Imelda May's debt to the humble fish finger

Imelda May's a bona fide star now, but she'll never forget where her route to the top started

Poured into a slinky, leopard-print dress, her dark hair caught in a quiff topped with a bleached-blonde swirl she calls her "cinnamon bun", Imelda May has kicked off her high heels and is glugging from a bottle of water.

"My vocal cords work hard for me, so I have to treat them nice," she says.

We're in an airless dressing room buried deep in ITV's studios, where in an hour's time the 37-year-old singer and her band will get This Morning viewers shimmying round their sofas to her latest single, "Road Runner", a sassy, toe-tapping blend of rockabilly and blues. The comfy set is a world away from the first place May ever sang for real – the jam night at Bruxelles in Dublin, aged 16. "My sister's boyfriend brought me down to the club and got me up for a song and I never left!" Technically, though, her first singing job was on an advert for Findus fish fingers. "I heard myself all over the radio. I was delighted, but mortified – a typical 14-year-old."

Growing up in the Liberties, the youngest of five children, May encountered a huge range of music through her family's shared record player. "Music was around me from a very early age. I used to sit by the speakers and put records on again and again." From Dean Martin to the Specials, she heard it all, but it was the likes of Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson and Eddie Cochran who captured her imagination.

She sought work as a singer, joining various retro bands on the pub circuit in her 20s, working shifts to pay her way. By then, she had met her husband, Darrel Higham, a talented blues guitarist who she eventually roped into her own band, and moved to London.

"That's where I learned my trade, listening and watching other people," she says. "I got to make mistakes in little pubs and clubs and have a great time and meet fantastic musicians who taught me a lot."

It's a world away from the X Factor route to music industry success. "It must mess with your head. Being so famous so quickly, and then disappearing so quickly. I don't know how anybody would cope with that. Maybe they're fine, but for me it wouldn't have been an option."

May's self-produced album Love Tattoo, released in 2007, eventually found its way to Jools Holland, who invited her to tour with him and perform on Later... Her most recent album, Mayhem, reached the top 10 last year, but she's got a spell of touring to do before she writes the next one.

When performing, the only ritual she swears by is having a glass of port on stage. "I heard Pavarotti had a glass of port, that it was good for the vocal cords, so I thought, well if Pavarotti says it's OK, I'll give it a go."


Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy

The GuardianTramp

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