Imelda May: Queen of rockabilly takes centre stage at last

Ahead of her slot at this weekend's Womad festival – and two years after her blistering breakthrough – Irish siren Imelda May talks to Fiona Sturges about the rocky road to success
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You won't miss Imelda May at Womad festival this weekend. She's the one with the ruby-red lips, the peroxide-streaked pin curl set against the deepest mahogany hair and the bone-white skin that looks like it may never have seen the sun. Then there's her wardrobe – all figure-hugging leopard prints, monochrome stripes and red leather corsetry creating an aesthetic that is part Fifties prom queen, part saucy burlesque star.

Clearly, when it comes to the role of the rising pop star, May looks the part – but what of her music? For the best introduction, check out her 2008 performance on Later... With Jools Holland, where, in leopard-skin wrap and pedal pushers, May sang "Johnny Got a Boom-Boom" while banging a bodhrán, and accompanied by an upright bass and her husband, Darrel, on guitar. It was a sensational performance that would transform her career, prompting a fateful meeting with fellow guest Jeff Beck, who invited her and her band to support him on tour, and catching the attention of the A&Rs at Decca records, once home to one of May's biggest heroes Wanda Jackson, who swiftly signed her up.

We meet at London's Charlotte Street Hotel where, having already eaten lunch, May is holding out for free chocolates with her coffee. Far from being the latest diva-esque singer on the block, 36-year-old May has been plying her trade for 20 years and is quite accustomed to slumming it. "I've been doing it all my life and whether I had a record deal or not, I'd still be doing it," she states. "I started singing in church with my sister Maria when I was four and I've been pretty much singing ever since. There's never been anything else for me to do."

The youngest of five children, May grew up in a musical family in The Liberties area of Dublin. Her sister Maria sings in a Christian music group, in which May still puts in appearances from time to time, while her brother Finton was responsible for introducing her to rockabilly. Thus, May's early heroes were Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent and Elvis while during her teens she developed a love of The Clash, The Cramps, The Pretenders and Blondie. She describes her family as "my biggest fans and my biggest critics. It's good to have people around who aren't afraid to say 'Well, that's not very good is it?'"

When May was six years old her mother masterminded The Liberties Musical Drama Group, designed to encourage the artistic impulses of children in the neighbourhood. "Where we lived all the playgrounds were ripped up and covered in tarmac and there was nothing for the kids to do," recalls May. "So my mother started this up. She was big into old show tunes, so she taught all those while my aunt was in charge of drama. We even entered into competitions – my mother would make the costumes and my dad would make stage sets – and other groups from all over would come in and sing in front of us. After a while all the kids were queuing up to be part of it. It changed a lot of their lives and it definitely changed mine."

In her mid-teens, May started going to gigs. Since she and her friends couldn't afford to go to the stadium shows, they would go along, sit on the steps and listen from the outside. At the same time she started singing at local blues and soul clubs where the staff would turn a blind eye to her age. "Everyone was very supportive," she recalls. "I was this kid singing boogie-woogie and the blues, which was unusual. I learnt a lot from a lot of fantastic musicians. There would be Van Morrison's band or the Hothouse Flowers who would hang around and jam all night, and I was in the middle of that."

Over the next 15 years May would seize any opportunity to sing and make a living. In 1997 she met her husband and moved to London, where she took on a series of day jobs to make ends meet. She would work as a waitress, a cleaner, in a launderette and a nursing home, in between times singing at weddings, funerals, office parties, on boats and on barges. "I even sang once at the opening of a supermarket," she laughs. "You name it, I've done it."

In 2005 she recorded an album of covers called No Turning Back. "The vocals were really quiet because we were recording it in the bedroom of our flat at 12 o'clock at night and I couldn't let myself go for fear of waking the neighbours. It's not my proudest moment."

In 2007 she got a new band together and set about writing a series of original songs, coming up with Love Tattoo, which she describes as "my first proper solo album". May says she never expected anyone to hear it, not least because the album was self-financed. "We couldn't even afford a sound engineer. We thought we might sell a couple of hundred copies at gigs." In fact Love Tattoo, which included the single "Johnny Got a Boom Boom", went triple platinum in her native Ireland, earned May a Best Irish Female prize at the Meteor Awards, the Irish equivalent of the Brits, and revealed May and her band as unapologetic rockabilly revivalists. Meanwhile, so beguiled was Jeff Beck following the Jools Holland performance that he invited May to sing alongside him at this year's Grammy Awards in a performance of "How High the Moon".

Now May is set to release Mayhem, her second album that builds on the foundations laid by Love Tattoo and blends lovelorn country ballads with psychobilly punk and surf-pop to thrilling effect. "If I'm honest," reflects May, "a couple of years ago I thought I might be playing weddings and office parties for the rest of my days with a few club gigs here and there to make it all worthwhile. And really that wouldn't have been so bad. But what's happening now is really exciting. I don't know how long it's going to last so I'm making the most of it."

Imelda May plays Womad on Sunday. The Independent is media partner. Her single "Psycho" is out now on Decca. The album, 'Mayhem', is released on 6 September

World of good: Five to watch at Womad

Salif Keita

Perhaps the biggest star, alongside Gil Scott-Heron, to be playing this year's Womad is Malian Afro-pop singer-songwriter Salif Keita. Known as the "Golden Voice of Africa", the former member of Les Ambassadeurs has been living in Paris since 1984, where he established himself as one of the leading lights of world music.

Angélique Kidjo

From Benin, West Africa, Kidjo's marrying of African tradition with Western pop has seen her collaborate with Youssou N'Dour, Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana and Amadou & Mariam. She has become a pan-African icon for her music and humanitarian work, and is regarded by many as the successor to the late Miriam Makeba.

Sierra Maestra

Since the mid-70s, well beyond the heyday of the Buena Vista Social Club, Sierra Maestra have been championing the Cuban music called "son", the traditional style played on tres, trumpet, bass and percussion. Their show is acoustic, but brimming with energy.

Gil Scott-Heron

Once known as the "godfather of rap" and the "black Bob Dylan" for his mix of poetry and politics, Scott-Heron returned this year with the album 'I'm New Here', after 16 years' absence.

Staff Benda Bilili

Homeless, and paraplegic, the Congolese street musicians (above) are an unmissable act, playing the polyrhythmic grooves of soukou, adapted Cuban rumba. Their live show takes last year's critically acclaimed album, 'Tres Tres Fort', to another level.

-Elisa Bray