A Paste Conversation: Imogen Heap

Music Features Imogen Heap
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A Paste Conversation: Imogen Heap

It began as a late assignment with a narrow focus— with a deadline approaching, Paste called contributing editor Brian Howe and asked for 200 words on Imogen Heap, whose single “Hide And Seek” was setting tongues aflutter among viewers of The OC, where it played over the closing credits to Season Two’s finale.

A few emails later, we had a 2,500-word Q&A with Immi (as she calls herself) that was just too good to relegate to the cutting room floor. So enjoy this web-exclusive conversation with the queen of soundtracks, who’s contributed songs to Garden State (as half of the duo Frou Frou), The OC, and the upcoming Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and is plotting to craft an original score of her own.

Paste: From what I understand, you're almost entirely responsible for Speak For Yourself, handling the songwriting, playing, recording and production. Is this accurate, or did you have some help?

Imogen Heap: I had this big bee in my bonnet about getting help on this album. There's this thing that happens when a female artist puts a guy’s name on an album as tech or mixer or producer... most times people assume that person must have done most of the album as girls don’t do that kind of stuff do they?

There were plenty of moments during the course of making this album I could have really done with a sidekick geek boy to help me out when it comes to computers misbehaving and not getting along with me or something I'm trying to get it to talk to but [the] stubborn—possibly slightly control freak—side of my studio personality would never allow that no matter how bad it got.

I do utilize my boyfriend in more ways than one as he happens to be a great drummer, [and] doesn't look too shabby playing them either! He'd be summoned once a month or so to come and lay down some loops for me to mangle with. Also this amazing trumpeter Arve Henriksen makes a small appearance. I've used a lot of the stuff that he recorded in that one session for an instrumental I wrote to complement the a cappella single “Hide And Seek.” A guy who I wrote a few songs with for his album, Mich Gerber, who is this fabulous classical double bassist also lends his tone to a couple of tracks to give the “virtual” strings a realistic air. My now very good friend Jeff Beck—who I met under the stars in a 12th-century chateau about seven years ago playing the guitar with a bottle of wine—also played the craziest 12-bar guitar solo on the planet in “Goodnight and Go.”

Do you prefer working alone to working with a partner in Frou Frou? Speak For Yourself is very detailed and controlled; do you work better having absolute control?

They are totally different and I love both. I like to swap around, though, and not stick with one thing for too long. I love collaborating with others and every time I have I've gotten so much from each experience. I do love working alone, though, too. I've really, for the first time in life, challenged myself. I've always been curious how far I could get with doing an album entirely on my own and the answer seems to be ‘all the way!’

Control is a good and bad thing. Control can be spending four weeks on one lyric. I found myself starting up a blog ( on my website to set myself goals publicly. There's something about the feeling of people watching you that makes you not dilly-dally.

What's going on with Frou Frou right now?

We're having an open-ended holiday. Guy [Sigsworth] and I have worked together on and off for 10 years. Frou Frou was our biggest body of work together but we still do other stuff every now and then just like we always have. We haven't spoken about it but I'm sure in time, maybe next year, maybe when we're old and grey, the time will be right to work again and it'll be great.

Frou Frou was a beautiful musical moment in our lives when we naturally fell together in each others’ laps when other stuff was not going so well. I don't think either of us expected to spend so much time writing and promoting the album. It was great while it lasted, though.

Can you tell our readers about your transition from a classically trained musician to an electronic-pop musician, not that the two are mutually exclusive?

I never planned on this. I'm not complaining. I love what I'm doing. As long as there's music involved in my life I am one happy bunny. My grand plan from about the age of five to 17 was to be a classical contemporary composer: scoring for film every now and then, conducting and recording orchestras [and] performing some pieces that I'd written for piano myself. I've always enjoyed the technical, arranging [and] writing process.

At the same time since I was 12 I have been working with computers for my music. I love that I can dream up some idea in my head and then make it real with samples, instruments, voice and effects. I wrote songs for friends—about friends—because it was fun, but I never watched Top Of The Pops and thought I wanted to be like that. I guess as the technology became more affordable I began to mix the two together. My manager heard some songs I'd recorded for an end-of-school-year thing we had to do as the music-and-technology-class project. He saw a performance we did at the end of the year, too, where I wrote the end-of-year piece and got everyone up singing and playing it and also a couple I did on my own. He was into it and the next thing I knew I was in the studio with Nik Kershaw—who he also manages—at 17 getting some songs together to get myself a publishing/record deal. Two years later I Megaphone [Heap’s first album from 1998] was finished and hey, presto, here I am.

What kind of equipment and technology did you use to create Speak For Yourself?

I have a room full of various crazy instruments I've collected over the years, From cellos, circuit-bent Speak And Spells and a beaten up accordion to a selection of discarded cardboard carpet tubes that make this great sound. There’s also a piano or two, one nice one and one to hit with things—not too hard—and put things in between the hammers and strings. [And there’s] my shrine to Apple Macs; I've gathered a few over the years—my trusty Ensoniq TS12, [my] fave keyboard I've had since forever, compressors... that kind of stuff.

I have a separate computer with all my virtual instruments on it and my gorgeous [Apple] G5 for recording audio, mangling and mixing. I actually only own a couple of mics as I can only play one or two things at a time anyway!

The a capella, vocodered track "Hide and Seek" is heart-stopping, totally surprising and pure musical moment. I wonder if there's a story behind it—maybe you had the lyric but couldn't work out a proper track, or maybe you set out to make something really prayerful and intense. Can you talk about that track's creation and any ideas you have about the reasons for its powerful impact?

That song is still a bit of a mystery to me, too! It spawned from a really bad day at the office, as it were. Computer hell that day. Technology was certainly not my friend.

Just before I left the studio, battle-worn, I picked out the harmonizer box that I'd borrowed from somebody but still hadn't recorded with. I'd had it for two years gathering dust! I plugged it into my keyboard and mic and dusted my minidisk off and set to record whatever came out of me for the next few minutes.

Thankfully I did record the first thing that came out of my mouth and fingers as it was pretty much exactly as it is on the record in melody, harmony and structure. It was one of those glorious moments that made up for all those days of creative slog that can take hold of you when you're working on your own! As I was singing it, improvising it, I was excited—almost like I was watching myself. It just flowed wonderfully. It just goes to show it's in there all the time; you just need to find it. Or it just one day decides to let you have it.

The lyrics, “Where are we? What the hell is going on?” were there and the rest of it was pretty much “la la spoon-headed crayfish make bottle tops for dinner”—a nonsensical random lyric, though that may make sense to some. I then spent a day writing the lyrics— [which is] unheard of... usually it's weeks and pages later—and a couple more days getting the performance as close to that magical demo as I could. It is almost hymn-like.

Somebody contacted me via email saying they had arranged it for SATB—soprano/alto/tenor/bass—as he is the choirmaster and they wanted to sing it! That is pretty darned cool. I would love to hear them sing that live.

When you write and record, are you thinking about a certain audience—clubbers, people in their bedrooms?

No. I can honestly say ‘no!’ Is that bad? I had to give one short answer, didn't I?

Where do you think your music fits into the pop landscape? Close to Madonna, Kate Bush, Annie or anyone?

It's funny that people compare people's music to only their own gender contemporaries. I think I'm closer to Arvil, Carpark North, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Milosh. There's a collection of artists that is growing, with DIY albums that sound unique since the combination of instruments and gear they use is only found in their bedroom/studio. I'm sure we'll be hearing more albums like this where it's their own sound world. Something happens to you when you work alone and get lost in your toys for years on end. You find things that only you can do, and that’s what sets you apart from the others. It's you.

But, if I must—possibly kicked by Kate Bush through a sea of circuit boards and cables, from one of Madonna's pointy bra cone thingies landing on Bjork's pinky for a moment only to be sneezed into the river Thames on a barge full of carpet tubes by Annie on a passing train ... erm… .

Do you have any thoughts on electronic club music's gradual bleed into mainstream pop?

It already is, isn't it? Madonna, Britney, for example? I think as more people create bedroom albums to the standard we can now with a few thousand pounds, we'll see less generative and more idiosyncratic music in the charts. At least I hope so!

Your music has appeared on the soundtracks of American films and shows like Scrubs and The OC. Is that sort of synergy something you're interested in pursuing further? It seems like you'd be great at making an original score for a film.

Funny you should ask that... In a week I may have something rather exciting to confirm. [After this interview was completed, one of Heap’s new songs was added to the closing credits of The Chronicles of Narnia.] I'm in L.A. working on it right now but until that day I have to keep 'em zipped.

I am in the same studio as a guy who is scoring a film and have just yesterday experienced for the first time an orchestra laying down the score to the film while the composer was conducting them through it. Quite emotional! I have a long way to go. Definitely woke up and smelled the coffee that day. Maybe in a good few years, but I really do want to do that. Yes.

Your songs are musically strong enough to get by on sonics alone, but you seem to pay really close attention to your lyrics. Some people claim that lyrical content doesn't matter nearly as much as the sound of a record, others claim that what an album says is everything. Where do you fall on the spectrum?

I think it's a fine line. When you notice a lyric it tends to be bad. The good ones are the ones that speak to you fluidly—they wash over you, yet say so much. I use unusual words and images in my songs but I think it's all in the performance. The greatest singers on the planet can make the cheesiest lyric sound like pure poetry.

Having said that, I spend forever on my lyrics. I want to say something straightforward but I don't want to say it how anyone else has. At the same time I don't want the lyrics to be weird for the sake of weird. I like to think there's no lyrical fat on the record because I spent many a day getting rid of it. People listen for different things. I am more of a music listener than a lyric listener. At the same time, if the song has a crappy lyric it’ll put me right off.

It’s finding a fresh way to say the same things we've been saying for years. I wonder if we'll ever run out of ways to say them?

I understand that you mortgaged your flat in order to finance Speak For Yourself. Were you that confident that your album would be a success, or was it more of a leap of faith?

It was a leap of faith as well as being completely unwilling to sign another record deal under the terms that I had previously. I've given everything I have to this one. It’s all or nothing. I don't want to be by the fire with my slippers on regretting what I never had the balls to do. I would hate myself for that. We have to get a little crazy to get what we want in this world don't we?

When you write songs, do you tend to start with a lyric and melody, or certain technologically oriented ideas you want to test out?

Every song has a different story. “Hide And Seek,” “Headlock” and “The Moment I Said It” all came in no time. These also tend to be people's favorites.

“Hide And Seek” just didn't need anything more than a song and a voice. “The Walk,” “Daylight Robbery” and “Loose Ends” all started from cool loops and sounds I'd created on various days and then just jammed over them until a song formed.

“I'm In Love With You” is a very old song from when I was 19 that I always liked. I wrote [it] on the piano while I was on tour with Rufus Wainwright. “Just For Now” was originally written for The OC’s “Chrismukah” episode, though it was, I think, a little too dark for them. Not quite the toasted marshmallows they had in mind.

What's currently keeping you busy? Are you touring, recharging, working on new music, or pursuing other opportunities?

I've just come off this really fun tour for three weeks. Have a peek at I've got a couple of shows here and there but basically I'll come back for a proper tour in February of next year. I'm currently running my label in the U.K. and doing the occasional B-side for singles here and there. And here comes a plug—“Cumulus” is my first instrumental in eight years and something I’m really proud of. I want to do more stuff like this in time.