Irish singer May sets her sights on the US

Oct. 8, 2009 at 5:08 a.m.
Updated Oct. 9, 2009 at 5:09 a.m.

NEW YORK (AP) — Backstage after a Chuck Berry show, Imelda May is waiting for her chance to meet the rock 'n roll legend.

Meeting the famously irascible Berry is not easy. But it helps being a sultry woman with a booming voice who looks like a rebelious rocker straight out of the 1950s — complete with blond-streaked black hair tied in a ponytail.

As the door to Berry's dressing room opens, the Irish rockabilly queen darts in. She emerges beaming after thanking Berry for the chance to open for him at B.B. King's in New York while on her first tour of the United States last month.

"He said, 'I heard you and you were great!'" she says.

It's just another milestone in a breakthrough year for May, who at 35 is finally enjoying a taste of mainstream success in a career that began singing in Dublin clubs at age 16.

"Love Tattoo," May's U.S. debut album, is a collection of her own original jazzy, bluesy, roots rock songs that topped the Irish charts and won her the Best Irish Female award at the Meteor Ireland Music Awards, the Irish equivalent of the Grammys. In London, where she has lived since 1998, she was been named best jazzartist of 2009 by The Times and "Next Big Thing" by the Daily Mail.

May's whirlwind one-week U.S. tour will be followed by another tour in November that could include a performance on the "Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien, the Irish-American talk show host known for boosting up-and-coming musical acts. The show tried to book May on her first trip, but she had a scheduling conflict with a festival in Ireland.

That missed opportunity, along with performing on just a few hours of sleep immediately after flying into town, didn't seem to faze May, who stomped and clapped her way through a raucous, high-energy set.

While she awaits word from the "Tonight Show," May can thank another TV show for helping launch her. After opening a concert for former Squeeze musician Jools Holland last year, she appeared on his live BBC music show, "Later With Jools Holland." May soon landed a record deal with Universal Records' U.K. label (Universal's Verve Forecast label released her album in the U.S.). Another record is already in the works and slated for release next year.

One of May's biggest fans is guitarist Jeff Beck, who she opened for at the O2 arena in London last month. Still, she says her favorite guitarist is the one in her own band: Darrel Higham, who also happens to be her husband. She asked him to join her band two years ago.

"I wanted a guitarist and he's the best bloody guitarist there is," she says. "We've been together all the time and we love it."

May, who also sings at burlesque shows, names classic American singers as her biggest influences, from Billie Holiday to Patsy Cline to Wanda Jackson, the 1950s rockabilly star. As a young girl, she says she fell in love with her older brother's tape of early rock 'n roll by Elvis, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.

"That music didn't make me popular at school," May says with a laugh.

She's glad, though, that rockabilly isn't always trendy.

"It goes in and out of fashion, but sometimes that does the music a bit of a favor if it goes out of fashion, because it becomes a bit cooler," May says. "It goes underground for a little while. It never goes away."

While she loves American roots music, she also performs traditional Irish music. On stage, May plays the bodhran, the Irish drum she learned to play by watching older musicians in the pubs Doolin on Ireland's west coast.

"It's a great sound ... the boom-chica-boom-boom, not unlike the Bo Diddley stuff," she says. "Traditional Irish music and blues and country music are all similar. It's hypnotic, it just goes round and round.

"You lose your mind in it, and your soul."



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