First Published In The Music & Sound Retailer’s May 2007 Issue.
This Best New Artist Grammy nominee may have been making music for the better part of a decade—both as a solo artist and as part of electronic duo Frou Frou—but Imogen Heap’s unique sound made its way to the public in a major way this past year. Her songs have been featured in key scenes on TV shows like the O.C. and on movie soundtracks, most recently The Holiday, the Cameron Diaz/Jude Law romantic comedy she scored with Hans Zimmer. Heap is equally comfortable making music out of instruments and household objects, and she even refinanced her own home to make her latest CD. She shares these stories and more with the Retailer.
The Music & Sound Retailer: On your Myspace page, you say your sound is like no one else’s. How did your sound come about, exactly?
Imogen Heap: It’s a very difficult question because each sound is created in a different way. Generally, I don’t tend to use synthesizers. I don’t try to use pre-made sounds. I like to kind of carve sounds, sculpt sounds out of…it can either be starting as a voice or as a metal gate or as a kid’s squeaky toy, and then end up as a drum machine or end up as a bass line. I mean, some of the sounds people think are a bass line are actually created out of a door slamming, and then tuning it down, and then extending [it]. So sometimes the whole process of creating the sounds is very weird, but they end up sounding sometimes quite ordinary. I like the mixture of the hard, kind of quite blippy every now and then, drums. I like a drum kit but I like it very rigid. I like it to sound like it’s been sliced up. And then the musical side, the kind of top end, like the strings and the harps…
M&SR: You play all of the different parts yourself?
Heap: Yup. I mean, on the instrument side of things, some people may not see it as an instrument but the computer is an instrument these days. You can play pretty much anything into it and you can create on a computer, like you can on an instrument. So, for me, it’s just another instrument. But I do arrange. I don’t actually physically play harp; I don’t own a harp. But I understand how a harp works and I understand not to play it like a piano, because you don’t play it like that. So when I program, I’m still playing it but I’m playing it on a keyboard. But I do play the drums. I play the clarinet. I play the cello. I play the double bass a little bit. And I play my mbira, glockenspiel, triangle. Lots of things. I mean, I don’t play all of them like concert standard. But I’m good with the computer; I’m good with programming. I’ve been programming on the computer since I was 12, so I know how to make something sound good even if it’s played terribly [laughs].
M&SR: It must be difficult to find some of the unique instruments you play.
Heap: Well my strangest instrument is this thing called a nail violin, which is a wooden box, the size of a medium-sized suitcase, with a hollow inside. And then it has these huge nails that have been hammered vertically into this box. It’s kind of set up with this strange scale that this guy in San Diego calls the array. He made the scale. And you play them by brushing over the heads of the flat nails, with your fingertips. You have to use a bit of rosin. You put a little of that on your fingers and they sound like these little flutes or recorders or something. So that’s my strange instrument. Actually, I got given that by the guy who makes my other strange instrument, called an mbira, which is what I play live. That’s like a kind of big toy piano, a thumb piano. You just pluck these metal prongs. There’s a huge version of that and I found that through my friend, who’s an incredible artist. She had one in her bedroom. [I’ve] used my old Hoover tube—a vacuum cleaner tube, like a ribbed thing. I whizzed it around my head. The wind rushes through it and it kind of whistles. So I used that on “Closing In.” All kinds of things. Sometimes they’re not instruments. Sometimes they’re bits of metal or an old PC, like making a nice sound out of the grate of the PC.
M&SR: How do you recreate the sounds live?
Heap: When I’m on stage, I like to use electronic gear. I like to use my drum machine. I like to use this program called Ableton Live. Basically any keyboard I have on stage I can trigger things from Ableton Live. I did spend a lot of time making all these lovely sounds on the record, so I am triggering off samples I’ve already made. I want to bring the sound of the record, because some of them aren’t from an instrument. They’re just something that took me four hours to make, so I can’t recreate that live. It doesn’t exist, that sound, in real life. So I’m triggering off a lot of things, but then I can manipulate them with effects, all through MIDI. The only kind of instrument I actually play live is this mbira thing and the piano. And then everything else is either triggered or played. Like the strings are played because I can’t obviously play a whole string orchestra by myself. So I play that on the keyboard.
M&SR: Have you ever thought about designing your own instrument?
Heap: I have built, well I got somebody to build for me, this absolutely gorgeous, plexiglass, big baby grand shape. It’s got a lid and everything, and beautiful carved legs out of wood with little golden casters on the bottom of them. Inside of that go all these beautiful lights that correspond to each note I play on the actual keyboard. And then I’ve got my G5 in there, my Apple Mac in there with all my samplers, and all sorts of things. It’s all inside this clear piano. It just looks amazing.
M&SR: A lot of your music has gotten out to people through movies and shows, which is funny because musicians used to be looked at as sellouts for having songs in advertisements, etc. and now it’s the status quo. Do you think this is a good thing for the industry?
Heap: Well yeah, because I remember even as far as commercials…don’t know if it’s the same in the U.S., but in the U.K. commercials have really great music. So many times I’m watching the TV and then on comes a commercial and I’m like, “Oh my god, what’s that song? I’ve got to look it up.” Usually it’s people I really like, like Aphex Twin or Squarepusher. So I get to hear all this cool music. But yeah, in the past it was the worst thing, wasn’t it? Just like cheesy kind of general MIDI, kind of nasty sounds with some awful singing over it or something. Now it’s great. I guess it’s not so great for the people who used to write music for commercials as a living, but for artists like myself who are trying to make it in the music world…I actually couldn’t live without it. I’d be really hard up if I didn’t get my stuff in films, I’ll tell you that.
M&SR: When you go to write, do you sit down at the piano and figure out a melody, or do the words come first? Do you find a sound you like and write a song around it?
Heap: Usually they don’t come all at once. At the moment, I’ve got lots of tiny, little 10-second ideas that, say in a sound check I was just messing around and then a melody comes into my head while I’m playing the mbira or while I’m just singing into my vocal sampler. Then an idea will pop out while I’m playing something on the piano and I’ll play a loop on that. On my laptop, I use GarageBand to just quickly record an idea. So there are tons of things in there. Most of it’s crap but every now and then, if I have to write a song…like “Speeding Cars,” I had this one line that I loved so much. I had no idea what it was about. But then it was sitting in my head for quite a while and it just became apparent when I had four days to do a b-side.
M&SR: Is it true you had to re-mortgage your home in order to get your latest CD out there?
Heap: I did…well I didn’t have to but I chose to. Actually, no, I did have to [laughs]. The reason why I had to was because I’d just finished with the Frou Frou album and I was going to do another solo record. I’d been offered deals by the people I was signed to at the time and, to be honest, I just felt I’d had enough of this. I really felt like they’d messed up Frou Frou big time, and I just wasn’t prepared to spend another four years making a record and then for them to tell me, “Oh sorry, I don’t really think it’s working. We’re not going to release a single.” I just wasn’t prepared to do that. That’s happened to me twice, on the last two albums that I’ve done. But this one, I just wanted to make my own luck, basically. I believed that it can’t be that difficult. How difficult could it be? If you write what I think is great music, how could it be so difficult to get people to buy it, if it is good? And I believed that it was, because otherwise I wouldn’t do it. So yeah, I didn’t want to sign another deal with them so we just agreed to let me go, which was good because they could’ve been bastards about it. And then I went to try and get some money and realized that side of it wasn’t so easy, being an unpaid musician who doesn’t have a job anymore. I’ve never actually had a job. So when I tried to get a loan, they’re like, “But you’ve never had an income. You have certain amounts here and there, but we can’t give you a loan with that.” So now I couldn’t get any money to do the record. When I came back, kind of feeling a bit rubbish about it all, I saw a “for sale” sign at the bottom of my flat. It was for a two-bedroom apartment, which was the same size as mine. I asked them how much it was going for and they said it was 230,000, which is twice the amount I bought mine for. So then I re-mortgaged it, got the cash out for the profit that I made, and I made the record with that cash, basically. So I have a larger mortgage, but that’s how I did it.