HomeAn Interview With Imogen Heap

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Imogen Heap is a Grammy Award-winning British vocalist and songwriter (as well as multi-instrumentalist and producer). To contemporary a cappella singers and fans, Imogen hardly needs an introduction: between her three solo records and her work as half of the duo Frou Frou, Imogen's songs like "Let Go" and "Hide and Seek" are ubiquitous in high school, college and professional a cappella. Imogen chatted with CASA writer Marisa Debowsky about singing, songwriting, and her recent project, surrounding the song "Earth", which has generated a wave of energy as well as exposure to new fans for many a cappella groups in the past year.

Marisa Debowsky (CASA): Tell me about your vocal background. How did you start singing? How do you think about the voice?

Imogen Heap: I started singing naturally: I like talking, and talking became melodies; I accompanied myself on piano when I was younger, and started putting words to melodies at 12 or 13 -- puberty, mood swings, bullied at school, so I had subject matter to write about. I sang in school choirs when I was younger and did some writing every year for the choir (a carol or hymn as end-of-year project). Singing was just fun, really; I never planned on doing it professionally, just a natural thing that I liked doing. I knew that I wanted to do music, so studied classical music, arrangement, composition, and anything to get to grips with how to write for orchestra (cello, clarinet, piano); the older I got, the more songs I started to write; I played around with a keyboard, making up beats, writing with computers. At 15, I started recording, and I could hear the things I'd play, how they sounded back. Then I started to layer them up.

I always treated my voice like an instrument, because that's how I was taught. My singing style comes from a cross between classical and learning instruments and how to accompany. Rather than thinking of vocals as the lead, I might think of a vocal line as accompanying something on piano. A vocal line is also a way to record an idea quickly: rather than getting up to get other instruments, it's quick to record a vocal track. I like making sounds with the voice, as well as making lyrical lines.

The only pop music I listened to as a kid who had influence was Michael Jackson: he uses lots of vocalism that's not lyrical, which I subconsciously incorporated. I breathe rhythmically, often filling in space with vocal sounds.

Can you talk about your experience recording and performing songs a cappella?

IH: My first a cappella song was Hide and Seek. It's three takes of vocals (one at the beginning, two in second chorus, three at end), and then I played the harmonies through the keyboard. I love hearing the different versions of the song!

I decided to do "Earth" a cappella as well. I had written a b-side called "mic check": it's just me saying "mic check" with various drum beats, and I enjoyed that challenge. It's good fun: I like giving myself limitations -- it makes me be creative in different ways. For example, writing a song with only piano: I might use the sustain pedal as kick drum, or tapping of hammers as a rhythmic part. So when I recorded "Earth", I got to make all kinds of sounds that I couldn't possibly do myself.

I always loved the idea that we could do this live -- I thought about it very early during the recording process, the idea about getting local a cappella choirs to sing with me on tour; it would take maybe 10 minutes to bring up the loops myself, so I couldn't do it alone. I thought of that very early on when making the record. I love getting local fans in on the live shows. It's been really interesting; I've done maybe 40 shows, with different versions of "Earth". Choirs auditioned by putting up versions on YouTube. I've met fantastic choirs, singers, beat-boxers. I hope to do it on the next stop, in South Africa -- we'll see who comes!

CASA: Did you get to hear the choirs' opening sets?

IH: Yep -- each group did a 15-minute set, and I'd always come out and listen. My favorite was Matthew Andrae, in Dallas. He did an amazing set---mostly a cappella, with some guitar on one song---and got a standing ovation from the crowd. Quite a character. Also does a bit of hydroponic farming.

CASA: How you choose the instrumentation of a song?

I actively choose different instrumentation for each record. Speak to Yourself was very loop based, production based, and I'd write melodies and lyrics over the top of something. For this record: I wrote all the songs first on the piano (maybe two on other instruments); I'd then sing the vocals; once I've got a vocal take that I really like, I'd start to paint the picture -- only once I've recorded all the vocals. In this way, the lyrics, melody and vocal sounds really inform what the album is. It's a lot more acoustic-sounding, more song-based, and this album has more atmospheric sounds: birds in the local park, bonfire in the garden, rain in "Half Life". I like creating atmospheres, soundscapes. I also wanted the sound of my house to get into the album: in 2007, I moved to my old family house; it was a big financial decision and emotional decision to take it on because it's quite a beast. I wanted the sound of the house to be core to the album. I recorded me drumming the banisters of the staircase, the boiler heating up in the morning, windows shutting, wine glasses and radiators, the shower -- I wanted the music to spin from the house in a magical or karmic way. It was a very home-based album; I've always had a studio away from home, but this house is big enough to have a studio at home. It's a big step for me: the first time in my life where I've been in one place for more than a month at a time. I got up in the morning, had breakfast, went down and did some work, had lunch: staying healthy, keeping a routine, going jogging, keeping fit -- it was an achievement for me physically as well.

We made a DVD of the process of the record: if you're curious about vocally/lyrically how I write, or kinds of mics I used, you can see that at the DVD. I filmed it at fans' requests. We started at the beginning of the writing trip to the Pacific, filmed moving into the house (with my friend Justine) and the recording process, and 3 years later, Justine made a film out of it.

CASA: Do you record or perform covers?

IH: Not often, no. I don't get much chance to go into studio and record, so when I do, I mostly want to work on my own stuff. I'll do a cover on the odd occasion, for radio, or for charity. I've raised some money for a charity "CONCERN" as part of a Twitter festival: we set up an auction on eBay, and people could ask me to sing any song, and I would do it live on the day of the Twitter festival. I only found out what it was a couple hours before stage. They asked for "Cornflake Girl" -- I didn't know it, and had to write out the lyrics. And then I recorded a version.

I covered "Thriller" for a radio program in England -- the word of mouth got to Rod Temperton, the writer, and a few days later, I got to meet him and hear the original demo that he gave to Michael Jackson. Very cool.

CASA: Have you heard a cappella covers of your songs?

Yes! I really enjoy hearing the interpretations. I've heard lots of songs covered---"The Walk", "Hide and Seek", "Just For Now", "Breathe In", "Let Go"---and they've been great. It spurs me on to do more things for people to enjoy trying out for themselves. The movement of people doing a cappella versions of my songs is inspiring.

Read about the Earth project here.

We spoke with Imogen Heap on December 21, 2010. Learn more about her latest work at imogenheap.com.

About the author:
Marisa Debowsky learned to love singing contemporary a cappella in days of yore (namely sixth grade), and sang her way through college and grad school (in the UVM Cat's Meow).  While in the Northeast, she co-founded and co-produced the Vermont A Cappella Summit.  She continues to be active in the community, both as a singer and an event organizer (and arranger and sometimes booking agent).