Look up British singer/songwriter Imogen Heap on the online music forum Myspace.com and scroll down to the ‘Sounds Like’ box. Sounds Like No other – reads the pithy, but accurate description.
In fact, truer words have never been written about the hypnotic vex of songs on her stunning second solo album Speak For Yourself. From her earliest memories of improvising at the piano “it was the biggest toy that made the best and most noise” at home, hour after hour in the sleepy village just outside of London where she grew up to the electro-zen-like fugues she hears in her head when riding her bike through the streets of England’s most fabled city, the classically trained, techno geekess, Imogen has always preferred a left-of-kilter soundtrack of her own making to any by-the-book-coda of pop music.
The stirring current of songs flowing through Speak For Yourself ripple with an alluring intimacy rarely found in the electro-inspired genre. “That’s because, I like to believe I’m genre-less!” quips Imogen “I want for music to stimulate, excite and surprise me all over again” Whether it’s the punctuated sounds, and halting breath filled silences in songs such as the angelic “Hide And Seek,” or the bouncy “Goodnight And Go,” or the subtly drum-tinged “Headlock”, or the whispery “The Walk,” it’s clear Imogen is a slave to nothing but her own muse. Recorded in her East London studio – “I’ve had a not so secret love affair with making music on computers since I was a teenager. Wouldn’t it be great if in real life you could “delete” or “duplicate”, “save” or “recall”? Or speak in many voices and languages at the pull down of a program?” she says – Imogen utilized everything and anything at her disposal, from circuit bent children’s toys, to carpet roll inner tubes to the rumbling soothages of passing trains. “There are many moments during the course of making an album where things don’t go as planned - mostly gear misbehaving but gear can equally make some great sounds when it’s in a mood!” The silver lining to some of these situations became “Hide and Seek” and “Headlock”. Forced to use gear that was co-operating though perhaps needed a little dusting off!
An auteur in the truest sense of the word, even Imogen’s previous music persona as the female axis with the alt-fave duo Frou Frou (with producer and longtime collaborator Guy Sigsworth playing the man - producer of Madonna, among others) garnered her a drawer full of comparisons to strong-female-solo types. But Imogen’s knack for path-finding, revelatory soundscapes off the beaten path mirror her own zig-zag musical journey (she was a solo artist before joining Frou Frou only to fly solo again), as she’s now poised for acceptance with a growing contingency of U.S. music fans.
After turning down major record label deals the fearless artist even re-mortgaged her London flat to finance her declaration of independence, but not before making several futile rounds to various financial institutions seeking their possible support “I traipsed my way round every bank but I couldn’t get a loan,” she says. “I had £10,000 on my credit card and I couldn’t pay my bills. It seems banks and musicians don’t get along too famously!” but just before despair could stick in its claws, Heap’s luck changed. Clocking a “For Sale” sign outside her block of flats was, she says, like a little light bulb going on: “I couldn’t help wondering just how much I could sell my flat to myself for.”
The flat had almost doubled in price. With nothing to stop her now, Imogen took the cash out of the property and with money to burn purchased lots of sparkly new recording equipment on her 25th Birthday as a present to herself, She then set about making exquisitely personal and aptly titled Speak For Yourself in a burst of experimentation. As if that wasn’t enough Heap then set up Megaphonic Records to release her most treasured possession in the UK.
“It was quite liberating, actually,” she says. “Probably because I never had an opportunity to do a whole studio album at my own pace before-entirely on my own. So, at first, I was ignoring the piano, just having fun and playing with all my toys. But eventually I got back round to the piano, like on “The Moment I Said It.’ Every sound you hear (aside from the strings) stems from the piano, but still I’m chopping things up.” That kind of playfulness is a trademark of Imogen’s heaping (no pun intended). Her mystical/whimsical harmony leaning over diverging threads of sound and melody, all of it bottlenecking into riveting vignettes that pique the imagination.
Ultimately, it would be due to such enigmatic captures and an often downright sultry vocal presence (‘your music is touching to the max’ – blogs one online fan) combined with her intuitively tweaked musical arsenal - Piano/Vocoder/glitch-friendly samples, strings, harps, bells and drum machines - that would spark American record companies to come calling.
A serendipitous brush-up with the photogenic but angst-filled American TV soap, The O.C., furthered her mystique. The popular teen show, which has gathered an impressive musical resume in the past couple of years, (rumored to receive more than 400 music submissions per week) featured Imogen’s glorious “Hide And Seek,” on its Season 2 finale this past May (with “Goodnight And Go” being included on the soundtrack Music From The O.C. Mix 4), awakening a potential American fan base to the radiant atmospherics of Heap’s repertoire.
“I’m eternally grateful to The O.C. for braving such an off kilter song to feature in that spot. The response to that episode has been amazing,” says Imogen. “And I was ecstatic that suddenly, after putting so much of myself into this album and my transition to going solo again, I was going to be exposed to a whole new audience.”
The warm reception of the music savvy O.C. audience was indeed immediate. In less than a week “Hide And Seek” moved from virtual obscurity to # 32 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Download chart. Many more stateside fans started following her weekly blog on Imogenheap.com (affectionately referring to her as Immi) and set in motion a stream of requests for Imogen’s music from other TV shows – CSI and Six Feet Under among them - and movies (most recently on the Reese Witherspoon/Mark Ruffalo movie/soundtrack Just Like Heaven, for which Imogen contributed a cover rendition of the classic “Spooky” -once made famous by Dusty Springfield. And in 2004, Actor/Director Zach Braff personally selected the Frou Frou track, “Let Go,” to appear on the grammy winning soundtrack to his movie Garden State. “My music lends itself to soundtracks, I think, because it is so layered and orchestrated. They feel and sound right at home on the big screen.”
Ever since her mercurial 1998 debut, I Megaphone, and her 2002 Frou Frou collaboration with Sigsworth, the ethereal Details (Island Records), with its acclaimed cult single “Breathe In,” Imogen has catalogued her dreamscapes through music. “I can’t say I always wanted to be a rock star, but I’ve always expressed myself through music it’s the easiest and most enjoyable way to lose myself. When I’m composing the best way I can describe it is – when you know you’re really on to something – like when you’re traveling home on a familiar route and you start to daydream – then before you know it you find yourself at your front door searching for your keys and you’ve no idea how you got there, that’s what happens to me when I’m creating on a good day.”
Imogen is more than aware that time will be moving quite fast in the next several months. Touring is already scheduled (she’s past opened up for diverse artists such as Rufus Wainwright, Coldplay and Norah Jones) and ever increasing notoriety beckons as critics and music fans familiarize themselves with the highly regarded Speak For Yourself, released to much acclaim in England this past July. “I’m interested in how people will categorize the album. Let’s face it, everyone draws comparisons I do it myself.” When asked to have a go at it, Imogen laughs. “I don’t know….. more Donnie Darko than Dirty Dancing, more Absynth than apple juice, more ‘where no man has gone before’ than ‘down the pub’, more ‘crop circles in the carpet’ than ‘climb the highest mountain’. I hope more likely that you’ve never heard anything like it before!”
“The album hosts the broadest spectrum of songs I’ve ever done. Just when you think it’s going in one direction, it goes off down the road in another. I hope it sounds like I’ve had fun making it, because I did,” she pauses for a second. “Very free is how I’d describe it.”
“Wade in the sonic joy, Pleasure the wave and synchronize, Sway in the sonic joy” sings a cryptic Imogen. And no wonder. The girl just lives, breathes and loves making music!