If you saw the Grammy Awards last January, you may have been left with several questions, most of which involve Lady Gaga. What interested me, though, was who was the bombshell singer performing with Jeff Beck during the tribute to Les Paul? In an evening full of the biggest performers in music taking the stage, she may have been the least-known artist to sing on stage, but gave a captivating and dynamic performance.
The answer to that is query is Imelda May, a thirty-five year old rockabilly singer from Dublin. She released her first album in the US, Love Tattoo, last September and just finished her first tour of the US, opening for British jazz/pop sensation Jamie Cullum. She’s arguably the most exciting female rockabilly singer since Wanda Jackson.
May told me in an interview just a few hours before the Seattle show on her tour with Cullum at the Moore Theater that she always grew up with “a very musical family.” One incident she said with a laugh was “when I was a teenager, I took a tape from my brother’s room; I borrowed it, never to be brought back again, and it had Buddy Holly on it. That blew my mind. I never heard anything like that before.” She then learned about Elvis Presley, Billie Holliday and similar, legendary artists, which ultimately pointed her towards rockabilly and blues.
It almost seemed accidental that May’s musical palette includes so many older artists. She said that she discovered a lot of music because the records were inexpensive. “I figured out when I started buying records that this one shop was selling them and I went in there and bought a bunch of R&B records for just a couple of pounds. There were ones that said Chess or Ace on them and I really loved those. I discovered all of these fantastic people just because I was buying their records cheaply.”
During her set at the Moore she joked that “I was too young to be in bars at 16, but I sure learned a lot back then.” It was in 2008, though, that her career started to take off with an appearance on the popular and important British TV show “Later…with Jools Holland”. It also didn’t hurt any that Jeff Beck also found her voice captivating.
Her first album was actually called No Turning Back, which was released originally in 2005 under the name Imelda Clabby, but reissued in Europe last year. She said that in hindsight, she wasn’t happy with its quality originally and took the opportunity to rerecord it, saying “When I recorded it in a bedroom and it was late at night, so I was afraid to sing. We were recording at 2 in the morning and I thought ‘oh god, we’re going to wake the whole neighborhood’, so I never thought I sang as well as I could and the recording and the sound were just awful. When things started to take off, I thought ‘I’d really love to rerecord that.’ I went into the studio and quickly redid the vocals and put it back out. I felt really relieved where I could fix it. It’s a better sound and better quality.”
Love Tattoo, her sophomore album, is particularly strong. It’s full of catchy, rockabilly songs that mesh her sultry voice with, in particular, a throbbing (upright) bassline. The two singles have names sound retro from the 1950s: “Johnny Got a Boom Boom” and “Big, Bad Handsome Man”. The former is more upbeat while the latter is drawn out and quite seductive.
She told me she just finished its follow-up just before embarking on the tour with Cullum, saying “I finished recording the next album, just the night before heading out on this tour. I produced this next album like I produced Love Tattoo and it was taking up every hour of my day.” She said it’ll be available in Europe in September and likely in the US at the end of 2010 or early 2011.
Her album, Love Tattoo, found its way to the US after fans found her music on the internet, she said and thought there was enough demand to release it in the US. Combine that with her magnetic stage presence and she should be a legitimate star. When I interviewed her in her dressing room at the Moore, she couldn’t have been much taller than five feet, but on stage that night, she seemed at least a foot taller (and that wasn’t just high heels). The crowd at the show I saw loved every second of her performance, finishing with a lengthy standing ovation for a set that included a mixture of her original songs and classic covers, including a surprisingly faithful rockabilly cover of “Tainted Love”. What was especially impressive about the crowd’s reaction is that May and Jamie Cullum don’t typically share the same fan base.
The Grammy performance, though, was unquestionably her star turn and she thanks Jeff Beck and his persistence for making it happen. Producers of the show, she said, wanted to feature a star-studded tribute to Les Paul but Beck insisted on May singing “How High the Moon” with her husband and band’s guitarist Darrel Higham also playing guitar. She said it was all history “eventually, just a week before he won his argument and I got a call saying we’re playing at the Grammy Awards.”
What you may notice when you watch that performance is the use of a backing vocal track, which was deliberate and meant to pay tribute to Paul. She said, “. Les Paul was one of the inventors of the multitracking system, which we take for granted now. That’s why I laid down a lot of vocal tracks and then sang live at the Grammys. It’s the exact same way that (Paul’s wife and collaborator from as far back as the 1940s) Mary Ford did it to show off that technique.”[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdcUvhq_3do]
“It was absolutely surreal” she told me, but more in awe of getting the opportunity to perform with Beck at the Les Paul tribute than sharing a stage with the biggest pop stars of the moment. Still, it was clear from watching that performance that she belonged on that stage as much as anyone else. In a just and fair world, she’d be back again, repeatedly.