Dublin-born Imelda May is a woman rapidly taking the world by storm. Despite gigging since a teenager, it was the rockabilly singer’s double platinum album Love Tattoo, and a 2008 performance on Later… With Jools Holland that brought her to the world’s attention. Her 2010 follow-up, Mayhem, then became the first original record by an Irish female solo singer in 14 years to top the Irish charts. She’s touring Down Under next week, so we gave her a call… 

Hi Imelda. What are you up to?
I’m just in a cab. It’s 1am and we’ve just left a gig in Glasgow. We’re starting an eight-hour drive back to London. 

Wow, so I’m guessing you’re not too excited about that?
Ha, no. But it’s okay, we’re used to it.

Got any tips for keeping sane on long roadtrips?
No, I think we lost our sanity a long time ago! You just get on with normal life. It’s an upside down life, but meself and the band have been doing it for many years so it’s nothing new, we like it.

You were 16 when you started gigging. Was it scary first time?
Yeah it was. I went down to this blues club with some of my family and I was called on stage to sing and I got up and I remember my knees were knocking but I must of loved it because I went back again and again. I was really obsessed with it then. A lot of the older musicians took me under their wing a bit, because I was really so young to be in those clubs. It’s only now that I realise I must have been a very odd sight, a 16-year-old singing blues in a late night club. When you’re 16 you think you’re an adult, but it’s only now that I realise how good to me they were. I learnt a lot from them. 

Did you always want to be a singer?
Not really, no. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It was something that I just did. I did like a foundation course but I was already gigging while I did that. I never thought of [music] as a career move, I just kind of fell into it and loved it. Once I realised it was something you could actually do for a living I threw myself into it. It became part of my life.

You’re renowned for your 50s look and sound. Did you always have that?
Well, the first music that moved me was rockabilly. I was 14 when I heard that, it was my brother’s fault. I’m from a family with five children, so seven of us in a two-bedroom house. So, whatever one person was playing, we all heard. We didn’t have privacy but we’d all listen to music and it was a great way for me to hear music that wasn’t on the radio. I did get into other types of music from that. I sang with all sorts of bands, a soul band and a funk band, jazz, rhythm and blues, I tried out a lot of different styles. Writing my own music now is really a mish mash of all the different music I love. It probably shouldn’t work but it seems to quite well. But I like to keep contemporary as well, I don’t want to be an old nostalgia trip. I want to be exciting.

The last couple of years must have been a real whirlwind for you?
The last two years have been crazy. It’s just trying to keep up with it you know. It’s like somebody gave me something fabulous and you don’t want to let it drop, let it break, so you just run along with it as quick as you can and make the most of it. For many years you try so hard, like so many bands out there. To get work, let alone regular work, is terrific, so to be doing so well at last has been a whirlwind, but a very good whirlwind.

At the Grammys, on tour and at festivals, you’ve shared the stage with some massive acts. Do you get starstruck?
No, I like to take people as I meet them. I’m aware that they’re brilliant people and they’re geniuses, but I also like to take people as I meet them. I’ve always been like that. Plus, I used to do a lot of session work and you’d meet all sorts. So far I’ve been lucky, everyone’s been terrific. I’ve only really got starstruck twice. One was with Clint Eastwood. I mean, what do you say to Clint Eastwood? “Hello, I love you, haha!” 

Imelda plays Byron Bay’s Northern Hotel (Mar 2, www.thenorthern.com.au), Brisbane’s HiFi (Mar 3, www.thehifi.com.au), Newcastle’s Leagues Club (Mar 4, www.bigtix.com.au), Sydney’s Gaelic Club (www.moshtix.com.au) and Melbourne’s Prince of Wales (Mar 11,www.princebandroom.com.au)