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."

Contributor

Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Imelda May: Tribal review – 'breakneck rockabilly'

The Irish star tells an engaging story at speed but falters on the ballads, writes Phil Mongredien

Phil Mongredien

26, Apr, 2014 @11:05 PM

Article image
Gwenifer Raymond review – finger-picking good
The Welsh guitarist dazzles with awe-inspiring technique and her intense musicality

Kitty Empire

29, May, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Willis Earl Beal: 'I turned myself into a myth as a survival mechanism'

Willis Earl Beal drifted into a record deal via homelessness and dead-end jobs. Now the balladeer with an ear for Dylan tells Tim Teeman he isn't sure that he wants what comes next

Tim Teeman

31, Aug, 2013 @11:04 PM

Article image
The Strypes: 'We always knew that you had to practise for months, get in a van and do 200 gigs…'

Irish R&B rockers the Strypes have gone from playing fetes to topping the iTunes charts and they're all still under 18. By Kate Mossman

Kate Mossman

27, Apr, 2013 @11:04 PM

Otis Taylor: My World is Gone – review
Colorado singer Otis Taylor mixes 'trance blues' and tough social commentary to focus on the plight of Native Americans, writes Neil Spencer

Neil Spencer

03, Mar, 2013 @12:05 AM

Pokey LaFarge: Pokey LaFarge – review
US bango player Pokey LaFarge puts a modern spin on swing and ragtime on his convincing latest, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

03, Aug, 2013 @11:05 PM

Gregg Allman: Low Country Blues – review
Gregg Allman's first album in 14 years finds him reworking blues classics to pleasant effect, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

06, Feb, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Hidden gems of 2015: great records you may have missed
From the thrill of Brittany Howard’s alter ego to joy on the Wirral, our critics pick some of this year’s under-the-radar releases

Kitty Empire, Killian Fox, Phil Mongredien, Michael Cragg, Ally Carnwath, Neil Spencer, Dave Gelly, Fiona Maddocks, Stephen Pritchard

20, Dec, 2015 @9:00 AM

Article image
Jack White: 'I knew we'd get into these places and stir things up' | Interview

The Stripes' frontman Jack White talks to Sarfraz Manzoor about President Obama, his wife's first album and doing a whole show on one note

Sarfraz Manzoor

14, Mar, 2010 @12:06 AM

Article image
On my radar: Wilko Johnson’s cultural highlights
The ex-Dr Feelgood guitarist and songwriter on medieval architecture, the poetry of William Blake, Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the power of the blues

Interview by Kathryn Bromwich

15, Mar, 2015 @7:00 AM