“I wanted to have memories. Of people, places, tastes, smells, and conversations.”
I’ve always liked the idea that, with certain artists, you can delve into their back catalogues and, with the benefit of hindsight, begin to pinpoint the precise moments at which they began to move in certain directions. Granted, there probably weren’t any solid suggestions, on either her angst-ridden, teenage debut iMegaphone or the slick electro-pop album that she made with Frou Frou, that Imogen Heap would ever make a record as ambitious in scope as her new one, Sparks, but as far back as her second solo album, 2005’s Speak for Yourself, there were little hints that she had a penchant for experimentation; the way she left the ambient noise of a passing train in at the end of the vocodered a capella ‘Hide and Seek’, for instance, or how she interspersed the album’s dramatic closer, ‘The Moment I Said It’, with audio of an argument with her boyfriend.
Move forward to 2009 and album number three, Ellipse, and you’ll really begin to see some trends emerge. Named as a nod to the round country house in which she was raised - and at which she recorded the album in its entirety - the album utilised every aspect of the old building’s sonic potential, from using the sound of the running shower as backing on ‘Bad Body Double’ to the crackle of the log burner on ‘The Fire’; in the process, the record set the increasingly experimental Heap aside from many of her contemporaries. Ellipse’s detractors seemed to suggest that it represented Heap’s unbridled creativity reaching a kind of critical mass, with a producer necessary on the follow-up to rein things in; those same critics really aren’t going to like Sparks.
Put simply, Heap’s new record is one of the most staggeringly adventurous works in the recent history of pop music; she’s shown nothing but contempt for the rulebook from start to finish. Eschewing the concept of the traditional album cycle, Heap instead planned to write and record one song every three months from the beginning of 2011 and release them as she went along, ostensibly leaving her with twelve new songs - and thus, a record - by the end of 2013. All sorts of other endeavours would ultimately throw her a little off schedule - not least her involvement in The Gloves Project, which began as a way for Heap to better control her own live show and has become a full-time job, with a team of seven working on bringing a unique pair of gestural gloves to the music market.
Now, though, Sparks has become more progressive than Heap could ever have imagined when she set out; there’s an incredible range of concepts behind the songs, from the regeneration of a derelict walled garden to a quick-fire crowd-sourcing project, and sonically, she’s pushed the boundaries more than ever before, writing one song using the gloves, another for the purpose of soundtracking a running app, and including regional influences on tracks written on trips to China and India. Speaking to DiS over the phone from London last month, Heap discussed the origins of her experimental inclinations, the influence of technology and collaboration on Sparks, and her plans for the future, both personally - she’s expecting - and musically...
JG, DiS: When you first announced that you were going to make the album this way - releasing each song as soon it was ready - I kind of got the impression that it was a response to Ellipse having taken longer than you’d have liked. Was that the case?
IH: Originally, yeah. The idea of putting one song out every three months was really to do with wanting to avoid that delayed feeling, where you write a song and then three years later, when it’s not relevant any more, it comes out. The first song on this record, chronologically, was ‘Lifeline’, and it ended up being about something that happened the same weekend that I made it, which was the Sendai earthquake in Japan. I didn’t know it was going to be about that, but the concept of that song was that I’d do it in the one weekend, and it’d all be crowd-sourced; so, on day one, people would send in sounds they’d recorded from around the house, and then on day two, they’d send me words that summed up what was on their minds, and I’d make it into a word cloud and base the lyrics around that. It was clear from words like ‘seismic’ and ‘wave’ that they wanted it to be about Sendai, and to be able to make it that immediate was fantastic; to be able to get it straight out, whilst it was still topical, was a big advantage to working this way.
Was it also a case of just wanting to break out of that conventional album cycle?
Yeah, that too. You write an album for a year, doing nothing else, and then you tour it for two or three. I’ve been doing that since I was eighteen, and this is my fifth record, and I didn’t want it to be insular or confined like it had been in the past, where I felt like I couldn’t say yes to anything because I had to be getting on with the next album. This time, when the offers came in, I could say yes to going to China, yes to writing music for a film, yes to going to India and doing a crazy TV show with a Bollywood producer. I didn’t know that I’d have those opportunities at the time, but I wanted to be open to any that might happen to come my way.
I didn’t want to watch all of these exciting things just pass me by. I might have felt differently if I’d known how muddled things would get; the China trip was a huge thing because it was two months over there and then a lot longer working on that music once I got back, and the gloves project went from being supposed to be a three month thing to being something I’ll probably be involved with for the rest of my life, but I wouldn’t go back and change anything; it just got to a point where I knew I had to get the record tied up, because I’d kept people waiting long enough.
Did you always feel as if all of these other ventures had to lead back to the record, in some way? Did it ever get to the point where you felt like you needed to put these songs on the shelf?
It was different for each project, really; I mean, part of the reason I did the album this way was just to make sure I had time for the gloves, too, because I’d had that idea in mind for a while. There’s a track on the album, ‘Me the Machine’, that I made using them, but they represent a lot more than that, really; they’re about me trying to find a way to truly recreate my recorded stuff on stage. That’s gotten to the point now where you might argue it’s a bigger thing than my music, because there’s so many people involved, but it started with me realising that I was never going to be happy with my live show as long as I was having to use off-the-shelf gear, which doesn’t really play ball with the software I use. I probably needed a song as an excuse to make the gloves, not the other way around.
How about ‘Run-Time’? Was writing that song just a case of having an excuse to make an app?
I’d always wanted to make one, but it was one of those things that I hadn’t really thought would be within reach for me until I started being invited to tech events. I was on a panel at one of them, and Michael Breidenbrüecker, who founded RJDJ, was on it, too. I love their apps; I’ve listened to them on the Tube a lot, instead of normal music, because I find the way that they take the sounds around you and turn them into music really fascinating. You know, the idea of making a piece of music that isn’t static in the sense that it has a beginning, a middle and an end, that never changes, but instead could be something that could effectively be a new song of mine every time you used the app; it’d be able to take on a life of its own, and exist without me.
Has going to events like that had an influence on the way you make music in general?
Oh, definitely. I mean, I’d always been a bit techie, but it wasn’t until I started going to some of these big conferences and finding myself talking to a young scientist or sensor builder, or somebody who’s developed the latest light diode or viral app, that I realised the scope of what I could achieve creatively. Before I discovered this world, which was probably around four years ago now, I genuinely thought it was out of my reach, and that this kind of thing was only for people who work for Intel or Google. I didn’t think there was anybody I could talk to on my own level about something like the gloves, but I went to the MIT media lab and realised that there’s so many possibilities in terms of music and technology, but because so much of this stuff isn’t on the shelf, nobody hears about it. That’s the beauty of collaborating with all these people now, whether they’re scientists or fabric designers or whatever; we can tap into each other’s talents and help each other along the way. The way that it’s blossomed for me has really been quite beautiful.
How far back does the idea for the gloves go?
The idea probably first came to me five or so years ago now. I’d been looking, for a while, for an alternative to the setup I had on stage, and I’d been trying different things; wireless MIDI, stuff like that to start with, and then I did find a system that kind of worked for me, but it was really expensive. I didn’t really have the time to invest in anything else, though, or anybody to help me. I had a bit of a breakthrough when I came up with the idea of strapping microphones to my wrists - wireless lapel mics, like you might use for an interview - and could actually record and amplify things that weren’t my voice for the first time, on the move. I could mic up my mbira, or record cello and loop it back, but I was still constrained by the fact that I would actually have to move around the stage to hit record in the first place, so I needed to eradicate that.
Is it totally new technology that you’re working with?
Not entirely; there are gestural gloves on the market already, but nothing you can be quite this expressive with. The whole thing’s still sort of simmering away. There’s seven core members of the team developing the gloves themselves, and then we’ve got a designer, too, to make them look pretty, because originally they were just being held together by velcro and superglue. We’ve even got a lawyer helping us, just a guy who loved the idea and wanted to get involved. We’re two years ahead of where we wanted to be, in our minds, but at the same time, it took two and a half years just to get them to the stage where I could write a song with them. They won’t really be properly ready until I can improvise with them onstage pretty freely.
Have you been wanting to let this experimental side out for a while? I remember thinking Speak for Yourself was quite unusual at the time, but it pales in comparison to Sparks in that respect...
I think I’ve been moving forwards gradually. Speak for Yourself, at the time, was very experimental for me; I produced it all myself, and I’d never done an album entirely on my own, so I look back and I do think it was kind of the beginning of where I’ve ended up now; it gave me the confidence to pursue any weird idea I had. When I was a kid, I loved making stuff; things that worked, things that would make something else do something, like a windmill turning in the water, or whatever. When I became a musician professionally, all of that stopped; I stopped painting, I stopped making films, and I just made music, because I thought all of the other stuff was for other people. Now, I’ve realised that anybody can be a filmmaker or a glovemaker if they’ve got similarly crazy people around them, and if Sparks is experimental, then that’s where it comes from.
How deliberate was the decision to incorporate those overseas trips into the making of the record? Do you think you might have done that even if you’d made the album the conventional way?
It was something that I hoped might happen over the course of that three-year period. I certainly wanted to go abroad, partly because of the possibilities for collaboration and things like that, but partly just because I wanted to be out of that studio environment. Every single past record of mine - apart from maybe the first one, which I did some of in America and Jamaica - has been made in pretty small pocket of space, geographically speaking. We did the Frou Frou record in West London, and then I did Speak for Yourself in Bermondsey, in my old flat in the Biscuit Factory there. I made Ellipse entirely in the basement of my old family home, and incorporated a lot of the sounds of the house into it, so all three of those most recent albums were made in a really insular environment. I knew I didn’t want to do another album in a confined space; I wanted to have memories of people, and places, and tastes, and smells, and so on. I’ve worked in a way that has really allowed a lot of different people to involve themselves in the music, from the Listening Chair that we’re doing at the Roundhouse, which records sounds from whoever’s sitting in it, to the concept behind the song ‘Neglected Space’, where twenty people came down to my village to help bring this old walled garden back to life. They didn’t have any sonic input, but it obviously inspired me conceptually, to be out of that typical environment and coming up with ideas in different ways.
Was the process of writing lyrics a lot different on this album, then? You had a pretty diverse set of concepts to work with, right from the outset...
I suppose it was in the sense of the subject matter; I’ve never inhabited the voice of old neglected buildings before, or a hidden lake, for that matter. I’ve always used a lot of metaphor, though, so I guess the main difference was that, in the past, I’d often write songs in a very retrospective way; I’d be talking about something that happened five, ten or fifteen years ago. I always found I was never very present, and when I was making this album, I was desperately trying to connect myself to the present moment as much as possible. I felt like I wasn’t living in the here and now, because I’d always used my music to dredge up the past, so it was probably another thing I did deliberately this time around - I wanted to capture my feelings and thoughts as they are now, rather than as they were then. Plus, you know, writing like that gives you some nice excuses; “oh, I’ve got to write a song, I’ll have to go off to China for a couple of months.” I was using that as an excuse to go and live a little.
‘Entanglement’ is one of the ‘new’ songs on the record, that wasn’t released as you were going along; I think I read somewhere that you’d written it for a film, originally?
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, it wasn’t like it was really tied to the film in a way that meant I couldn’t use it on Sparks; it is a song that’s about me, rather than the characters involved. It came about because a friend of a friend curates soundtracks for a lot of Hollywood films and TV shows; she was the one who got me onto The O.C. a few years ago, and she called me and said, “Twilight are looking for a song for a sex scene.” I just found that very amusing as a concept, to start with, seeing as vampires are supposed to have no blood - how would they get an erection? - but it stuck with me, and I liked the idea of having to work with the limitations of writing for a very specific scene - specific characters, a very specific colour palette, and so on. What came out of that was actually me losing my inhibitions a little bit in terms of how personal my lyrics were; I was writing about myself, but hiding it behind this sex scene from a vampire movie.
I was envisioning this dream scenario, of meeting this perfect man who I’d want to marry, and thinking about what that’d be like - having love for life. It was a fairytale that I’d never written about before, probably because I hadn’t experienced it; it was maybe my way of asking the universe for it, especially since it’s actually happened now - I’ve settled down, and I’m pregnant - so it seemed like a song that needed to go on the album. It’s just funny that it took a teenage vampire film for me to write something so personal.
Now that you’ve made an album as ambitious as Sparks, do you feel as if you’ve reached some kind of point of no return with your songwriting? Could you ever go back to making a conventional album after this?
I don’t think it was really that unconventional, to tell the truth; I was still writing in a very similar way, sitting at the piano to come up with melodies and thinking about the lyrics as I was out walking. I do think that you can tell, too; I think that the songs on this album still work without any of the conceptual stuff attached to them. If you didn’t know that ‘Neglected Space’ was about a walled garden, or that ‘Xizi She Knows’ was about a place in China, or that ‘Me the Machine’ was written with the gloves, they still work as pieces of songwriting, and that’s the most important thing to me; the song has to be able to stand on its own two feet, without all the bells and whistles, and be just as powerful if you stripped everything else away and just played it on the piano.
The difference is just that I really, really like collaborating creatively now, and I’ve come to realise that the life of a song is often so much more than just the lyrics and the music; it’s the people involved with it, too. In the past, that was always a private thing, that just involved friends and family, but now - maybe it’s because I’m getting older - I want to feel more connected to things. It’s still important to me that the songs are personal expressions - I don’t want the lyrics to be totally abstract, or for the concept to get in the way - but working on these projects has really liberated me, and given me the confidence to do things I’ve always wanted to do. That’s the reason - and the only reason - that I’ve chosen to work this way.
Sparks is available now via Megaphonic Records.