Jools Holland is excitable by nature, but when he spots a new artist who has what he considers "it," his enthusiasm goes off the scale. To go by his reaction to Imelda May, she has "it" in spades. "I've got to have you on the show," he told her after seeing her play live - and so, a couple of months ago, she duly found herself on "Later With Jools Holland," wowing an audience who included Jeff Beck, Elbow and Roots Manuva. Beck, in fact, made a point of telling Holland that he was only there to see Imelda.
National TV exposure, a clutch of musician fans - not bad for an Irish newbie. But with respect to Jools and crew, it works both ways: Imelda got that "Later" boost, but "Later" can claim the kudos of discovering a talent who doesn't sound like anyone else.
Having fallen in love with rockabilly and the blues as a nine-year-old in Dublin - the only kid in her class who wasn't into a-Ha and Wet Wet Wet - she's turned them into a cool, swinging fusion that's both classic and oddly modern. That's not just PR fluff: though her musical heart lies in early rock'n'roll (she's partial to the clothes, too - her wardrobe is stuffed with leopard-print cardigans and tight bad-girl jeans), she puts a 21st century spin on things. Her debut album, "Love Tattoo," is lusciously retro, but as fresh as 2009. And her live gigs, where she sings and plays bodhran, are fierce.
"It's all gone mental lately," she says, in an accent that 10 years of living in London has failed to shift. "Elbow asked me to join them on their tour, as a result of 'Later,' and Gilson Lavis [Jools Holland's drummer] said to me, 'You're very sexy in a trashy way, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.' So I said, 'You look like a pimp, and I mean that in the nicest possible way'." She looks very pleased at this.
She was the youngest of five kids, and because the family lived in a two-bedroom house, there was no avoiding the music her older siblings listened to. There was folk (one of her sisters was in a folk group connected with their church in Dublin's Liberties area), and the usual chart pop, but there was also Elvis. "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 had already discovered, aged four, that she had a voice by harmonising with her sister's folk band; so, when she stumbled across rock'n'roll, it was natural that she'd sing along. Her tastes developed, along with her fashion sense ("I bought my first leopard-print coat at 15, and the gangs on the corner would be staring"), and she got into Elmore James. "Then I heard Billie Holiday, and that blew my mind. My brother took me to HMV and I bought my first Billie album, and I listened to it back to front."
After a year of art college, Imelda realised she'd rather sing for a living. At that point, her professional experience was confined to having sung on an ad for Findus Fish Fingers at 14. "A girl in The Liberties was in the music business, and she got me this ad, where I sang, 'Betcha never put your finger on a crunchier crumb!' I got 40 for it."
She gigged at Dublin's Bruxelles club, where she was occasionally barred from her own shows for being underage. "I was getting tips from the best musicians in Dublin. One of them said, 'Your voice is great, but it needs to roughen'." Around the same time, she also received advice from her father. Upset over a relationship, she found herself crying in front of him. "He asked if I was heartbroken, and I said, 'Yes,' and he said, 'Good. You'll be able to sing the blues better'."
They were both right. Helped along by heartbreak, her voice developed into something sultry and rich, and when she decided to try her luck in London in 1998, she quickly got work with renowned rock 'n' roller Mike Sanchez and swing troupe Blue Harlem. "We did a lot of corporate things where I had to look 1940s, with a red satin dress and a flower in my hair, but I really learned to scrub up and get my act together." She also had a giddy spell of singing in burlesque clubs: "I'd sing while the girls were onstage. One of them used to take an angle grinder to her crotch and would produce a shower of sparks. One day a spark flew down my throat when I was singing." Talk about a gig to remember.
She shared stages with everyone from Van Morrison to the Scissor Sisters, and provided vocals for a character in the forthcoming American gangster movie "Dark Streets", but by 2006 she was itching to go solo, and formed her own band. "We started out jazzy, but it needed balls and roughing up which it got'. Her shows got a reputation for being impassioned, all-or-nothing events. "Love Tattoo," which is almost entirely self-written, has the same unbridled feel, whether she's getting her teeth into a massive rockabilly party track or a sleazy after-midnight torch number.
Her own favourites are the delicate "Falling in Love with You Again," which was inspired by her husband (and guitarist in her band) Darrel Higham ("It's about how you can fall in love with the same person many times"), the bluesy, sultry "Knock 123" - you'd never know it was about a ghost who doesn't let being dead stop her from loving the boy she left behind, an idea Imelda got from watching Derek Acorah on TV one night - and "Johnny Got a Boom-Boom," a big, bawdy stomper. "My A&R asked me if 'boom-boom' was rude, and I said, 'Tom, you've got a dirty mind'."
The prestigious Irish World Newspaper Awards crowned Imelda 2008's Best Female Newcomer. It's not much of a stretch to see more acclaim ahead in 2009.