Imelda May: ‘The people in the community have held each other up for years’

The Liberty sat down with the singer over Zoom and spoke with her about her new album, learning Irish during lockdown and what it means to have grown up in the Liberties. 

Imelda May’s first performance in ages was her new single Made To Love. She performed it alongside activist Gina Martin and lawyer and author Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu on the Graham Norton show in early March. “The audience of five, the lights and cameras whizzing up and down was fabulous – but definitely overwhelming.”  

May’s musical ability is extraordinary: she plays four instruments and has explored a myriad of genres through her musical career, from jazz and blues to rock ’n’ roll. Some of her more recent work is heavily influenced by her poetry. Poetry such as GBH, Elephant and Roses on her 2020 EP Slip of the Tongue is spoken alongside a cacophony of string instruments. 

Liberty Belle on Slip of the Tongue is recited as May hums Molly Malone in the background. May was inspired to write this poem after walking through the Liberties one night after a gig. As May took in her surroundings, she recognised that there was a new influx of people moving into the area. May felt that these people needed to know more about the Liberties and its history. 

Photo: Charlotte Kindred Owns

“The massive thing about it is the community,” she says. “The people in the community have held each other up for years. I wrote that poem about the hard times, the recession, the drug problem and the lack of women’s healthcare.”  

“That place is steeped in my blood – there has been a lot of strong women in the Liberties. Women kept that place going for a long time.” 

Imelda May

May hopes that residents living in the Liberties learn about its history and take pride in the area in addition to enjoying it as it is now. 

“That place is steeped in my blood – there has been a lot of strong women in the Liberties. Women kept that place going for a long time. Whole families lived in tenement buildings in two rooms or less. It has had such poverty over the times even before my lifetime.”

Poetry is very important to May and she would sit and write poems daily if she could. “There is a liberation to it. A poem can be as short or as long as you want it to be, and I feel that I can write about any topic.”

Solas on 11 Past the Hour is the only piece she has written that has changed from poem to song.

“My friend Pedro Vito convinced me it was a song. He saw it written and said ‘do you mind if we start working on a melody for this?'” 

Along with releasing new music and home-schooling her daughter throughout lockdown, May has been busy learning Irish. She started the language on Duolingo and soon realised that she remembered more than she first thought.  

Photo: Charlotte Kindred Owns

May felt compelled to revisit Irish as she felt she had lost a lot of her Irish heritage by not knowing the native language. She also wanted to expand her understanding of old Irish poetry and songs. 

She would like to encourage people to use their cúpla focal “little and often” because “we can all use a little bit at least – we can say codladh sámh (sleep well) or conas atá tú (how are you).” 

May says she would have enjoyed learning Irish with “more gusto in school, if it had not been approached almost as a foreign language”. She remembers that all of the students in her school were very aware that if “you wanted to do anything decent with your life then you had to learn it – which was not the right incentive.” 

May is delighted with the reaction thus far to her new music: her newest album, her sixth studio LP, 11 Past the Hour, is out on April 16th.

“The love has been flowing. I feel like I’ve been doused and drenched in love – which is really nice.”  

The album includes her singles Made To Love and Just One Kiss. “Some of the songs are about romantic love, some of them are lustful love, some of them are about the love of the planet from the perspective of trees. Made To Love is about fighting for love for all of us.” 

May is a Liberties girl through and through.

“My Mam and my Granny and my Great Granny were from there. As I say in Liberty Belle – she is me and I am her. I think she is beautiful; she is the belle of the ball.” 

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