Imelda May rocks the Riverwalk in Breckenridge | SummitDaily.com
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Imelda May rocks the Riverwalk in Breckenridge

KIMBERLY NICOLETTI
summit daily news

When “experts” told Imelda May her love of rockabilly wouldn’t take her anywhere, she wasn’t swayed.

“I didn’t want to sell out, because I don’t see the point, really,” May said. “As a girl, someone said (to me), ‘sign to a pop label.’ If you do that, you end up singing stuff you hate, and that’s not worth anything. People can smell that a mile away if you’re doing it for fame or money. I have to be passionate about what I do.”

And so she is.

Born in Ireland, May grew up listening to her siblings’ folk music, rockabilly, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly and Elvis records. In fact, she couldn’t escape the sounds, living with four brothers and sisters in a two-bedroom house.

“My brother was a mad Elvis fan, and I found a tape in his room with Elvis, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. I thought the music was fantastic,” she said. “It was wild, exciting. Not only could you hear the audience scream, you could hear the band scream.”

She began singing in blues clubs in Dublin at age 16 because her brother-in-law played in a band. During that time, she delved into the world of jazz, rockabilly and blues when a local music store began selling its records cheap, in order to replace them with tapes. She purchased any artist from Chess, Ace or Capitol Records, because she discovered she loved all their music, even if she hadn’t heard of a specific name before.

“People think (rockabilly) is simple music, but it’s made to sound that way,” she said. “It was like the punk rock of its day. There was nothing like it, and without it, we wouldn’t have the music we have.”

She trusted her love for the genre, finding that, “when I do rockabilly, the crowd just jumps and goes wild. I don’t know what it is.”

She learned music the “old-fashioned” way; her sister taught her how to strum the first chords of rockabilly on guitar, and her entire family would get together and sing late into the night. When she gigged in clubs, her older brothers had her back.

After moving to London at age 23 and gaining experience with various bands, she decided it was time to start her own band. That was about three years ago.

“As soon as I did that, everything completely took off,” she said. “It was a natural progression all along. (I had) no big plans. One thing led to another.”

And suddenly, she found herself on “Later … with Jools Holland,” a BBC television show in England that hosts everyone who’s everyone in music.

“We got two days notice (because Natalie Cole got sick), and I just screamed,” May said.

At age 36 (next month), she feels she’s served her time. And now she’s reaping the benefits. Her album, “Love Tattoo,” has gone platinum in Ireland, she won 2009 Irish female singer of the year from Meteor Awards, she has shared stages with everyone from Van Morrison to Jeff Beck and the Scissor Sisters and also sang for a character on the forthcoming American gangster movie “Dark Streets.”

Her sound is distinctive, whether she’s performing a rockabilly party track, a retro tango or rock tune, or a sultry after-hours torch number. Her original lyrics tend to be simple, with a twist. For instance, her love song, “Falling in Love with You,” isn’t about new love, but rather a long-lasting relationship, in which you “fall in and out of love over the course of marriage,” she said. “There’s nothing to express falling in love with the same person. It’s not always (about) new love.”

May kicks off the Blue River Series of the Breckenridge Music Festival. Scouts brought her to Breck because of her contemporary twist on tried-and-true sounds.

“I heard her album ‘Love Tattoo’ a while ago when it got released and loved her sound of old and new blues and rockabilly with her own style, but never really thought of her for the Blue River Series because she is always touring in Europe,” said Rick Hansen, Blue River Series spokesperson. “Then I saw her performance on the Grammy’s with Jeff Beck and checked again to see if there were any available dates for her to come through, and sure enough she was playing Telluride the 19th! So I figured we had to go for it.”


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