Don't call Imelda May a '50s throwback or vintage. Music doesn't get more alive than when the Irish singer is belting out a song on stage.
“I want to be able to let off some steam, let my hair down and go crazy,” says May. So as infectious as numbers like “Wild Woman,” “Mayhem” and “Johnny Got a Boom Boom” sound recorded, there is an electric feeling when done live.
May was calling recently from her home in England after returning from a European tour. It was a brief respite before hitting the road again, including a stop at the El Rey in Los Angeles on Thursday. The Dublin-born songstress also has a new album on the way, “Tribal,” which has already been released in the United Kingdom.
Dubbed a rockabilly and bluesy singer with dashes of jazz and torch, May jokes she is an overnight sensation after 25 years. From a working-class family, the 40-year-old singer got hooked at a young age on Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson and Johnny Burnette.
“I was from a tough neighborhood, and we didn't have a lot of money but my dad worked hard and my mom is good at budgeting things. That made me appreciate things,” she says.
But before her rockabilly infatuation, May wanted to be Judy Garland. Later, she began digging the punk elements of the Clash, the Cramps, the Ramones, Ian Dury and Adam Ant, which offers some idea of her intoxicating mix of sounds.
May started performing in clubs when she was 16. “That was my music education, learning from all these old guys. They gave me great advice about what to do,” she says.
Record companies came “sniffing around” when May was a teenager. “They wanted me to be a pop sensation, but I told them I wasn't interested in being famous. For me, it was about the music.”
While her family thought she was “crazy and would never make a living at music,” they were always supportive. “They never said to get a real job. They were always happy because I was passionate about what I was doing.”
At 22, she had followed her boyfriend, guitarist Darrel Higham, to London, and both became regulars on the club scene at night while working during the day to pay the rent. Some of May's jobs were waitressing, making cocktails in a bar, face-painting, doing caricatures, working at a Laundromat, working at a service station, and working in a nursing home for the elderly for about 2 1/2 years. “I loved taking care of old people.”
She and Higham married in 2002 and would take gigs whenever they could, including May singing advertising jingles. An indie record in 2003, under her maiden name, Imelda Clabby, did little. Finally, she formed her own band in 2006 — with her husband on guitar — and people, including rock icon Jeff Beck, started to take notice.
Her second album, “Love Tattoo,” won plaudits and the first two singles, “Johnny Got a Boom Boom” and “Big Bad Handsome Man,” were getting play around the world. In 2010, she performed at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles along with Jeff Beck in tribute to guitar legend Les Paul. The next year saw the release of her third album, “Mayhem,” and she began making the rounds of late-night U.S. talk shows like those hosted by Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Craig Ferguson.
While May can sizzle on a torch song as well as anyone — citing Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day and Patsy Cline as inspirations — she likes to put mostly rocking numbers on her albums.
“I know I'm going to be gigging a lot, and I don't want to be singing sad songs all the time,” says May, who is on the road most of the year with her now 2-year-old daughter, Violet, her husband and band.
May usually forms her ideas for new songs when she's off the road, though. “I need to let my mind ramble and daydream.” She then likes to work them out with the band, letting her husband come up with “killer guitar riffs,” before hitting the studio.
“It's all by gut,” she says, “I don't know why something works. It's when I feel it.”
Right now being on tour means even less sleep because of her 2-year-old. Nevertheless, she is loving it all the same. “I won't be the first mother on the road, and I won't be the last one.”
When you talk to May, the word “fun” comes up a lot, and she certainly seems to be having it these days. “I have loads of work now, but I might not down the road. So I'm really grateful for what I have.”
The songstress is also enthusiastic when she talks about her favorite performers of the past, but don't confuse that with who she is as an artist.
“I love to look back, but I don't want my music to be nostalgic. I want it to have the same vibrancy that the music I love had when it came out. I'm trying to get that electricity.”