- Fri, 2009-08-28 12:17
Recently named the first download diva by the Guardian, British singer-songwriter-producer and two time Grammy nominee Imogen Heap completed her latest solo album Ellipse with her loving and loyal fans by her side every step of the way. Maintaining one of the biggest profiles online, Imogen kept fans up to date with the progress of her album via video blogs, tweets and more, all transmitted from her new home studio, built within her old family home in Essex.
Known for work as one half of electronic duo Frou Frou, countless collaborations including a recent performance with human beatbox artist Shlomo at Glastonbury Festival 09, and numerous projects for television and film, Imogen remains one of the most innovative female artists of our time, not only through her musical output but her strong DIY ethos and creative belief.
I Like Music caught up with Imogen to chat about the development of her third album Ellipse, her feelings toward both the positive and negative aspects of online world meets music industry, Barbie keyboards, friends dressed as Dracula and her vision in the back of a taxi cab.
ILM: What are the differences between Ellipse and Speak For Yourself?
Imogen: I think the biggest difference is that I felt a lot more confident in my decision making. Songs like Aha! would never have existed on Speak For Yourself because I was far too embarrassed to let anybody hear that side of me. The songs that people really seemed to love off the last record were all the songs that I thought they wouldn’t get.
ILM: Which were those?
Imogen: I thought people would love Daylight Robbery, Goodnight and Go and Loose Ends, the more up tempo ones. Actually, the ones people really loved were The Walk, Hide and Seek and Headlock. They were my favourites too. I thought Hide and Seek was totally self indulgent and that no-one would like it, but I loved it! I felt very at home in those simple chords and that beautifully simple melody. Knowing that people liked those made me feel liberated creatively. Now I feel like whatever I do will be accepted. Even if I do write a weird song, people are still going to like it because they like me and they like my music.
ILM: You made Ellipse in your new home studio, did you work with any new equipment?
Imogen: I did buy a few bits of software. I got Logic for a start. Which I haven’t used since I was about 22 or something. I use Pro Tools as my main thing because I like to edit the audio rather than use midi. I used Logic as a sound source, as an instrument itself. So I’ll play it in Logic but I’ll edit and sculpt the sound a bit more in Pro Tools. New gear wise, I bought a ridiculous, huge mixing desk with lots of flashy lights! It’s basically a remote control for Pro Tools, but I haven’t used it at all! It actually does nothing that your computer can’t do. I wanted to get it so that I could reach around and really get into everything. Realistically, that’s not how it happens. When you’re in the flow of it you don’t necessarily have time to get up and twiddle a nob like that!
ILM: Did you use any new instruments?
Imogen: I’ve got lots of toys that my family bought me at Christmas. I have two Stylophones! I love Stylophones! I got a couple of Jack In The Boxes, which make a fantastic noise when they spring out. I got a flappery thing that makes a nice high hat sound! I got some horns. Ooo - a little old Barbie Keyboard that someone has circuit bent, so it does weird things! Plus I bought a hang.
ILM: The hang is a beautiful instrument...
Imogen: I know! I heard this beautiful sound when I was walking down the Southbank. I followed it and it eventually led to a man, sat down with it on his lap. Then I went about my day and completely forgot about it! A couple of months later someone emailed me to say I should check it out. I ended up on a huge waiting list to get one as they’re all handmade, but it finally arrived!
ILM: So is Ellipse full of hang solos?
Imogen: Haha! There’s a little bit of hang on there. Actually not as much as I was thinking. It doesn’t record very well . It’s really good in the flesh, as it were. There’s something about seeing someone play it that’s really beautiful. But on a record it doesn’t sound as good as it looks.
ILM: We spoke before, around the release of Speak For Yourself, and you mentioned having many different versions of one song. How do you decide which is the right version for the album?
Imogen: I’ll go so far down a songs path, feel that it’s getting close then leave it there, then come back to it. I never finish a song, put it to one side, then work on another song. This album ended up being 13 songs that I worked on all at once, welding them together as an album. Songs like Tidal, I just kept getting so far with it and then just getting stuck, leaving it, coming back to it. Then I realised certain parts weren’t possible. That happened about seven times with Tidal. It was one of the most difficult songs I’ve put together.
ILM: But you knew something was right with it?
Imogen: I definitely knew the song was right. The melody, the lyric, the chords, the tempo, they were all right. The core was there. But it just had all these personalities it could be. It actually just ended up being a little bit of all of them. I had to take it to the extreme. Sometimes that’s the answer. You just need to make a massive jump, you realise that you hadn’t gone far enough. There were times I stopped because I thought I was being over-the top with it, but I ended up having to go even further than that.
ILM: Do you struggle to know when a song is finished?
Imogen: You definitely know when it is. I do. If I get to a point where I’m mixing and I’m like, hmm, all I’ve done in the last four hours is move one little note, then I know!
ILM: You recently made your directing debut! Have you always wanted to direct?
Imogen: Yes and no. The first video we shot just didn’t work out. It was no-ones fault, it’s just a lottery when it comes to translating ideas to the screen. My one thing was that whatever we did, I wanted the viewer to really feel something. To walk past the TV and just stop, to be really mesmerised. The first video, for some reason, just didn’t quite do that. I thought I was going to have to release it anyway, which was annoying me. I never have time to do everything I want! I was just going to accept it, but then I spoke to my friend Nitin, and he just stated the obvious “Why don’t you just make another one?” So I did.
ILM: How did you come up with the concept?
Imogen: I was in a cab and the driver was going on and on at me. As he was talking to me I had this totally clear vision of the video, what I was going to be doing, where I was and how it was going to work. So I went home, wrote it down and the next day called up a production company and just said I want to make a video next week!
ILM: A vision! How exciting! How did that translate to the video?
Imogen: It’s one take. Me in a room looking into the camera singing the song. It is all very heartfelt. Not moving around, not performing. Just singing to the camera, talking to someone, telling them how I really don’t want to be at this party. The next stage involved getting all of my friends over! I asked them to come in part fancy dress and they all looked amazing! Someone came as Dracula and kept making jokes about how it was too early to be up, the carpenter who built the studio with me is wearing a leopard skin catsuit! It was just a real crazy mix of people! The idea is that they’re all in a different time and I’m in normal time. It looks like I’m in the same room as them but detatched from it. Then there’s another me that goes into the party and...you’ll have to see it...it’s really good!
ILM: You’re famed for your expert use of online communication with your fans, what impact has that had on you as an artist and the development of your music?
Imogen: I’m so grateful for having things like twitter and youtube! I can connect directly with the final piece of the puzzle! I can talk to them, play music to them, get feedback. It’s just fantastic. It’s the best thing! I just can’t imagine going back. You know “Oh no no! You can’t find out about her! She’s a secret! You have to base your impression of her on that one tiny thing you read about her four years ago...” Now I’m really in control again. I can say things like I’ve just heard of this incredible beatboxer called Beardyman! Half of them will say I can’t believe you’ve never heard of Beardyman! The other half will say Oh my God! He’s amazing! Thanks so much! Everyone will just be sharing links! An hour after that happened, Beardyman actually called me up! “Hey...Imogen! How are you, what can we do?” So now we’re writing something together! It’s hyper interactive, social and collaborative.
ILM: That’s all extremely positive, but how about the issue of illegal downloads and file sharing. How do you feel about that?
Imogen: In some sense a lot of the success of Speak For Yourself came through illegal downloads and people sharing that music for free. People don’t buy records any more. They don’t need to. At the moment we’re still in a transitional period and we do need to figure out a new way of making money. I’m quite lucky as I write things for film and stuff for other people. But for musicians that just do it alone and rely solely on the sales of their own records, it’s another story. It will eventually sort itself out, but at the moment it does hurt us if people download illegally. Although in the same sense, it doesn’t hurt if people share with their friends and then that gets passed on over and over again. My one thing is that I don’t want people to hear it before it is released properly. I just like to keep it that way, so that when people hear it for the first time, they get to hear a really good copy of it.
ILM: What plans do you have for your next live show?
Imogen: It’s very much in all of our heads at the moment! Plus I don't want to give away too much, but I like the idea of toning things down. There’s a lot of waste going on at the moment. A lot of unnecessary light and energy being used. I’d like to have a set up where it’s not all about floods of light that don’t get used. I’m not sure. I’d like to somehow emanate light from the centre, create light myself and have that light define the shape of the stage. I’d like to build the set out of light. Pop up shapes, projected lights, I don’t know what’s going to happen really...we have a lot to think about!