[MUSIC: Interview] Imogen Heap
By Jonno Seidier
If Imogen Heap sounds like she’s buzzing with ideas on record, wait until you hear her speak. The dynamic, award-winning and boundary-pushing artist seems almost incapable of sitting still – which makes for an excellent interview. Heap is returning to Sydney for a performance at Vivid LIVE and for Vivid’s Song Summit conference, where she’ll deliver a keynote speech about the processes behind her dazzlingly diverse range of compositions. She’ll be bringing six months worth of custom-made songs with her, which were created with the help of her extensive online fanbase using a diverse range of mediums including sound, text and vision to inform her songwriting process. This collection, currently entitled ‘Heapsongs’, is a continual work-in-progress that will result in an album that almost every listener will have been involved with in some capacity. It all seems utterly exhausting – but for Heap, it’s endlessly fascinating.
“I don’t find technology overwhelming,” she says. “I find the possibilities overwhelming. Seven or eight years ago I would never have tried to do a video clip myself; I would have let them do it, picked a director and gone with it. But now, when I have an idea, I can make it happen. I can go online and find collaborators through Twitter or YouTube. I love to get fans involved; rather than flicking through professional photography books, they will submit stuff via Flickr and then I can use a young, aspiring photographer who’s excited and whom I can help get a leg-up into the industry.” Each of the six ‘Heapsongs’ that Imogen has released so far has increased in ambition, and they’ve arrived alongside keenly-managed blogs, custom made video clips, social media-integrated conversations, and live streams. It’s sprawling and completely mad; if the robot race ever inherited the Earth, they’d definitely appoint Heap as their leader.
Of course, messing around with technology to push the limits of songwriting isn’t new for Heap – she’s been playing with synths, vocoders, loop pedals, and anything else she could get her hands on since the success of her first record way back in 1998. Her ability to take inherently cold pieces of computerised instruments and infuse them with something undeniably human was crystallised on her self-released sophomore album Speak For Yourself, which spawned, among other things, the game-changer that was ‘Hide And Seek.’ But that’s not a shade on what she’s doing these days.
“You give me a sound piece – whether it’s a door opening or your dog barking – and I will make a piece of music out of that,” she says, as we discuss the composition of her first Heapsong, ‘Lifeline’. “After that, I wanted to find out whether there was some general consciousness going on between all fans across the world. So I set up a word cloud, where some ideas would grow bigger than others. It happened to coincide with the Japanese earthquake, so the words that were coming up were ‘seismic’ and ‘gravity’ and ‘hope’ and ‘love’.” Heap mixed this with the heartbeat of her brother’s new baby, and the song was, quite literally, born. “I was really quite proud of that,” she says. “It was the first time I managed to marry all the different influences of my life together into one piece of music.”
Every scientist reaches their limits, and for Heap that moment came when she recently attempted to live stream (and film for a clip) her latest composition, in a gigantic enclosure in her backyard. The catch was that Heap had tasked herself with composing and performing the song live, using only the super-cool, futuristic musical gloves that she’s been developing with a NASA researcher for years. “I got a bit too ambitious with the last one,” she laments, “but we were developing new tech and new software, and I was basically developing a new way of writing. I literally had so little time on my own that I was still writing the song at 1am on the morning of the gig, which was terrible.” The song came off, but not as well as Heap would have liked. “I use so many different instruments in my shows, [and] these gloves kind of allow me to strip them all away and bring on a really human element. When you hear the bassline moving up and down, you see my hands doing that, too. You literally hear the sound change as you see my hands move. It’s not just the parts but also the texture of the sound.” Anyone who has seen Heap live knows that she possesses an otherworldly array of sounds within her voicebox, which she’s been known to manipulate with loop pedals and other gizmos. But in the future, she may not be checking anything in at the terminal when she embarks on another world tour.
Though she didn’t achieve entirely what she wanted to with the backyard live stream, there’s no stymieing Imogen Heap’s endless creativity: “Even though I hadn’t slept for 48 hours, everyone had been paid, and people had flown in from around the world to be a part of it,” she grins. “So in the end, I just look at it as a very, very expensive demo!”
Where: Concert Hall Northern Foyer, Sydney Opera House
When: Tuesday May 29
Song Summit: In conversation with Richard Glover, 10am on Saturday May 26 @ Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre