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Imelda May: Madly In Love With Rockabilly

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Imelda May: Madly In Love With Rockabilly

Imelda May: Madly In Love With Rockabilly

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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 Imelda May has won numerous awards in the past year, including The Next Big Thing, her music harkens back to a style that was popular in the '50s: rockabilly.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Her debut album is called "Love Tattoo." It's been out for a year in Europe and is still on the U.K. charts and made number one in Ireland. "Love Tattoo" was released this summer in the States, and critics have been saying that Imelda May definitely has the goods.

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny Got a Boom Boom")

HANSEN: This is the hit single from that album, "Johnny Got a Boom Boom."

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny Got a Boom Boom")

Ms. IMELDA MAY (Musician): (Singing) He's gonna blow my mind, he's gonna make me wanna, make me wanna, oh, Johnny got a boom boom, Johnny got a bam. He's got a - watch that man, see what's in his hands�

HANSEN: Imelda May joins me from the studios of the BBC in London. Welcome to the program.

Ms. MAY: Thank you, Liane. Thank you very much.

HANSEN: Is it true that you were asked whether boom boom, as in Johnny got a boom boom, was rude?

Ms. MAY: All yeah, all the time, all the time. I always answer that it depends on how bad your mind is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I keep thinking you're meaning a bass when you say Johnny's got a boom boom, 'cause the bass is very prevalent in that song.

Ms. MAY: Yes, absolutely. You're spot-on with that. You know your stuff for sure. Yeah, it was inspired by the bass, by the double bass, so you have a good mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I have decent ears, I think, yeah.

Ms. MAY: You're pure.

HANSEN: And a good mind, a pure mind, right.

Ms. MAY: You're pure. You've got to have a�

HANSEN: Right. Later, I'll talk to you about your time playing burlesque.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I mean, you did that. You worked in a burlesque show.

Ms. MAY: That's right, yeah. I've done a hell of a lot of work in all kinds of different things. And you can imagine music - and I'm sure with your job as well - it takes you to all kinds of places. So, I've done stuff from palace gigs for royalty to burlesque gigs and everything in between. And they're fantastic fun. I guess to sing while, say, somebody's doing an act or else I'll be the featured singer. It's all lots of sequins and glitter and glamour. And it's great, good fun.

It's kind of like there's a lot of - as well as the tassels and the feathers -you get a lot of circus performers there, too. So, you get sword swallowers, fire eaters, contortionists. And it's just such a good night out.

HANSEN: Didn't you get hurt once, though, when a stripper sent some sparks flying?

Ms. MAY: Yeah, I got hurt a couple of times. I got - one was - she was an angle grinder(ph), and she had some sparks flying everywhere. And I was singing and I opened my mouth and one of the sparks went down the back of my throat.

HANSEN: Oh my gosh.

Ms. MAY: I had to try and keep singing without choking.

HANSEN: Did you kind of take all those influences from those clubs, and am I hearing that in the song "Big Bad Handsome Man?"

(Soundbite of song, "Big Bad Handsome Man")

Ms. MAY: (Singing) Oh, the music he plays, the way he moves me and sways, rocks me to the floor. When he sings in my ear, he makes me shiver and leer, leaves me wanting more and more. 'Cause he's my big, bad handsome man, yeah, he's got me in the palm of his hand. He's the devil divine, I'm so glad that he's mine, 'cause he's my big bad handsome man.

I wrote that about my husband Darrel, who's also my guitarist. And so that's about - he's my big, bad handsome man. He's a big 6-foot-2 hunk of gorgeous man. He'll love me for saying that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: What role did your husband play in the development of this album? Because you do "Big Bad Handsome Man," which is, like, a nice bawdy song, but then you do a sweet song, "Falling in Love with You Again."

Ms. MAY: Yeah, yeah. I wrote that for him as well. And I don't write them all about him, but I tell him he's my muse. He finds that very amusing. But I wrote that for him because - and not just for him, but for - my parents have been together for 50 years. They had an anniversary coming up. There's a lot of songs written about new love and people falling in love for the first time. And I just felt there was nothing including people who were together a long time -and you fall in and out of love a lot, you know, over the years.

(Soundbite of song, "Falling in Love with You Again")

Ms. MAY: (Singing) We've been together what seems like forever, but I'm falling in love with you again.

(unintelligible) husband have been together for 12 years. And I've seen my parents and aunties and uncles and all, you know, go through periods where they want to kill each other and, you know, where you're not taking the trash out enough or you're not doing the dishes at the end of the night. And there's all that going on. And then you see periods where they're absolutely madly in love - and I think that's normal within a long marriage or a long relationship.

(Soundbite of song, "Falling in Love with You Again")

Ms. MAY: (Singing) You're my lover, my best friend, but I can't believe what's happening, 'cause I'm falling in love with you again.

HANSEN: You grew up in a family, there was music all around. And your dad gave you some good advice early on in your career.

Ms. MAY: Oh, yeah. My dad's, well, I don't know if you use the term a nutcase in America, but we say nutcase in Ireland. He's absolutely mad as a hatter. And we love him for it. But he used to take me to the gigs - I was only 16 or 17. So, he was taking me there one night, but I was crying me eyes out all the way 'cause I had just been dumped by a fellow and I was bawling me eyes out.

And I remember him turning to me and he said - 'cause I was singing at blues night - and he said, are you brokenhearted? And I said, I am, yeah, I am, you know. And he said are you really absolutely, your heart is - you feel awful, do you? I said, I do feel awful, and I was roaring, crying. And he said, good, 'cause you'll sing the blues better tonight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAY: And he's right, I did. I poured my heart into it that night.

HANSEN: Well, you know, there's an old saying you got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues.

Ms. MAY: Yeah, yeah, that's true, that's true.

HANSEN: Now, about this rockabilly thing. I mean, you weren't even alive in the 1950s when, you know, Wanda Jackson was singing and some of the other rockabilly stars. What is it that drew you to that music and that style?

Ms. MAY: My brother played a lot of rockabilly and I stole a tape - well, I borrowed, I should say - a tape from his bedroom. And I had a Fisher Price toy tape recorder and I played it on that. And I absolutely - it just blew my mind. It was Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, and I'd never heard anything like it. The guitars, the screeching. I could hear Gene Vincent's Blue Caps in the background screaming, absolutely screaming on some of the tracks. And it was half-frightening and half-fantastic. And I loved it.

(Soundbite of song, "Money Honey")

Mr. EDDIE COCHRAN (Musician): (Singing) Well, I say, I love you, honey, I just want you to know, I want money, honey.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Money, honey.

Mr. COCHRAN: (Singing) Yeah�

Ms. MAY: And from then on I got myself a little quiff and a little pair of loafers and tore up my jeans. And that turned things around for me.

(Soundbite of song, "Smokers' Song")

HANSEN: You know, there's this song on this album I can't quite figure it out. It's kind of funny - you're even laughing on it.

Ms. MAY: Oh, yeah.

HANSEN: The "Smokers' Song," you know which one I'm - what? Is this personal experience, someone you know? What?

(Soundbite of song, "Smokers' Song")

Ms. MAY: (Singing) Friend of mine in a bar hadn't been chatted up for years. Got this bloke droning on and on, boring my poor friend to tears. She looks him dead straight in the eye, thinks to herself, oh, what a guy. But he goes on and on and on and on, been polite for far too long. She said, she said, she said, take your cigarettes, take your jokes, I'll find someone else who smokes, or high, and makes me laugh�

I wrote this for a friend of mine. And she was a good chain smoker at the time. She's since completely turned around. She doesn't smoke almost at all. She sneaks one now and then. And she has two very young babies. But I wrote this about her because she was looking for a good man, a good fellow, and she couldn't find one. She said she was finding a different type of man that as soon as she took out her cigarettes they'd be gone.

She said to me one day (unintelligible) take your cigarettes and off you go. I'll find another smoker. And I thought, well, there's a song and that's for Helen, my friend.

HANSEN: Nice. Imelda May's debut album is called "Love Tattoo." It's on the Verve label, and she joined us from the BBC studios in London. Thank you and much luck with your career.

Ms. MAY: Thank you very, very much. It was an absolute joy to talk to you today.

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny Got a Boom Boom")

Ms. MAY: (Singing) Big bomb body, lonely neck, swear it was a woman, that he had in his grip, big vibrations�

HANSEN: You can hear songs from Imelda May's new CD, "Love Tattoo." And check out NPR's Decade in Music coverage at

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny Got a Boom Boom")

Ms. MAY: (Singing) Johnny got a bam. He got a - watch that man, see what's in his hands, got no joy, he's a big bad boy. He's gonna freak you out, he's gonna shriek out loud, he's got you in his hands, gonna make you wanna, make you wanna, oh, Johnny got a boom boom, Johnny got a bam. He got a�


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