Whole Heap

Music, technology, family life and business were pulling in different directions for Imogen Heap until a milestone brought them back into line

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It’s Imogen Heap’s 40th birthday and 200 friends, family, musicians and industry types have descended on her childhood home in Essex to celebrate. She bought the property from her father and, after recording her last two records there – 2009’s Ellipse and 2014’s Sparks – turned it into a residential recording studio while she stays in her Hackney town house. The party, in 2017, is an opportunity to show the studio off, as well as the many other projects the musician has been working on.

“I felt like all of my worlds were coming together for the first time,” she reflects almost two years later. “I always felt like my daughter’s world is over there, over here is my music making, over there is my love life, over there is my business thing, and over here is some tech thing that I’m trying out. They were always wrestling each other so I was determined to try and make them come together as one unit so that I can be more than just a sum of those parts.”

Her gloves are marketed as the world’s most advanced wearable musical instrument

Finding the harmony in a dichotomy is at the heart of what Heap does. It’s evident in the circular Regency house that’s decked out with the latest technology, in her music – a collision of classical instruments and naked, ethereal vocals with synth-heavy high-tech gadgetry – and in her appearance. With a shock of grey through her otherwise dark, long hair, the electro enchantress stands six feet tall with the elegance of a classical pianist and the eccentricity of a mad scientist.

“I came to music through loving the piano but really I just wanted to make music, whether that was with a weird bit of cardboard with strings across it to make an interesting sound, or making a drum kit out of pots and pans and recording it on cassette tape before playing my cello over it. I was just trying to make a cacophony.”

But Heap’s musical calling came in the form of a 16-bit MIDI beat, in a boarding school cupboard where she sought refuge from bullies.

“In this cupboard was an Atari computer with some music software on it,” she says. “It was probably one of the only schools in the country that had that. That combination of being bullied and not wanting to spend time with people and there being this computer – I just felt amazed at what I could do, the stuff I could get out of my head.

“With every good bit of technology there’s no friction. It empowers you to be more human.”

There’s no better demonstration of that than her Mi.Mu gloves, which she also exhibited as part of her 40th birthday celebrations. Like most electronic musicians Heap used to lug what she called a “box of tricks” around with her but she wanted a means of simply recording with her hands. She set about creating it and the result is now being marketed as the world’s most advanced wearable musical instrument, available for £2,500 a pop.

“The gloves humanise the technology. You don’t even notice them. I do one finger point and I have a reverb – it’s seamless, I don’t even think about it. Or if I want to catch my voice it’s just like grabbing the air with a fist – I release it by opening my hand and it’s made a loop.

“I’m completely reliant on them as my go-to expressive performance tool. I could use a laptop and a keyboard but it would be extremely annoying now that I’ve got this flexibility.”

Heap’s passion for making tech work for musicians isn’t just limited to performance. Between cake and champagne at her birthday party, she hosted a mini-conference to present her Creative Passport idea. Using blockchain technology it aims to connect the dots of the music industry and empower musicians to take control of their identity by putting everything about themselves as a music maker in one digital place. She believes it will help musicians get paid more efficiently.

“The music industry hasn’t been the brightest it needed to be. It hasn’t had the foresight,” she says. “I’ve realised, having been on a few boards in the industry now, that these massive companies with so many people working in them can’t move quickly. Musicians can do because we are light on our feet, we do what we want, we can make decisions quickly and we can go for it. This Creative Passport is laying the foundations for us to be able to do that instead of feeling bitter about it all.”

Certainly, it’s exasperation, not bitterness, that Heap expresses when she reveals she hasn’t seen any payment for the album release of The Music of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which she composed for the stage show.

“I still haven’t signed the deal – even though it’s been out for a whole year. I haven’t signed the contracts and I haven’t received a penny. It’s not the production’s fault. It’s just the reality of the crazy music industry. It’s really insane how many records do get released without artists having signed contracts. It’s a mess.”

Creating a different kind of mess at her birthday party, however, was Scout, the singer’s daughter, who was catered for with workshops and kids activities – something Heap has had to factor in since her surprise arrival in 2014.

“I didn’t realise that was happening. I was meant to be heading off on the Sparks album tour and then I had to cancel everything. It’s a real shock to my system not being able to have the flexibility that I’ve been used to my whole life.”

But now Scout’s at an age that allows Heap more freedom – not from her, she clarifies, but “a freedom of the mind”.

“We can discuss things, we share interests. We come at them from completely different angles but I don’t feel like I’m caged into this mummy brain anymore, and we can teach each other things.”

“I don’t want to be a tech entrepreneur. I’m a musician frustrated with things.”

The main event of the party was, of course, a musical performance in the barn, which her daughter loved. It was good practice for taking her on tour. Family in tow, Heap’s just returned from nine dates across North America with long-time collaborator Guy Sigsworth. A composer, producer and songwriter, Sigsworth, from Ilkley, has worked with everyone from Björk to Madonna, via Alison Moyet. He and Heap released an album together, Dreams, under the moniker Frou Frou in 2002. Their song Let Go competes only with 2009 solo tune Hide and Seek as the singer’s best-known. Both tracks were propelled into the consciousness of the noughties youth through spots on soundtracks – the former in Zach Braff’s directing and writing debut Garden State (2002), and the latter in teen angst drama The OC.

“Touring with Guy came about really because I had this much bigger idea. I always have these grand plans and end up doing about 5 per cent of it,” says Heap, explaining her plan for weeklong tech and music festivals in each of the cities she visited.

“My team were like: ‘Imogen, come on, we have so little time to put this together.’ So instead we just lassoed ourselves to existing conferences and Guy and I just decided to do one big extravagant show where we play Frou Frou songs, my songs and his own songs.”

The tour continues from Sunday, with four UK dates including Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall on 12 November, but this week Heap and Sigsworth are enjoying some unexpected downtime. The second leg of their European tour was set to begin in Berlin on 2 November but they cancelled due to the uncertainty of travelling to the EU for work the day after the Brexit deadline, now of course postponed.

“I was really fighting the idea of cancelling for a long time and then the closer I got I was feeling less and less certain. If it was even just two weeks after it might have been OK but I just thought it was safer not to disappoint fans further and cancel on the day when people couldn’t get money back on flights.”

A month after Heap announced the decision the government released guidelines for touring artists in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which outlined additional complications with documents, travel and the transport and sale of goods in EU countries. The music industry responded by saying touring would become unviable for the majority of artists. Heap had seen it coming.

“If you’re an enormously famous band or artist and you have tonnes of people working for you you’ll probably be OK but when you’re working at the kind of level we’re working at, where we’re not making any money anyway, to be honest, it would have just taken us even more into the red. It just hurts us more because we don’t have the infrastructure.”

But Heap adds that it’s her “own fault” the tour isn’t generating any money. “I’ve chosen to do this tour in this way. I could just go and do a piano show and make tonnes of money but that’s not what I want to do. I want to show everybody what I’ve developed over these nine years – with the gloves, with all our bells and whistles – and do a really big full concert, because Guy and I have never had the chance to play with a band before. It was always just us two with our geeky little boxes of stuff.”

Though passionate about her projects, Heap says she’s diversified out of necessity. “I don’t want to be a tech entrepreneur. I’m a musician frustrated with things to the point where I’ve said, right, I’m going to change that by developing the things I need.”

She also produces, audio engineers and composes – currently working on a commission for IBM using found sounds from within a quantum computer at the company’s research facility in New York.

“The truth is every musician on the planet diversifies. If you don’t and the touring or the album recording breaks down for whatever reason you’re really stuffed.”

So adept is she at doing so that she says she’s now in the “incredibly fortunate” position of being able to treat music as a hobby. With Scout in school, her IBM commission being wrapped up and the day-to-day running of her tech enterprises being managed by others, she wants to get back to it.

“I want to really get into the habit of music making again but I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet. I want to know what it feels like to take myself away from the screen, to not think about it in terms of screens and blocks and waves.

“I’ve done that since I was 12 so I think it’s time, 30 years on, to actually explore other mediums. It’s not just going to be, oh, there’s somebody playing a mandolin. It’ll be… something else.”

If her 40th birthday party demonstrated anything though, it’s that Heap won’t need to compartmentalise herself to be able to do that. That day, she reflects, was a highlight of her career as well as
a personal milestone.

“It felt like the whole me, all covered, and I knew it was possible. Although,” she confesses, “I haven’t managed to do it quite as well since.”

The influencer’s influence

When Imogen Heap speaks to Big Issue North she admits she’s a bit worse for wear. “I went out last night which I never, ever, ever do and my daughter woke me up really early.”

So where does she go to let her hair down?

“I actually went to see Arianna Grande. I had a little dance in the pit. She has so many massive hits I was like, oh, I know this one, I know this one, I know this one.”

Grande was an early adopter of the Mi.Mu gloves, using them in performances as early as 2015, and raving about them to her 166 million Instagram followers – “Thanks, Immi”. But Heap says their relationship goes deeper.

“She’s also done covers of my stuff and she’s always just been nice about me on Twitter. She’s just very sweet, and kind and nice, and she’s sent Scout a lot of presents over the years so I thought I must go and say hello.”

Grande isn’t the only young megastar to take inspiration from her. In 2012 Taylor Swift told Time magazine that the British musician would be her “dream collaboration”. Her manager approached Swift and two years later the US star managed to carve out half a day to visit Heap’s Essex studio house.

Heap was only just available herself – the day before she’d been in Iceland with her boyfriend, filmmaker Michael Lebor.

But it was a week of magical unions and lucky timing. Nine months later the song Clean and baby Scout were both let loose on the world.

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