Irish singer Imelda May is a walking, talking, singing embodiment of the 1950s. She wears leopard-print sweaters, tight bad-girl jeans and her hair in a ponytail. Her bangs are curled into a tight roll, known in England as a "quiff." Although May has won numerous awards in 2009, her music harks back to a style that was popular in the '50s: rockabilly.
May's debut album, Love Tattoo, was just released this past summer in the U.S. And, depending on your level of perversity, the hit single "Johnny's Got a Boom Boom" is really about the double-bass and not where a dirty mind might wander, at least if May is to be believed.
For the past 19 years, May has been in the entertainment business, but has spent a good part of that time as a burlesque performer.
"It's lots of sequins and glitter and glamour. It's great," May says. "As well as the tassels and the feathers, you get a lot of circus performers — sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, contortionists. It's such a good night out."
It also turns out to be a risky gig.
"I got hurt a couple of times," May says. "There was an angle-grinder and she had some sparks flying everywhere. I was singing and I opened my mouth, and one of the sparks went down the back of my throat."
Imelda May's husband inspired two songs on Love Tattoo: "Big Bad Handsome Man" and "Falling in Love With You Again." May says that the latter was written for him, but also for her parents.
"There are a lot of songs about new love and people falling in love for the first time. I just felt there was nothing including people who are together a long time," May says. "You fall in and out of love a lot over the years — myself and my husband have been together for 12 years. I've seen my parents, aunties and uncles go through periods where they want to kill each other. And then you see periods where they're absolutely madly in love."
It goes without saying that May wasn't even alive when rockabilly was at its prime in the 1950s. In an interview, NPR's Liane Hansen wonders how May got into it.
"My brother played a lot of rockabilly," she says. "I borrowed a tape from his bedroom. It just absolutely blew my mind. It was Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. I had never heard anything like it. The guitars would screech, and I could hear Gene Vincent's Blue Caps in the background screamin', absolutely screamin' on some tracks. It was half frightening and half fantastic."
May soon got a quiff, a pair of loafers and tore up her jeans — and it changed her life.