It goes without saying that UK artist Imogen Heap is one immensely talented (not to mention gorgeous) woman, but when I got a chance to sit down with the Grammy Award-winner before her set at the Ilosaarirock Festival in Finland, I was blown away by how sincere, intelligent, and forward-thinking she is. This may come as no surprise to her legions of dedicated fans who follow her every word on Twitter, Youtube, or Facebook – after all, this is the artist who often involves her fans in her music-making decisions. Heap has a broad technological grasp on social media and a fan connection unlike any other artist out there.
However, Heap’s influence doesn’t rest solely on the laurels of making money or pimping out her music – she uses it to make change in the world. I got Heap talking about those exciting and upcoming changes, as well as what inspires her (it’s not music), her devotion to her fans, and why social media is making the world such a creative place.
How do you think being classically trained as a musician when you were younger has helped you as an artist?
Well, I learned the clarinet, cello, and piano, and I really enjoyed studying orchestration and arrangement, mostly. I didn’t really like playing other people’s stuff so much, but I did like playing “in the style of” where I could pretend I was playing the stuff I was meant to be practicing (laughs). I always enjoyed layering stuff, seeing things in their parts come together as a whole. Anything from building balsa wood houses as a kid, to making cards, to recording stuff, to making Legos and mini cities. So, I just liked making stuff, and I grew up in a family that listened to classical music. I don’t know my ins and outs of classical composers in any way, but I did learn that kind of counterpoint and harmony and how things fit with low instruments and high instruments, and maybe those things did seep into the way that I make “Pop” music.
Your latest album, Ellipse, won a Grammy for Best Engineering – because you did start building blocks, so to speak, with music and on computers, does that particular award mean something more to you?
Yeah, it does. I mean, that was the one I wanted to win if there was going to be a choice. It’s absolutely brilliant because, to be honest, I don’t really know what I’m doing. But somehow when I get in the studio and I play with things, it sounds good – or so they think. I did study a little bit, technology, engineering and that sort of thing, and I did a lot of practicing over the years, but really I don’t know any more than the basics. I’m very lazy when it comes to engineering. I just like to get the idea down and play with it once I get it in the computer.
Sounds like you’re pretty much self-taught…
Yeah. I learned a little bit with lessons but with the computer thing I am definitely self-taught, which is probably why I’m not that great at that either (laughs). When it comes to my music, I know what I want to do and I know how to do it. But if I were to go into a professional studio, I’d know enough to pass, but I wouldn’t know anything about production ratios and all that kind of stuff.
Then your next goal isn’t to work as an engineer…
(laughs) No. I think the secret is to have fun. And if it sounds good, go for it.
Because you aren’t just a songwriter and have been involved in the engineering and production side, do you find it hard to sit back, relax, and listen to music?
To be honest, I don’t really listen to music.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Well, for instance, I just got back from this conference called TED, which happens every six months. One in California and one in the UK. I first went when I was 26. I got invited to sing with Frou Frou at their Monterey one, and now I’ve been twice to their one in Oxford. And I am totally just inspired by that. Inspired because you are surrounded by these incredible people doing all these amazing things and have so many fantastic views and outlets and really insightful ways of connecting issues together and how to solve them. So that inspires me, just coming out of there and wanting to thread some of that into my music – not in an environmental or really obvious way, but to just thread it.
A lot of your songs are really intimate – do you find it challenging at all to perform them live?
No, actually. It’s difficult because I can’t say that every time I sing the song I relive the moment, because then I think I’d be a driveling wreck. But every now and then I may have a real connection with one or two of the songs during a set, especially if I have just described what the song is about and then I actually remember. It’s not like total auto-pilot, but you’re also not reliving every single moment of heartache when you sing it. That would be so draining. There are ones that maybe I haven’t played in a while and then I’ll put it back in the set and it will remind of that space in my life. But once I’ve written a song, I’m fine with it. The most cryptic songs of mine, the ones that really connect with people, are the ones where they have no idea what the song is about but something shines through.
Who would you like to work with that you haven’t worked with yet?
Hmmm. Well, everyone I have collaborated with has been unplanned, totally random, met each other, liked each other, and wanted to work together. No one I have directly hunted down, and I quite like that element of surprise. But I’ve got a few collaborations up my sleeve. My next collaboration is a big one, but it’s not exactly a musical one. My idea is that I wanted to write a nature film score, but I couldn’t find anything that was going to be filmed and screened in time for my performance at Royal Albert Hall. I’ve got a gig in the evening, and, as my support, I open with an orchestra and play a 30-minute piece – which I will have written – live to this film.
And this film, because I couldn’t find anything…I decided, my biggest strength isn’t cash coming in from downloads or anything like that, it’s really the connection I have with my fans. Which is the most amazing thing you can get, and I enjoy it so much. I really love getting creative with them, from them helping with my biography, to getting involved with the artwork, to them choosing their favorite chorus for a song when I couldn’t make a decision.
So now – and I’ve just finished making a micro-documentary about them and I hope to release it soon – people send in footage of why they love the Earth. It could be a tree or grasses in the breeze or ripples in the water, whatever they want to capture. It could be Serengeti footage or underwater deep sea diving footage that some amazing photographer has taken but no editor wanted to use. So the idea is to take all these pieces that don’t have a home and place them together into a film to celebrate why we love the Earth. So we’ll show it for the first time at Albert Hall and then release it physically and virtually for free, for people to enjoy. Including the music part of it.
My manager hates me right now, but it’s my little gift to the planet. I guess help the shift and get people thinking. It’ll be the fifth of November and we’re considering having a live web-cam and a live set-up so that you can watch the film for the first time, plus you will be seeing me and the orchestra.
How do you think social media has changed the music industry?
Oh, heated question (laughs). I think the major difference is how much it opened up to people that anyone and everyone can get creative and get their voice heard. It’s not so easy to shout above the huge amount of music that is out there, but maybe once technology has caught up, there will be ways of analyzing and processing data so that we can find people’s music. You know, find that person who is in the middle of nowhere with this beautiful piece of music and connect it to someone who is going to love it but otherwise would never find each other because there is so much stuff in between. I love the idea that everyone on this planet has an equal chance.
And the way you use it too, you don’t have to go through a third party or have a mouthpiece speak for you, it’s just you out there.
Yeah. I think the other thing is that it doesn’t restrict me any longer. I was 25 when I started, basically, blogging and when I realized I could get directly to the people, it was the answer to my call and highly inspiring. I started to look at my life as full of possibilities instead of full of dead-ends with a label. It’s this feeling of instant connection and wanting to feel connected. And to anything, from a friend’s level, on a fan level, everything. I love this world, it’s managing to connect all the dots, all the different cultures, and all the different music. It’s just a wonderful, playful time to be creative in.