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Imelda May interview: 'I don’t think women have support within the arts'

Singer-songwriter and poet Imelda May explores the legacy of talented sisters Lily and Lolly Yeats
Singer-songwriter and poet Imelda May explores the legacy of talented sisters Lily and Lolly Yeats - Eddie Outchre

‘I love listening to men’s voices,” declares Imelda May, with mischievous enthusiasm. “But, let’s be honest, we hear them a lot.” The Irish singer, songwriter, musician, poet, actor and TV presenter is discussing her passion for the too often unsung perspectives of women in history.

“I remember when I first left Ireland, I was away for a very long time, really missing home. So when you go back and you want to know what’s been going on – who do you ask? You tend to go to the women – the mothers, the grannies, the aunties. Because the men will often give you the short answer, but the women will give you all the juicy details.”

She is being humorously provocative, but her passion for the subject is clear. “Within history, within our culture, it’s been more like: ‘Let’s hear from the men. All the women, be silent!’ Well, you’re not going to get a very balanced view of life that way, are you? I want to see what the women have been writing and saying, so sometimes you have to look in different places.”

May is producer and presenter of a new Sky Arts documentary, Lily & Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters. It tells the fascinating story of Susan (known as Lily) and Elizabeth (Lolly) Yeats, whose father was the painter John Butler Yeats, and whose brothers were the artist Jack Butler Yeats and poet William Butler Yeats. The sisters’ contribution to Irish culture is little known, yet they were accomplished artists and pioneering businesswomen, who set up their own embroidery workshop, printing press and publishing imprint, with an all-female staff.

Between 1903 and Lolly’s death aged 71 in 1940 (Lily died in 1949, aged 82), they published more than 100 artfully crafted books, including original work by George William Russell (AE), John M Synge, Ezra Pound, Lady Gregory and over 70 works by WB Yeats, alongside hand-coloured prints featuring work by female artists and poets. Their glorious embroidery works (overseen by Lily, who studied under William Morris) included church banners, vestments and altar cloths, many of which now reside in the Vatican.

May at the grave of the Yeats sisters
May at the grave of the Yeats sisters - Sky Arts

“It was good enough for the Pope, yet we don’t think of it as art,” enthuses May. “Embroidery was deemed as a pretty, nice little thing, yet when you see what women did with textiles all over the world, they were shouting and screaming through whatever form they were allowed to use.”

Although their arts and crafts endeavours financially supported their father and brothers for many years, the work of the talented Yeats sisters has been largely overlooked. There is a fleeting derogatory reference to them as the “weird sisters” in James Joyce’s Ulysses, while they were treated almost as junior employees of the family firm in letters from their most famous sibling.

“His sisters were kind of irritating to WB,” says May. “He was living the life, you know, swanning in and out, mingling with all his fantastical pals and writing the most beautiful pieces and having the most amazing relationships. And, meanwhile, the sisters had given up their whole lives, really, and all the dreams that they had, and worked so hard to support their family.”

She pauses to consider whether researching this documentary has changed her opinion of the great Irish poet. “Am I surprised that a man could be so sure of himself in the world that he’d take all the women in his life for granted?” May laughs ironically. “Ah now, I’m in the music business.”

Lily and Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters airs on International Women's Day
Lily and Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters airs on International Women's Day - Sky Arts

May is an extraordinary singer and accomplished musician who has been leading her own bands since she was a teenager in Dublin in the early 1990s. “I’d sort out the booking, the hotels, the equipment, the vans, it’d be my name on the door – and at the end of the gig, the owner of the venue would come up to my band members and say, ‘So which one of you do I pay?’ Cos I’m the woman, it couldn’t possibly be me. It’s been like that, in every way, from the very start. As success grows, the problems just get bigger with it. You have to fight for it all.”

In her early career, May was a rockabilly singer, sporting a quirky two-tone quiff. “I wrote and produced all my albums. I’m in there for every note, every edit, every effect, every single thing. But I remember going to all my interviews, and they’d ask me about my hair. That’s all they wanted to talk about. I know I had a mad hairdo, so I got rid of it. And then all they wanted to talk about was why I changed my f-----g hair! Jesus Christ! The way women get treated in music, it’s trivial, blinkered, narrow-minded and ridiculous. I get quite worked up about it.”

Over her career, May has performed with a lot of the greatest male stars in rock. She toured regularly with Jeff Beck, and has sung with Bono, Robert Plant, Lou Reed, Tom Jones, Noel Gallagher and Meat Loaf.

“I love rock and roll. I love legends. I love hanging around with brilliant people. It’s such a thrill for me to stand beside Smokey Robinson and sing with him, the vibe and the atmosphere and the energy, I’m addicted to it. It’s like an explosion of brilliance and brightness and I want a piece of it.”

She adds that she would love to sing with more of her female musical heroes. “I’d bite your hand off for a chance to sing with Patti Smith or Debbie Harry, but there’s not as many women around as there should be, and they are in demand.”

May, photographed in May 2014
May, photographed in May 2014 - Julian Simmonds

May sometimes performed Fairytale of New York with her friend Shane MacGowan and sang at his funeral last year.

“Shane was too brilliant for his own good,” she says. “He was so sweet and loving, I think people maybe don’t get a sense of that because it would be reported about his partying ways. But Shane was a brilliant writer, such a romantic and a champion for the underdog. Maybe it’s hard to be in the world and be that brilliant, and maybe he did what he needed to cope with a very fast mind, to slow things down to fit in with it.”

She draws a comparison with the tragic Irish poet Brendan Behan, whose own family was explored in the acclaimed one-woman theatrical show, Mother of All the Behans, which May starred in last year. “Some people are too brilliant for their own good.”

May was close to another great Irish singer who died tragically last year, Sinéad O’Connor.

“Another brilliant woman of Ireland, like Lily and Lolly Yeats. We’re so lucky to have had them all. There is a thing, I think, of brilliant women who tend not to have the support of a strong man behind them. So many brilliant men have somebody to stand by them through the tough times, whereas I don’t think women always have that kind of support within the arts. I don’t know why. You can go through that with a shovel and work it all out!”

At 49, May is a divorced single mother, whose five-year relationship with actor and singer Niall McNamee ended recently. “I’m a slave to the arts, it ruins my life,” she says, with melodramatic humour. “It’s like the worst lover I’ve ever had but I can’t get away from it. Art f---s up your life – but I’m addicted to it.”


Lily & Lolly: The Forgotten Yeats Sisters is on Sky Arts on March 8 at 8pm