Imogen Heap – An Innovative Force of Nature

6th April 20201

I’m glad I am late to the party regarding some musicians. It gives a better sense of perspective of the artist when you have a collection of work to draw from, and the amount of work that Imogen Heap has put out since she started writing songs as a 13-year-old is nothing short of phenomenal. Not only in the world of album releases, but in everything from theatre, film and TV compositions, music production and engineering, talks and lectures, and some groundbreaking inventions and innovations to boot.

The Remarkable Imogen Heap

I had heard the name Imogen Heap but never took any notice until I came across a TED Talks clip recently of her explaining and demonstrating her Mi-Mu gloves. Not only was I impressed by her invention that allowed her to ‘play’ her various electronic music with hand gestures and finger movements, but found her music completely mesmerising.

Sifting through the 40+ pages of research I managed to gather I soon realised that what I thought would be an Imogen Heap mini-feature would head toward ‘main article’ territory.

So, who is Imogen Heap? Before discussing Imogen the inventor I’m going to start with Imogen the musician. She is classically trained in piano, cello and clarinet and while at boarding school started writing songs while teaching herself the basics of music production on programs like Cubase and Reason. By fifteen, she was using reel-to-reel tape decks to record her music and program it using a home computer.

She attended The BRIT School of performing arts in Croydon (UK) where she was noticed by manager Micky Modern who introduced her to Nik Kershaw which led to her being signed to the Almo Sounds label. She worked with the experimental pop outfit Acacia where she met a future collaborator, Guy Sigworth. Her first major performance was as a part of the line-up for the 1996 Prince’s Trust in Hyde Park. Two years later saw the release of her alternative Rock debut album, I Megaphone in 1998 and her first commercial single ‘Getting Scared’ as the lead track.

Like many debut’s, the album was critically praised and a commercial failure. Almo did little in the way of promotion and the struggling label was acquired by Universal which saw Heap being dropped from their artist catalogue. I Megaphone had, however, been licensed to the Japanese Aozora Label who re-released the I Megaphone album with some additional tracks in 2002.

Imogen had kept in contact with Guy Sigsworth and they collaborated as the band Frou Frou, releasing the album Details under Island Records. They toured the album throughout 2003 but, despite mild success, Island didn’t extend their contract. Frou Frou saw a resurgence in popularity in 2004 when their cover of Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ was used in the Shrek 2 movie, and their song ‘Let’s Go’ was used in the soundtrack of the series ‘Garden State’, the soundtrack to which received a Grammy award.

Although the Frou Frou project was halted there was no hard feelings. Imogen regarded Frou Frou as a welcome holiday from her own work and she and Guy have worked on numerous projects since.

I think that this reimagining of a classic rock song is just brilliant.

Late 2003 saw the announcement that Imogen Heap would be writing and producing the next solo album herself and track the process on her website. She set herself a 12-month deadline. This involved re-mortgaging her flat to be able to rent space at Atomic Studios in London. She completed the project by the end of 2004. The album was named Speak for Yourself and the initial 10,000 physical copies pressed sold out within days, distributed through large and independent record stores and Heap’s own online shop.

The album was released on her Megaphonic Records Label, but she licensed Speak for Yourself to RCA Records for release in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. It debuted at number 144 in the Billboard Top 200 album chart, while closer to home where it entered the Top 10 charts immediately. When the track ‘Hide and Seek’ was used to score the second season of the Fox TV series ‘The O.C.’ it hit the Top 40 digital releases and eventual Gold certification. Her deal with SONY BMG’s White Rabbit division for international distribution saw the album reach an even wider audience.

She was heralded for promoting local talent when she held a competition on MySpace for local support acts at each venue on her subsequent tour. She then toured Canada and the US, her first to include a backing band. When she received two Grammy nominations (Best New Artist and Best Song Written for a Motion Picture), people started to take serious note of this obvious mega-talent.

This is my favourite track (to date) on the album, ‘Speeding Cars’.

In 2008 Imogen announced a new album in the works. Like her previous release, she used her website to keep fans updated via a series of Vlogs. The release was pushed back a couple of times as various engagements and appearances arose. The full album, Ellipse, was released for live streaming via her site. The album brought her two Grammy nominations, one for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for the song ‘Fire’, and the other for Best Engineered Non-Classic Album, which she won, making her the first woman to have done so.

If you have pigeon-holed Imogen Heap’s style into electro-pop, here’s a little curveball to give you an idea of the breadth of her talent; the beautiful instrumental ‘Fire’

Early in 2011 Imogen Heep announced that her next album would be released as singles in three-month stages. Between April 2011 and by August 2014 she released an impressive collection of singles which was given the album name, Sparks. Within the mix are collaborations with the hugely popular Indian duo Vishai-Shenker and top Canadian producer/songwriter Joel Zimmerman (aka DeadMau5). She announced that she would be taking a hiatus after the birth of her daughter and would not promote Sparks for at least a year.

Imogen Heap is an outspoken proponent of using Blockchain technology to stream music directly to her fans. This is in response to her objection to streaming services like Spotify and YouTube having so many middlemen taking a cut of the revenue generated by these huge names. She is not the only artist to have raised their voices against a system that only sees a small percentage being paid to artists. She created her own Blockchain streaming site, Mycella.

A brief overview of the musical rights payment system is that an artist might sign a deal with a record label, but in between them and the music fan, there is the following: Royalties to your label’s parent company, distributors of the music in various countries, Sync rights, mechanical royalties, performance royalties etc. Consumers and music services pay different amounts for streaming, downloads and physical sales, and different amounts again to songwriters via collecting societies and publishers. Different deals can be struck in different territories. Add to that a mild obsession with non-disclosure agreements and it can be close to impossible for musicians to work out what they are owed.

According to Heap, “more and more third parties jump on board to help the artists, or labels, navigate and collect feedback or money, but it just adds to the noise and confusion, further widening the gap between fan and artist and the journey of their music. I feel digitally torn apart; and in the data-driven era, the movement of music, money and feedback should be frictionless. A total rethink is in order”.

She admits that she’s not expecting Mycelia to transform the industry overnight. “Many artists have to try to build this place for themselves, together with coders and developers, and one key challenge is to keep it in the hands of the artists and music lovers and not one company. The blockchain is not magic, and what matters most is whether consumers use it, and how existing companies with their legacy contracts and market power react if they do”.

In October 2015 she released the single ‘Tiny Human’ using Mycella. Within two years the song has generated in excess of £30,000 in direct income paid in Etherium, the second-largest cryptocurrency on the market. She would never have achieved this through the normal platforms.

Here’s ‘Tiny Human’

I could fill pages with the various collaborations Imogen Heap has been involved with over the years, but one that stands out is when she was asked to rework music from her catalogue as the soundtrack to the eighth Harry Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, performed on the West End in 2016. Another mention that must be made is her contributions to Taylor Swift’s Grammy Award-winning album 1989, to which she not only wrote material but was also a part of the production team.

The announced in November 2017 that she would be reuniting Frou Frou with Guy Sigsworth and would be embarking on the Mycelia World Tour with him to promote the release of Mycelia’s Creative Passport program for unsigned artists, The tour started in Europe before heading for the States for her first live tour of the US in nine years and Frou Frou’s first time together in fifteen.

2018 was a busy year. She released a condensed soundtrack album of the play The Music of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in Four Contemporary Suites. She also featured in the documentary The Story of Blockchain. The announcement of a planned 2020 album featuring numerous collaborations was announced in 2019 and, although a bit delayed, and judging by the odd single release, looks like it is still on track.

Before I cover this clever lady’s most remarkable invention, the Mi-Mu gloves, I have chosen a clip of Imogen performing three tracks at an NPR Tiny Desk recording. Here you can see what an accomplished performer she is no matter the venue. It also gives a bit of insight into the Mi-Mu gloves.

The Mi-Mu gloves were in development for some years before the final product and its supporting software were released for sale to the public. For those who didn’t watch the previous clip, the gloves incorporate circuit boards and sensors that allow the wearer to control various aspects of their electronic setup. She unveiled a prototype at a TEDGlobal conference in 2011. They had spent two and a half years in development and had been inspired by a set of musical gloves designed by Ely Jessop at MIT.

She said in an interview, “The gloves help me embody those sounds which are hidden inside the computer, for me to physicalize them and bring them out so that I can play them and the audience members will understand what I am doing—rather than fiddling around on a keyboard and mouse which is not very clear—I could just be doing my emails.”

For the geeks among you, the gloves are constructed of a material called Yulex, a bio-rubber developed for medical uses, and consist of a hardware board at the wrist with an inertial measurement unit used to determine the speed and orientation of the hands, flex sensors over the knuckles, a haptic motor, a removable battery, open palms, and LED lights in between the thumb and forefinger which indicate whether or not the user is recording. Data is sent via the gloves in real-time to a computer, which can perform a number of different actions, including adjusting volume, recording loops, and filtering sound. The gloves come with a custom software system called Glover that can be integrated with certain music production apps. Geek-Fest over!

Heap managed to put her idea into fruition thanks to crowdfunding on Kickstarter in 2014. Although it failed to meet the target of £200,000, she found investors including (now) global superstar, Ariana Grande, who used the gloves in her Honeymoon Tour, Popular Science magazine included the Mi.Mu gloves on their list of the 100 greatest innovations of 2019.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she launched a self-titled app for fans to view unreleased material and demos and participate in listening parties with her through Discord and began work on a project called “Augmented Imogen”, an AI version of herself (which sounds creepy, but fun).

Time for a musical break, and a remarkable song from the Sparks album, ‘The Listening Chair’. The theme of the song is far too complex to explain in detail here, but you need to understand what you are looking at, so I urge you to read the notes under the YouTube clip.

There are numerous videos of both her performances and TEDtalks presentations available for those whose interests are piqued. The more I follow the Imogen Heap trail, the more impressed I am by a woman who has gone beyond the bounds of releasing award-winning albums and extended her numerous talents to areas of innovation both technical, and beneficial to the lives of her fellow musicians by breaking the stronghold of the major streaming services,

She is known for her charity work and has written and donated numerous songs for various organisations and causes. It is well known in the music industry that she can be called on to devote time, talent or clout to various events. It is no wonder that she has had numerous awards and accolades heaped upon her.

So, how do we sum up Imogen Heap? I like journalist Matt Moen’s description when he called her “the Nikola Tesla of pop music” in that “[her] influence in the field of pop has largely gone unappreciated in her own time”

I was planning on closing this article with the single ‘Last Night of the Empire’ released in December 2020, but to my delight, found a clip of her latest single release, ‘Lifeline’ that was released late last month. The song and video were all put together in 14 days.

I don’t know how I missed out on a musician who has quietly built her influence within the top echelons of modern music over the last two decades. I’m glad I have rectified that now, and if any of you are on your first Imogen Heap adventure, I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey.

The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that does more than just share a song.

The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.

Words © Andrew Knapp 2021

Published by Loving the Music

I am a music-lover who has been fortunate enough to live through six-decades of ever-changing musical styles and genres. Loving the Music is my eclectic collection of regular music-related mini-features and whatever else tickles my musical fancy. You can also find me on the Loving the Music Facebook group and page. Happy listening - Andrew Knapp

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