She’s 5-foot-3-inches of rockabilly, blues and swing dynamite. There’s much more to Imelda May, but the many genres that feed the Irish fireball’s musical soul form too long a list for a single sentence.
Following the No. 1 and No. 3 debuts in Ireland and the U.K. respectively for her album, “Tribal,” the recording got its U.S. release last week.
This week, May returns stateside for a tour that includes her first performance at the Austin City Limits Festival and her Saturday show at the House of Blues.
As much as May is identified with rockabilly — that Memphis-bred fusion of country and rhythm-and-blues music — she says she’s by no means exclusively a rockabilly singer or songwriter.
“I’m not pure by any means,” the singer said from her home in England. “Blues and jazz were among my first loves. So New Orleans was a place that I always wanted to go to and then I got to go to, a few years ago.
“I love the freeness of the music from New Orleans. Yeah, Fats Domino is brilliant in the original sense of the word. He shines brighter and stronger than anybody else at what he does. You hear his voice, his songs, and you know it’s him immediately. And he’s influenced an awful lot of people.”
New Orleans and its music remind May of Ireland and its traditional Celtic music.
“In Ireland, you go from pub to pub and you cannot believe how good the musicians are,” she said. “Generations of families play in the same band. In blues and jazz and traditional Irish music, the younger people look up to their elders and learn from them. So I like that very much about New Orleans, because that’s part of normal life.”
Dublin native May grew up in a home full of music-loving parents, brothers and sisters.
“I got everything from big band music to musicals to Eddie Cochran, the Specials, David Bowie, the Stones, Meat Loaf, The Carpenters, John Denver,” she said. “I’ve been influenced by everything so I’m able to move about.”
May took a particular shine to rockabilly, in part because it was not highly regarded.
“And I couldn’t understand why a music that was so influential to everything afterwards, basically started a whole revolution of music, why it should be shunned,” she said. “People we look up today and regard as legends and innovators — Jeff Beck, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Hendrix, even the Beatles — all these people wanted to be rockabilly players.”
Before May became the main attraction she is today, she toured with Mike Sanchez’s swing and R&B band.
“I’ve never had a formal education in music,” she explained. “No fancy state schools. No singing lessons, nothing like that. I’ve learned it in pubs and clubs, from older musicians, since I was 16 years old.”
When record companies expressed interest in her as a solo act, they told her to drop the rockabilly. “Not to be stubborn, but I was proud of this music that I loved,” she said. “Elvis (Presley) is one of the best singers and performers ever. And there’s Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly. So that made me want to concentrate on rockabilly more.”
May also easily made the connection between rockabilly and punk rock, another style that informs her music.
“Yeah, punk is a direct descendent, a child, if you like, of rockabilly. Rockabilly broke all the rules, was rebellious and dangerous, sexy and on the edge and forbidden. And the same goes for punk rock.”