As a teen, Imelda May took a serious listen to the music that had rocked America.
Sifting through her brother's cassette collection, the singer from Dublin, Ireland, discovered the rebel roots music of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. Never mind that their heyday was decades earlier. The blend of rockabilly and rampaging pop triggered a course that has made May one of Ireland's most vibrant musical exports.
"That was the music that really turned my head around," May said last week by phone from Boston, where she began a North American tour that will bring her to the Singletary Center for the Arts in Lexington on Saturday. "I had never heard anything like that before. It was scary and crazy and brilliant. And as a teenager, it was the perfect music to hear, you know? It was rebellious and electric. I just went crazy for it.
"Scary and crazy and brilliant:" You could safely affix all three tags to May's music. Or you could borrow the title of her newest album for an apt description: Mayhem.
The recording is a blast of roots-rock vitality that runs from torchy reserve (the elegant Too Sad to Cry) to folk-fortified blues (the country-esque Proud and Humble) to deliriously frightening, twang-drenched, backbeat-driven rock 'n' roll (the superb Psycho).
Through it all, May's singing is as diverse as the styles of music that she engages. Her vocals shift from hushed, almost demure reflection to scalding rockabilly howls that shove Mayhem straight into the red zone.
"The music kind of melts together in a good way because my influences go from rockabilly to jazz to blues and country, skiffle, ska — all of that," May said. "It all works for me and the band. We have a great time."
Her musical inspirations span the decades, but May, 37, is no revivalist. She writes nearly all of her material (13 of the 15 songs on Mayhem). She also produced the album, almost unheard of for a singer relatively new to audiences outside of Ireland.
Back home, she became the first female singer to top the album charts since folk-pop songstress Mary Black two decades earlier. Her previous album, Love Tattoo, also managed to go double-platinum there. But once May signed to the Universal-distributed Decca label for a more worldwide pop assault, the right to be her own producer had to be earned.
"I made Love Tattoo without a record company," she said. "I couldn't get a deal from anybody, so I went and made it myself. I had no money, really — none at all. But it was a good experience producing it myself, getting it all together and pulling in the band. Then Love Tattoo went on to do really well. I got my record deal after the company heard Love Tattoo, so it became a really positive experience.
"When it came time to make Mayhem, the record company was looking to call in a big-name producer, which is the normal way of doing things. But I knew what I wanted it to sound like and I knew I wanted to push the music a little bit further, so I fought hard to produce it. Once the record company heard what I was doing, they became very supportive and backed me up."
The release of Mayhem last year capped what a fruitful 2010 for May. She started the year by playing the Grammy Awards with guitar legend Jeff Beck. As a merry memorial to the late guitar pioneer Les Paul, the two performed How High the Moon, popularized in 1951 by Paul and vocal star Mary Ford.
May went on to contribute several tunes to Beck's Grammy-winning album Emotion & Commotion before participating in a full-blown New York tribute to Paul spearheaded by Beck at the Iridium, the jazz club where Paul performed weekly until his death. The concert was released this year as a CD/DVD titled Rock 'n' Roll Party. A collaborative tour that teamed Beck with May and her band (guitarist/ husband Darrel Higham, trumpeter Dave Priseman, double bassist Al Gare and drummer Steve Rushton) followed this spring.
"Jeff has been so supportive. I have a great love for him. He has such a great enthusiasm for music that a jam session with him becomes such a joy," May said. "We bounce ideas off each other all the time. And it all came from singing How High the Moon at the Grammys."
To underscore just how infectious the tune was, May began humming its light, swing-savvy chorus over the phone.
"I sang that song when I was in a jazz band. That's how I got introduced to Les Paul and Mary Ford. I just love their music," she said. "So Jeff and I got chatting. He loves Les Paul's music so much and was looking to do a tribute. All of a sudden, we're at the Grammys and the Iridium."
"Today, I still have that kind of fun with my own band. We are all so passionate about music. I do think that comes across, don't you?"