track to the Dublin-born singer, songwriter, poet and producer’s sixth record. It’s the curtain-raising sound of an artist diving deep into her true self, her Irish roots, her love of storytelling. It’s a woman singing from her soul like her life, and that of her lover, depended on it.
“Dance with me darlin’/dance with me darlin’/forget the world/I’ll hold you in my arms as we twirl around.”
In the wake of a year when everyone has been isolated and atomised, such sentiments of intense connectivity feel nuclear-powered. Here, then, comes the music of Imelda May to pull us out, embrace us, save us.
“Sometimes you feel lost and in need of comfort, that the world you’re living in is not the norm. Lots of artists, including myself, have such a need to connect – it’s what drives you most of the time,” says an artist who freely, positively also describes herself as a “fiery Irish woman” on another new song, Can’t Say. “I’m overly sensitive to people’s emotions and try to listen to them, and learn from them, as much as I can.
“And with this song, I wrote it half wanting it to be what I heard someone say to me in a time of need, then half otherworldly, as if that was what the earth was saying to us. Also, I was seeing 11:11 a lot. A lot of people think 11:11 is the call of nature, an intuitive time. You see it in lots of ancient cultures and traditions. So it’s an invitation to learn about bigger things than ourselves.”
For May, then, there was no more fitting, timely and resonant idea to both open and underpin her album. “We all have that child-like need to be scooped up and held and told everything is going to be alright. And I wanted that huge being called love to do that to me.”
As opening statements – musically, emotionally, conceptually – go, that takes some beating. So do the rest of 11 songs on 11 Past The Hour, many of them written with co-producer Tim Bran (London Grammar, Primal Scream) and string arranger Davide Rossi (Coldplay, U2, Goldfrapp), their recording taking place at London’s LynchMob Studios across 2019 and early 2020.
It’s an album brimming with emotional intelligence, spirituality, intuition. With care for others and rage at the world. With pals and collaborators like Ronnie Wood, Noel Gallagher and Miles Kane, and with inspired contributions from feminist thinkers and activists. With an invigorating blast of rock’n’roll. In sum, every aspect of May’s universe.
Her 2008 album ‘Love Tattoo’ released via her new deal with Decca/Universal, was an Irish Number One that was recently named the bestselling album of modern chart history by a homegrown female Irish artist and marked her entrance on a global stage. 2010’s ‘Mayhem’ again went top of the charts & multi-platinum in Ireland, Number Seven & gold in the UK and saw her make inroads in America, including a Les Paul tribute performance at the 52nd Grammy Awards with Jeff Beck, one of her many musical admirers.
Over the following years, May didn’t let up. She toured extensively and performed with the likes of Van Morrison and U2, appeared on multiple shows (notably some jaw-dropping performances on Later… With Jools Holland), and hosted her own Irish TV programme, The Imelda May Show. Demonstrating her versatility, not to mention her brilliance on any kind of stage, in August 2017 she sang the Irish national anthem in Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena ahead of the Floyd Mayweather/Conor McGregor fight.
For Imelda May, it’s always about pushing forward. On 2017’s ‘Life Love Flesh Blood’, as well as mixing up her sound to also encompass strands of soul, gospel and roots, she put herself through the emotional ringer. The T Bone Burnett-produced record was written in the shadow of changes in her personal life. But to be clear: it was not her divorce album.
To get here, May has embarked on a glorious array of musical adventures all round the world. A lover of a myriad of genres, she started out performing as a teenager in Dublin jazz and blues clubs introducing a blazing young talent who as well as being a great writer in her own right, was an inspired and intuitive interpreter of rock’n’roll standards.
Still, touring those personal songs was both emotionally gruelling and emotionally fulfilling. “I feel like my last album was my first album,” she says now. “It feels like me. It reflects me more than any other album. So it was equally rewarding and, occasionally, difficult. But the last album and this album are my truth.”
That openness was on full display at the Latitude Festival in summer 2019. May worked on a performance piece called Hallowed. Starting at 11:11 each evening and finishing at midnight, she wrote poetry in a glass box, dressed only in a slip (“something I didn’t feel cocooned by”) accompanied by soundscapes, flanked by “the symbolic things that give me comfort – I collect feathers, stones, shells and books, and always have them gathered around me. And I invited people to join me in this sacred, meditative safe space.”
Every night, surrounded by an enraptured woodland crowd, she’d read the poem she’d just written. It was one of the highlights of her career, if not her life. When it came to her sixth album, though, May had vision and purpose.
“11 Past the Hour is my truth. I always write with meaning and from my heart as that’s the reason I write, to connect with my own story at each particular moment and I hope therefore I connect with others during theirs, even if just for a while. We all laugh, sing, love, cry, dance, kiss, care, we all experience lust, anger, joy, worry, sorrow and hope. Sometimes we stay silent and hold it all in and sometimes we dance and throw it all to the wind with abandon but one thing is for sure is we are in this life together.”
Leaning into her desires – romantic, carnal and all the rest – May came up with Just One Kiss. It’s a deliciously sleazy low-slung blues (“send me to heaven, baby, with your lips”). “I needed a dirty little sexy rock’n’roll number to rev it up,” she recalls with a laugh. “So I kept the lyrics simple – it’s a lustful song of base emotions.”
Gallagher, an old friend she tapped to duet after an idle texting exchange, brought “the great vibe and kick-ass voice” she needed. On guitar Wood, a long-term pal – they shared a stage in a Dublin blues basement when she was only 16 – brought alley-cat energy to the rollicking tune. “He’s just joyous to be around. It’s infectious. He’s fast, really on-the-ball, and he knows intuitively when something is working. So he brought everything I wanted and more.”
And that includes May’s fella Niall McNamee. Via Woods’ wife Sally, a theatrical producer, the musician met the actor. Romance bloomed, and so did a creative partnership – he adds his beautiful vocals to the lovely, unplugged Celtic flavoured duet Don’t Let Me Stand On My Own, in fact they wrote this song together at the kitchen table. (McNamee also brings acting chops and those ‘heaven sending lips’ to the video Just One Kiss)
“I think the simpler the better on that one – you connect more with the lyrics and the sentiment when there’s less going on,” thinks May. But initially that was elusive: others tried but it wasn’t working “so I took it home and just pulled it apart until I got it how I wanted it to be.”
There’s more elegant simplicity in piano ballad Diamonds. Co-written with double Ivor Novello winner Sacha Scarbeck (James Blunt, Miley Cyrus), it’s a song on which May’s glorious vocal finds her “digging deep” to find beauty and love amongst the dirt and clutter.
“On the way into the studio I’d heard news about a tribe who had very little but underneath their earth was a mass discovery of diamonds. The same day I heard about one of the biggest pieces of gold ever found but intertwined in muck and rock. So both those ideas made me think: we have to accept the good with the bad, and dig deep.”
Underlining her ability to reach outwards as well as push inwards is Breathe. It’s a hypnotic, roiling, planetary cry for help, May throwing out rhythmic, repetitive words: “Growin’ up, throwin’ up/You throttle us choking and smokin us/Puff cough spit/The ash of the fed as you fled/We burned, you burned as you buried the dead.”
“There’s the literal choking but also the breathlessness you get when you panic – that can be overwhelming,” she reflects of a song written as she watched news footage of the Californian wildfires and Australian bushfires. “But it’s not just – little kids are dying from toxic air in our cities. It’s terrifying. And of course we need to breathe just to calm our mind.”
There’s more politics with a small “p” in Made To Love, a defiantly energetic, celebratory party song about love in all its shapes, sizes and guises. “But when I started writing this song, it was called Don’t Be Afraid to Love,” she admits. “And I was nearly getting rid of it, but Bono helped me – when I’m totally stuck, I can turn to him, which is lovely. I did that on the last album, too. But he told me I had something with this one, so I flipped it round from a negative lyric with positive chords to a positive lyric with negative chords – so Bono was right!”
On an anthem celebrating the LGBTQ+ communities, May’s wingwomen are the anti-upskirting activist Gina Martin and lawyer and author Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu. They bring not just proper political bite but also belting vocals. “They’re fucking brilliant women, fucking fantastic!” she beams. “I was involved in International Women’s Day, an event with Annie Lennox, and we all gathered together. Dr Shola stood on the stage and spoke her own truth and rallied people to action, and really inspired me, so I got in touch with her afterwards. Then with Gina Martin, I’m begging her to write another book because Be the Change, which is about how to change the law, was phenomenal. And together in the studio, it was very rock’n’roll and we laughed a lot.”
The result is a song that, far from being preachy, is only galvanising and inspiring. As she says: “I wanted this to be that song where, if you’re at a festival or a live gig, you can just throw your arms round that person beside you, can all dance around, sing together and feel connected. And I wanted that moment on the album.”
Then, switching things up again, is the galloping Eighties pop-goth synth romp of What We Did In The Dark, a duet with Miles Kane. “I wrote that in a hotel room, on the way to write with Tim and Davide. I had a wonderful evening,” she says mischievously, “and when I got in the studio, we all clicked and were in the right vibe. It’s one of those simple songs about losing yourself, living in the moment, which make you feel alive. And I wanted the song to reflect that.
“And I’m a fan of Miles forever. His vibe and voice are just brilliant, and he’s such a scallywag, in the best possible way. We always have good laugh and a party when we meet. And he’s just so fucking cool, so I was delighted he said yes to being on it.”
A variety of views, a multiplicity of voices, a range of emotions, a delicious, exciting, adventurous spread of sounds: this is 11 Past The Hour. But holding it all together is the big-hearted, big-thinking woman at the centre of it.
This is an album of grit and glamour, of wee hours vocal huskiness and anthemic pop belters. Of poetry (last summer, May released her first spoken word EP, Slip of the Tongue, “a dream come true”) and power (“I want to hear Gina and Dr Shola’s voices loudly in this world”). Of love and sex and fun– as she says with a laugh, the album sessions also featured “plenty of margaritas sprinkled about too!”
The closing track is Never Look Back, which features driving strings and a vocal oozing feline cool and sinuousness. “I needed that song to be strong, rhythmic, almost hypnotic and ritualistic and pagan. So I worked hard on the drums – we had samples of marching bands to get that driving feel, then I did all these crazy backing vocals. It’s about finding that hypnosis, which traditional Irish music does a lot – you can sit in song for a long time. It just takes you away. So I wanted this song to be rhythmically, percussively strong, to take you away, so you move away from the past that’s trying to drag you down and focus on the future.”
As to why it’s the closing track, it states Imelda May’s creative ambition as clearly as the embracing lyrics of the opening title track.
“It says it like it is. I don’t like to look back. I think it’s good to know what’s in the past, but keep focused on what’s ahead, and live in the present. I don’t want to go back – ever. I want to go forward – fast.”