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May shifts gears, directions

By Brian Baker, June 2017

Headed into 2015, Imelda May was on a hit streak. Her rockabilly career was in full swing, nurtured by the likes of former Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland and guitar icon Jeff Beck. Her albums routinely topped the charts in her native Ireland. No less than Bono cited her as the country's queen, and she attracted a global fan base through rigorous touring. At home, May was wife to musical collaborator/guitarist Darrel Higham and mother to two-year-old Violet, and the future seemed shades bright.

That all came to a shattering halt when she and Higham decided to divorce. Although their split was largely amicable, May also lost a significant band member with Higham's departure, and her subsequent attempt at a new relationship ended in heartbreak. The songs May wrote to deal with her pain didn't lend themselves to her raucous rockabilly presentation.

Imelda May - Should've Been You (live)

The resultant album, "Life Love Flesh Blood," is a combination of slow burning bluesy torch songs and sturdy yet atmospheric rock anthems that bear little resemblance to May's catalog beyond the unmistakable presence of her supernaturally passionate and smoky vocals. Oddly enough, even without her enormous emotional tumult, May was still on her way to a drastic style makeover.

"You know, I wouldn't have written this album, but I knew before I wrote 'Tribal,' I was going to go somewhere else, in a way," says May. "With 'Tribal,' I wanted to push as far as I was comfortable with and write rockabilly and punk and go as heavy as I felt, but I knew I was going to step away. I felt like I'd hit a glass ceiling creatively. I didn't know where I was going, and I liked that I didn't know what the album was going to be. Maybe life was changing, and I didn't know. You sense things sometimes."

As May crafted the follow-up to 2014's "Tribal," she allowed the songs to emerge without self-censoring them because they didn't fit her previously established musical framework. Without forcing her muse down the familiar paths of her first four albums, "Life Love Flesh Blood" told the honest story of her broken heart directly from her creative core.

"When I was writing this, I didn't have any rules for myself," says May. "I didn't want to have a genre or feel contained in any way, and I thought, 'I'm just going to write from my heart and see what happens.' And it was really liberating, a very free and creative and fantastic experience."

The songs percolated while May went about life, caring for her daughter after taking a break from her grueling tour schedule. She wrote intermittently, but as the year progressed, the songs organically took shape.

"I ended up writing 40 songs for the album, and then I wanted to whittle it down and get the ones that sat well together as one album," says May. "That's why there's loads of heartbreak on it and hope, guilt, regret, desire and joy the whole range of emotions over the course of a year in anyone's life."

After completion of the album's demos, May and her manager Peter Rudge ("Great manager, by the way..." says May) had a conversation about who should produce the new project. May excitedly offered her first and best choice for helming her shift into a completely new musical realm.

"Peter asked me, 'Who would your favorite producer be?' and I reached for the stars and said, 'Well, T Bone Burnett, of course!' Awhile later, I got an e-mail, and it was T Bone, saying yes basically, and I nearly fell over. And T Bone said, 'I know who you are, I've been watching you, and I've heard the demos. You weren't ready for me then, but you're ready for me now.' And I thought that was the most fabulous thing he could have said. We got on really well, and he's such a great man to work with. He gave me a lot of freedom; all the musicians, really, he trusts in everybody's abilities. He had great ideas but he didn't force it and it seemed to flow very well. It was 15 tracks in 7 days without forcing it."

For the "Life Love Flesh Blood" sessions, Burnett assembled a crack band including guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Zachary Dawes and drummer Jay Bellerose, among many others, who provided a typically masterful soundtrack for May's evocative and insightful songs. Along with the raw demos she had recorded herself, May also provided rehearsal takes where she and her band had fleshed out the songs for Burnett to consider. To her horror, Burnett had given only the original demos to the band to experience their unadulterated emotion and thereby shared her self-described terrible guitar technique with some of the world's best musicians.

"Marc Ribot is phenomenal, I love his brain, and Jay Bellerose, I called him The Octopus because he uses eight hands to play the drums, and Zach Dawes gets this very nasty, gritty, fabulous sound from the bass. It was a great mixture and we all worked really well," says May.

"So when I got to the studio, the guys had all these notes on the songs written and they said, 'Oh, we learned them from the demos.' T Bone had sent them all my rough demos, and I nearly died from embarrassment that Marc Ribot had heard my horrendous guitar playing. I wanted the ground to swallow me up. But T Bone said, 'I wanted the bones, the grit of the songs, I didn't want the polished versions.' I'd hear myself over the speakers and go, 'Oh, no! Why is everyone listening to this?' And they were all taking their notes. I nearly died."

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