Published Sep 26, 2009The release of her third solo album, Ellipse, saw solo singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/artist Imogen Heap into massive success. She kept her doting followers informed of every step through Twitter and still the finished product is always surprising and fascinating. In the past, Heap gained popularity through soundtrack appearances, (The O.C., Garden State) which has let her push her own boundaries. Ellipse does just that ― it definitely has a more mature feeling than her past two records, but she has honed and held onto the sound that is so dearly loved. Heap had a few minutes to talk about the album while she was in Toronto doing promotion in August.
How often would you change different little pieces of songs? It was awesome how you tweeted all the time about the changes ― but what made you want to be so open?
I think a real need for a kind of connectivity with people. I think the greatest parts of life are when you're connected, whether it's with your family or your friends or your lover. With the planet too! I guess it's really the connection that I love because in the past, well right in the beginning, it was always the musician and the audience and it was a local thing, they would play in the streets and people would get involved, and as recorded music happened, a kind of barrier happened where then you had this gap between your audience and the writer, and then over the years record companies massively got in the way, so then you've got this huge blockade between you and the people who like your music. So, thankfully now, that barrier has completely disappeared, and I think it's something that I certainly crave, just wanting to understand people and wanting them to understand me. That's just a natural human need, that's why I do it.
Do you think the way you go at this is the future? Do you think all bands should get into working like that?
I don't think it's a case of should, for the sake of marketing and everything, maybe, but for me, it's not a case of somebody going, "if you do this, you will sell records," it's just I felt like I wanted to do it and I had to do it and I needed to do it. I also wanted to involve people in the process of making a record because I don't think anyone has ever documented the process so finely, from right at the beginning, writing little gems of the ideas. I've actually been filming the whole process, my friend Justina's got to now piece together 350 hours of footage into one. She's got her work cut out for her. It was actually a fan that wrote in and said "I would love to see how you work a song, can you film it while you're in Maui?" And so when I got back, my friend said "oh, let me continue it so we can document it!" And then it took eight months to build the studio. And then the tweeting was just to kind of fill in the gaps for me, because I always felt strange with YouTube only could have ten minutes to describe everything that I had done. There were people who wanted more.
So how often would you say you changed little pieces in songs?
All the time, constantly changing it, because until it's finished, you're changing it. That's what you do. Start up with something and then change it and then add on to it or other bits or make another part do that part, so you're constantly changing it.
Is there anything new you're putting in your live show?
At the moment, I'm not exactly sure how I'm going to do it, but I bought this new piece of gear, which is really cute, it's called a monome, it's a control service, it doesn't actually have any sounds, but you can tell it to tell things around your kind of workstation, gear, what to do. Basically, it just looks cool. It takes a while to program everything to know what you want to be doing, but you can have a section on it where you go okay I want this to be my looping section, so you can loop your vocals live and this would tell the computer to start recording at a point, and then over here you have your keyboard area, you can have drum samples if you want, over here you can have faders or whatever you like. I'll be using that.
Will you still have the clear piano?
So, you slapped your bottom in a "Bad Body Double," what other kinds of sounds that you used were your favourite on this record?
One of my favourites was actually kind of one of the only times I recorded something outside of the studio. I wrote this song called "Half Life," it's the token piano song, I allow myself to have one at least because I think it's a bit of a cop out to do stuff more piano because you can do so many other things. So, I did the piano song and the song is really in broad strokes trying to be closer to somebody who is constantly surrounded by people or just business, generally business, you're surrounded by somebody, you can't be with them, so you're living this kind of half life, and I wanted to get a sense of distance and kind of unavailability. I wanted to get the sound of people chatting, kind of milling around, like when you go to a party and everyone's laughing and cheers-ing, so I went to a few art gallery-type places, because I thought that was the sort of thing that might work. Everywhere I went, there was always music in the background, so I couldn't record it. So the one time that actually was perfect was at the twitter Twestival, twitter festival, of people who just got together and they happen all over the world. I went to the one in London and I went there with my binormal microphones, which look like headphones. I was walking around with my recorder, and for people who didn't know, thought I was just walking around with headphones, but I was actually recording them. So hopefully, nobody's going to want any royalties or anything.
You wrote the lyrics all over the world.
Yes, about half of the ones that I wrote on my trip ended up on the record. Half of the songs, six songs I wrote on the writing trip, six I wrote when I got back to the house. And then one of them was kind of between the two places. One was improvised, "The Fire." It's an improvised piece to try and balance the kind of nerdy detail and biggishness that's on the rest of the record. I wanted to have something completely free from form and just like a train of thought. So I recorded the piano in Maui, which is where I began the record, so I kind of created this ellipse by just travelling around the world. And then "The Fire" I recorded in my garden at my family home where I burnt this piece of wood that used to go between the grate and the kitchen and the garden, and I couldn't just throw it away because it had been there for 30 years. So I got all the family around to just be quiet and listen to the sound of it crackling. I managed to get the writing and travelling side of things and also my family and the house.
Now for the rest of the songs, what was it about humanity that struck you so much?
I guess with this record I really wanted to explore a bit less about one-on-one, about me, me, more me and me, me with somebody else, me not with somebody else, and me wanting to be with somebody else. When I was on my writing trip, I started to read a lot more and have a chance to read and talk with people. You start to formulate things in your mind that matter, but you haven't because you're so consumed by yourself and only talking about you, that there's not enough time to reflect about us and what we're doing here and what a mess we're making of it. Just my relationship with the rest of the world, with people, and how people react to people, and so I guess I just went a bit further with it.
What are you going to tweet about now that the record's finished?
I've mostly been tweeting about the promo runs, what I've been up to. I went for an amazing test drive yesterday of the Tesla, so I tweeted about that.
Are you going to get it?
I can't quite afford it, but maybe one day. It's quite expensive. It's a really fantastic car. I've read about it for a year and a half or two years and there's no reason why we don't have electric cars already, that's just the monopoly. So this is the future. They're the only car company that's made an electric car that's desirable and sexy.
You could be their promo girl.
I'd love to yeah! If they could give me a complimentary vehicle... to wave a flag or something!
Mainly the record is you doing everything, right?
I did have a few guests. I had a guy called Nitin Sawhney, who is a musician and artist in his own right and writes many albums and actually I was on his record last year. He played the acoustic guitar on "Canvas." My ex-boyfriend played drums on a couple songs. I was playing drums on the other songs but I was using his kit, so I thought I should get him on. He's really great. I got this fantastic trumpeter in again who is from Norway, called Arve Henrikson, I had him on the last record as well, and he's just so amazing. So he's on "2-1" and "Half Life." And, I've got a really beautiful Indian singer, who's actually a flautist, but he just has the most beautiful voice. Him and the cellist, Ian, both made me cry when I heard them play. I just thought I love the idea of getting people who made me emotional on the record. They were incredible when they came into the studio.
Would there ever be somebody that would want to offer help, but you would just want to do it your own way?
There were a couple people that were like, "you know if it gets to be too much, let me know and I can help mix it." I think the way I work... it doesn't work like that anymore. You go in, you've written a song or maybe you haven't written a song. You do everything in tandem so you sing the vocals and while you're doing that you build music around it. Everything you build, it's not like you have a band and you go in and do drums and bass guitar, vocals, and then you mix it to make it sound good together. It's because you're kind of crafting it to go along, you're building and building, so you don't put something on it unless it fits with everything else, so you're doing it as you go. So there are hundreds of tracks of stuff that you're working as you go, so it's not like "now we mix it." I knew that I'd finish it, but it's just how much work. The biggest problem with this record was time management and not counting for the unexpected bits that always happened like "oh, can you come and sing a song on this record" or "can you produce a song for Mika" and you don't plan for those, so when you say "I'm going to be finished in six months" you don't plan ahead for the three months of extra stuff that comes your way. That was great, but a strain.
You're famous for reproducing your vocals. If you had clones, what else would you make them do besides sing? You'd have a lot more time.
Yeah, what would I get them to do? I might get them to build my stage live on the show. I've got this plan for my next shows, I don't know if I'm going to do it, but I've got this plan. It's to not have anything on stage at all and to come on and slowly rebuild the stage myself while I'm doing it. So I'm kind of building, having things hidden on the stage, underneath it where there's slip-like shapes and things and throw them up into the air and then light falls on them. There's nothing ... I like the idea of no waste. There's no need to have hundreds of watts of lights pouring down on me when I'm only here. I don't need all of those. I'd love to work on a stage show where light is built and sculpted around me or I'm projecting it myself or it's on me, like I'm being projected onto with a big dress or something. Trying to be more igniting with the stage and get creative inside that.