Sunday Herald Interview
Quite lengthy, but worth the read
The word on the tweet
She's attracted more than 40 million plays on Myspace but has yet to crack the mainstream. So what next for Imogen Heap? By Susan Swarbrick
IMOGEN HEAP leads the way into the studio at her Essex house and plonks herself down on a giant white fluffy ball. It's a curious thing, around the size of one of those Swiss exercise contraptions used for aerobics, but covered in what looks like shaggy Angora wool. Her bottom perched on top, Heap moves gracefully across to sit next to me where, fortunately, I've been offered a conventional chair - no awkward balancing required.
It's perhaps no coincidence Heap has chosen a ball to sit on. Circles and spheres are themes which have dominated her life of late. Not only has she recently returned to the family home where she grew up, but it was here she recorded her forthcoming album Ellipse, the name coming from the distinctive round shape of the house itself. The basement studio was her childhood playroom - and for all intents and purposes still is - a paradox not lost on Heap. "My life has been a bit of a squishy circle, ending up back here," she says. Then there was her three-month journey to write material for her new record, a circuit from Maui to Fiji, Sydney, Tasmania, Tokyo, Hokkaido, Hong Kong, Beijing and Koh Samui, then back to Maui. She isn't a woman to do things by halves or, rather, semi-circles.
"Kooky" is perhaps too pedestrian a term to describe Heap, a gangly yet ethereal creature who, at 6ft tall, could easily pass for a model. She is dressed today in brown and white gingham dungarees ("clown pantaloons" she calls them), black sequined leggings and kingfisher blue ballet pumps; her wild hair is piled messily on top of her head. Her sense of style is eclectic verging on apocalyptic. Asked if, as an Essex girl, she has ever worn white stilettos, she gives me a haughty stare. "Of course, I actually quite like white stilettos," she says. "I have a pair upstairs. I prefer wearing flats to heels, though, because I like to get about a bit quicker."
For those unfamiliar with Heap, here's the condensed version. She is the middle of three children. Her parents - Mary Anne, an art therapist from Edinburgh, and Michael, who manages the family farm and sells rocks to the construction industry, split up when she was 12 and Heap went to boarding school. A classically trained pianist, she dreamed of being an orchestral composer or astronaut.
At 17, she recorded her first demo (assisted by Nik Kershaw no less) and signed to the independent label Almo Sounds soon afterwards. She released her debut solo album, i Megaphone, in 1998 but, when the label was bought by Universal, Heap was dropped. She later joined forces with Madonna's producer Guy Sigsworth for the collaborative project Frou Frou, which achieved critical acclaim but fell short of commercial success.
Island Records subsequently offered to sign Heap as solo artist but she turned them down, instead setting up her own label, Megaphonic Records, distributed through Sony BMG. Her second solo offering, Speak For Yourself (2005), achieved cult status thanks to one of its tracks, Hide and Seek, being used on hit US teen drama, The O.C.
Four years later and Heap is being hailed as one of the most savvy stars of new media and cyberspace. While barely denting the mainstream music charts, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter, producer and musician has scored a number one on iTunes, garnered 800,000 followers on Twitter for her regular "Heap Tweet Ups", and has clocked up more than 40 million plays on MySpace.
Heap's online presence gives her an instant connection to her fans, who in turn have spurred her on through her darker hours. She is the antithesis of the stereotypically aloof pop star, unfazed about laying herself bare to her fans. "I find it surprisingly easy," she admits. "I will meet someone on the street and I tell them my most intimate thoughts."
In this vein, the creative process involved in making her new album, Ellipse, was filmed by Heap and a friend. On one YouTube clip we see her journeying by train, on a ski lift, moving house, decorating, passing her driving test, boxing, tinkling the ivories, playing an assortment of weird and wonderful instruments and dancing like a maniac.
Settling down to write album number three, though, wasn't easy. Having spent the two years following the release of Speak For Yourself touring solidly, Heap felt displaced on returning to her then home in London. "I needed to regroup," she says. "I had travelled for so long and hadn't really had any time to take stock and think, Right, who am I? What am I about? What am I going to write about?' I thought, I don't want to be here, but I need to write the album'. I then realised there was no reason why I couldn't write the album out of a studio. I decided to go back to basics.
"I looked at Google Earth and tried to find the place which was furthest away from anywhere else on the planet - the place surrounded by the most amount of blue ocean. That turned out to be Hawaii. Then I typed into Google: Hawaii, grand piano, self-catering luxury apartment' and I found a place in Maui which had all of those things."
Hawaii was to provide the inspiration for three tracks on Ellipse - Wait It Out, Swoon and Little Bird. Heap then travelled through Fiji and Australia to Japan. "I spent nearly two weeks in a different space, culture and time zone," she says. "It wasn't necessarily the actual space I was in that inspired me - it was getting out of my comfort zone. Left to my own devices, I started thinking and questioning little things in my life."
She also embraced the surreal. In Hokkaido, Japan, Heap lived in a cottage next to a German sausage cafe in a farming village. "It was the only self-catering place I could find in Hokkaido with a piano," she explains. "The husband and wife who owned it were German and Japanese respectively. They would give me potatoes and other vegetables to cook with. They carted this upright piano from their sausage cafe down the farm track into my German-Japanese house. I wrote some great songs there including Bad Body Double and the beginning of Tidal."
Returning to the UK, she realised she wanted to buy somewhere new to live. Disheartened after searching in London, Heap's father suggested she buy their former family home. "My dad was looking to sell it but I liked living in London and my independence," she says. "Then I thought, Just get over being all independent and think about the house, the family and everything that has gone on here.' When I got rid of my ego I realised it would be the perfect place to make a record."
The house is certainly an intriguing space. A spherical three-storey building with a grand, winding staircase and a glorious fresco painted on the domed ceiling, the stone walls seem to crackle with history. Heap's grandfather became owner after the second world war. "No one came back from the war to claim the house," says Heap. "My grandad already lived nearby and was looking for extra farmland. The government said he could buy the land but he needed to have this house with it. He wasn't interested in living here, but he wanted the land so he agreed.
"The house was a complete wreck. It wasn't hit by a bomb but it might as well have been. The British army occupied it and used it as a prison for German officials. They put sandbags round the outside and the damp got in. They also threw darts at this beautiful French painted wallpaper and ruined it. My granddad, who was an engineer, patched it up and got rid of the damp. He saved the house."
Heap was three when her family moved in. "We weren't loaded," she says. "The house needed a lot of restoration but my parents couldn't afford it, so they got English Heritage to pay for it. We had many happy days here. We lived here until I was 12, then my parents split up and we went our separate ways. My sister and I went to a Quaker boarding school near Cambridge called Friends. I hated it at first. My sister didn't like it, so she went off with my mum but I stayed and loved boarding school eventually. It was there I discovered Atari computers and programming."
Heap is something of a whizz on computers. She is self-taught in music engineering, sequencing and production. At the centre of her state-of-the-art studio stands a mixing desk which, with its complicated assortment of buttons, knobs and blinking lights, looks like something NASA might use to launch a space shuttle. A spaghetti-like mass of wires and cables sprout from other equally complex equipment around the room.
There's a cello, two guitars and a drum kit, a twinkling silver glitter ball above the grand piano. There are almost as many toys as musical instruments, including a jack-in-the-box, spinning top, megaphone and miniature accordion - tools she uses to create her trademark quirky sound effects on songs.
"The older I get, the more I want to interact with real things rather than just programme stuff on the computer," she says. "I love collecting strange, weird and wonderful instruments." On the track Bad Body Double, she utilised means closer to home. "I slapped my arse," says Heap. Like the rest of the album, this creative breakthrough was captured on camera. "I didn't film my actual arse but I did film myself doing it," she says. "I was looking into the camera shouting, Right, I'm slapping my arse.' It was 4am, I was on my own with my pants down and I couldn't stop laughing, but I did get a few good slaps in between all the laughter. I originally put one slap in the track, but then thought I need more arse slaps', so I recorded lots more."
Ellipse is the first album Heap has recorded while not in a relationship. "Even if you don't get on with your boyfriend, just the process of being next to a body in bed, or having a cuddle - it somehow disperses everything. It gives you a moment of calm because you are with someone else and you can't always be in your own head. That action, in itself, is so valuable in giving you brain space."
She is not seeing anyone at the moment - "I have a few nice little people dotted around I can go to for a cuddle. There is one guy I really like but I don't know if he likes me. I haven't had any time to follow it up" - but admits to having recently become aware of her biological clock. "I met someone the other day and it was a very strange experience," she says. "I wasn't really that interested in talking to him, but then, within about 10 seconds, I found my brain kicking into I want a baby' mode which I had never felt before because I was so busy on this baby - my music.
"It was the first time I had been out of the studio and chatting with a nice, attractive and smart man. I found myself going from I'm really hungry, let's get rid of this guy' to oh my god, he's really beautiful, wow, he's so smart and speaks five languages, he's tall and has a good career'. My body was like this is the man who will make you a nice baby.' Unfortunately he is married, so nothing's going to happen there."
Heap's candid nature seems incongruous given the detached, often maudlin nature of her music. Yet therein lies the subtle brilliance of Imogen Heap. With every move, she further breaks the mould of the age-old model of the music business. "I'm not playing the game of what's hot and what's not," she says. "I feel - and I don't know if it's a result of being in this house or just being older - much more confident. I've had courage to take songs as far as they can go, as opposed to trying to make them fit into a sound of a record."
Ironically, thanks to her mammoth online presence, this album could be the one that propels her into the mainstream. She says. "Since I was 17, labels have always said, You are going to be huge with this record, just wait and see'. All the while I would be like, okay, fair enough, but I don't really care. Can I get on with making my record?' What will happen will happen."
Imogen Heap's new album Ellipse, is released tomorrow.
Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.
Last edited by cuiviénen; 23-08-2009 at 11:44 PM.
|frou, heap, imogen|