Imelda May Premieres 'Black Tears' Featuring Jeff Beck: Exclusive
The end of her long marriage to guitarist Darrel Higham gave Imelda May plenty to write about for her new -- and decidedly different -- album, Life Love Flesh Blood, which comes out Apr. 7. (Check out the premiere of the track "Black Tears" featuring Jeff Beck, below.)
"Life changes. You have to roll with it," the Irish singer tells Billboard. "Certainly as an artist you have a good way to channel whatever's going on. Songwriting, which I'm always doing, is almost like a diary." And on Life Love Flesh Blood, produced by T Bone Burnett and recorded over seven days in Los Angeles, May took from that journal in the most unapologetically open and unvarnished way she ever has.
"On this album I didn't want to hide anything," May acknowledges. "I've always written honestly, but you get a good way of being able to hide things, like a secret code that only you know. I didn't want to do that on this album. I wanted to write what I was feeling and not think about anybody else hearing it or listening to it. I didn't think about anything other that how I felt."
May chuckles as she adds, "God knows how I'm going to be able to perform it now..."
That raw emotion is certainly evident in "Black Tears," which May co-wrote in Nashville with Angelo Petraglia. "I came up with the title first; It was after having a difficult goodbye and I came home and just caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and noticed my face was streaked with my mascara running," May recalls. "I have a book I use for each album where I write ideas, and I just wrote 'Black Tears.' And when I showed it to Angelo he thought that was an interesting idea and we ran with it." The concept also appealed to Jeff Beck, who featured May on his 2010 album, Emotion & Commotion.
"I asked Jeff if he would play on my album, 'cause he's been so good to me," May says. "He said, 'Yes, send me some songs, ' so I sent him a few and he heard 'Black Tears' and said 'I want to play on that.' So I went down to his house and he played a few amazing solos. He was working on his 17th album at the time, so we had a great day having a few drinks and listening to each other's albums."
In addition to the lyrical shift, Life Love Flesh Blood also takes May in a new sonic direction, moving from rockabilly to the kind of rootsy Americana sound Burnett does so well with hints of blues and country noir. "I started with blues. That's what I started singing as a teenager in Dublin," May says. "It just sits well with me. So I wanted to go back to basics in a way. I said the other day it's a fabulous mix of classy and badass -- that's the sound I wanted on this. I wanted it to be like velvet, but with a kick to it. That's what [Burnett] does so well."
Burnett teamed May with a small core studio band that included himself and Marc Ribot on guitars, Dennis Crouch on bass, Jay Bellerose on drums and Patrick Warren on keyboards. Jools Holland, meanwhile, contributes piano on the gospel flavored "When It's My Time." "T Bone and I met quite a few times before recording," May remembers, "and when he heard the new stuff I'd been writing he said, 'I've known of you. I've been keeping my eye on you, but you just weren't ready for me. Now you're ready for me.' I completely agreed with him."
May also had the counsel of U2's Bono, a good friend, while making the album. "I've been able to lean on him a lot. He steers me in the right direction," May says. "He makes me make up my own mind, but he's quite honest, which is great. He'll say, 'Drop that song, it's no good,' or he'll say, 'Work on that one you think is not working. It's just not finished. Finish the bloody song!' So he's good that way." Fellow Irish artist Gavin Friday, meanwhile, gave Life Love Flesh Blood its title,
May is currently planning promotional dates to support the album's release, and she expects to tour as well on both sides of the Atlantic -- and hopes her fans will embrace the set's new sound. "I don't know how people will take to it," she says. "I might lose a few fans, gain a few. But it was the album I needed to make for this moment in time. And it's not all a sad album. It's not all about heartbreak. It's about everything. It's a life-change album. I think people will relate to that."