Imelda May used to be a barnstormer, a bold, sassy rockabilly crooner with an abrasive edge and a mean, lean swagger (to say nothing of a black pompadour with a blond curlicue front) on albums such as Love Tattoo (2008), Mayhem (2010), and Tribal (2014). With her torchy and tortured new Life Love Flesh Blood, however, the Irish singer-songwriter moves toward slower tempos, rich melodies bathed in amber waves (courtesy of producer T Bone Burnett), and shifts into jazz, tango, soul, blues, and the wounded balladry of a Van Morrison – all while ruminating on the heartache of her broken 13-year-old marriage and the freedom of divorce. Who knew during previous interviews, where May seemed carefree and bright, that her heart was breaking and that her swagger was often a front?
“Yes and no,” May says with a laugh. “I do feel like a freer me now, though, you know? I feel like l can open the windows now onto who I am.” May even changed her hair to a shag cut.
It wasn’t as if the breakup was the sole motivating factor of a sonic shift from raw-knuckle rockabilly to quiet storming soul and torch songs. After three albums, May was ready for a change, even if she didn’t know why or what. “Before I started Tribal, I knew the album after that would be different, so I wanted to make Tribal then the heaviest it could be – take that sound as far as it could go, push it, so that I could step away. I knew what my plan was. I just didn’t know where I was going. And I liked that.”
Once May had her songs written and her ducks in a row, she involved Burnett, the dusty prairie ambient producer who has worked with everyone from Roy Orbison and Los Lobos to soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the True Detective TV series. “He’s a perfect match of velvety tones and bad-ass sound,” says May. “He told me he had been eyeballing me for a while, but that I wasn’t ready for him before. I am now.”
Working from a need rather than a decision, May chose not to pigeonhole herself as a rockabilly belle, especially since her hillbilly boogie was but a notch in her belt, as she has been singing different styles for 26 years. “When people told me not to move, that made me want to do it more. I didn’t feel free anymore. Personally and musically, I needed to liberate myself.”
Choosing to write with different collaborators was a sensation May opened herself to, as Life Love Flesh Blood’s first song, “Black Tears,” was copenned by Angelo Petraglia (of Kings of Leon, Martina McBride, and Tim McGraw fame). “He was playing this deep great groove, and I remember looking at myself in the mirror, crying and my mascara was running, so I wrote the words black tears in my notebook. He kept playing the riff, I followed, and that’s how the album began.” May’s self-penned “Should’ve Been You” came from under her bedcovers while writing on her phone, something intimate and conversational that became broader within a year of its composing and the events of Brexit, Trump, and Russia’s move to soften domestic violence laws. “It’s not angry or about being victimized. It is about women taking care of themselves, for our point of view.”
Sunday, June 25, 8:30 p.m., Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden Street, $25-$85, utphilly.com