Painting Her Songs In The Air, Imogen Heap Keeps Innovating

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Imogen Heap is set to release her fourth studio album, Sparks, on Aug. 19. (Courtesy of the artist)
Imogen Heap is set to release her fourth studio album, Sparks, on Aug. 19. (Courtesy of the artist)

You could say Imogen Heap has a Midas touch of sorts: Everything she touches turns to tech. She earned a Grammy in 2010 for Best Engineered Album in the Non-Classical category for her album Ellipse. Her hit "Hide and Seek," featured in the 2006 movie The Last Kiss, is a love ballad performed by Heap and a mini-choir of robot doubles, as affecting a song as has ever been created with a vocoder.

Heap continues to branch out, connecting with fans for online collaborations, documenting her creative process with video blogs and, on the new album Sparks, making music with a pair of high-tech musical gloves called Mi.Mu.

"I make music with computers, but I also make music with acoustic instruments. And with an acoustic instrument, you have the physicality of the real body of the instrument; you feel the resonance of that, and you have something to interact with and to play with," Heap says in an interview with NPR's Scott Simon.

"When it comes to all the beautiful, wonderful sounds that you can create inside the computer — all the synth sounds, all the drum sounds, or you may want to mold and shape the sound of your voice inside the computer and make it do all sorts of wonderful, weird things that physics can't do in the real world — this is what I wanted to get my hands on," she adds. "I didn't want to have to interact with this via a computer. That's what it's about: I wanted to get closer to the raw emotion and the flow of music."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Listen now to just a couple of notes from Imogen Heap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIDE AND SEEK")

IMOGEN HEAP: (Singing) Spin me around again, and rub my eyes.

SIMON: Her music has been described as synthpop, trip hop, dream pop and folktonica. Now, this song, "Hide and Seek," was one of her biggest hits. You may know it from the 2006 movie "The Last Kiss." She earned a Grammy in 2010 for best engineered album in the non-classical category for "Ellipse." You might say that Imogen Heap has a Midas Touch of sorts. Everything she touches turns to tech. And she continues to innovate, connecting with fans for online collaborations, documenting her creative process with video blogs and making live music with high-tech musical gloves. Iomgen Heap's new album is called "Sparks."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIDE AND SEEK")

HEAP: (Singing) And this all started with a song - started with a song. Let this be our last one - drop.

SIMON: Imogen Heap joins us now from our studios of the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

HEAP: Hello. Thank you for having me. It was a lovely introduction.

SIMON: I have read that your mother was an art therapist. You took classical piano lessons. How did you wind up so techie?

HEAP: Over the last four years, I've been extremely techie in developing a pair of gloves with an amazing team of scientists and engineers. I always felt there was a distance between me and the music when it's inside the computer. I wanted to get my hands on it.

SIMON: Well, let me draw you out a bit on those gloves. So for people who haven't seen them, you singing and, shall I say, conducting - I mean, you look a little bit like, you know, Marcel Marceau with these gloves. You'll sweep your hand and leave designs in the wake of your sweep as you accompany yourself.

HEAP: That's a beautiful way to describe it, yeah. Well, I make music with computers.

But I also make music with acoustic instruments. And with an acoustic instrument, you - the physicality of the real body of the instrument and you feel the resonance of that. And you have something to react with and to play with physical. When it comes to all the beautiful wonderful sounds that you can create inside the computer - all the synth sounds - all the drum sounds - you may want to mold and shape the sound of your voice inside the computer and make it do wonderful weird things that physics can't do in the real world. Then this is what I wanted to get my hands on because I didn't want to have to interact with this via a computer. And I think, over the years, that's what it's about. I wanted to get closer to the raw kind of emotion and the flow of music.

SIMON: Let's listen to a little bit of - it's a cut called "Me The Machine" - you and the - do I say that - muumuu gloves?

HEAP: Mi.mu - like me and music - mi.mu - mi.mu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME, THE MACHINE")

HEAP: (Singing) A blip in the algorithm - a break in the clouds. Soft circuits jumping - Soft circuits jumping. The pin code to happiness - access denied. I'm switching to manual - switching to manual. Oh, to share a scent of that sweet summer breeze - a love for a squeeze.

SIMON: So when you see this on video, there you are, acting a little bit like a New York City traffic cop - with - guiding things around with your hands.

HEAP: Yeah.

SIMON: What are we hearing in the music that is being produced by your hands?

HEAP: Actually, all of it. I'm building the drums by playing the air drums, and they're hitting samples inside the computer. I'm playing the baseline by kind of almost, like, slow basketball - kind of moving my - rolling my hand up and down in pitch, changing all kinds of different parameters inside the computer, whether it's filtering or volume or moving from left to right. I'm changing the fabric of the sound by how I move - how my hands are moving and shifting and how fast they're moving, as well. And it is like a dance. It's kind of like a choreographed dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME, THE MACHINE")

HEAP: (Singing) Oh, share a scent of that sweet summer breeze - a love for a squeeze. How can you teach me these things? Me, the machine - me, the machine can dream.

SIMON: Let me ask you about another song on the CD. I gather it's the first one you wrote for this album in 2011. It's a song called "Lifeline." Now, this is the song that begins the sound of somebody striking a match, yes?

HEAP: That's correct, yes. Yeah, I wanted to begin this record, not on my own insular - you know, just kind of sitting at the piano or sitting at the guitar - whatever, just going right. Well, how am I going to begin this album? What song should I write? What should I write about? I liked the idea of handing the baton for the first time over to the people who are going to end up completing the album in listening to it. So I asked me fans, would you like to send me in some sounds? I wasn't thinking musical sounds or, like, melodies or anything - actual, like, everyday sounds that you find in your everyday life - could be a squeaky dishwasher door, some teeth chattering, somebody scratching their knees - so many different sounds. And through all of these, I created this song called "Lifeline."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFELINE")

HEAP: You can hear the sound of the match, but then you also hear bicycle clicking. And that's the sound of the high hat. You hear the - and that's the sound of somebody's bicycle spokes. And then you hear that kind of whoosh sound like somebody - which is actually somebody opening their patio doors and closing them. And a (unintelligible) left to the right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFELINE")

HEAP: (Singing) Freeze-frame on me. Can you read it on my face?

There's all kinds of weird, wonderful sounds in there, and, actually, every time I do the washing up, I always think of this sound which is actually somebody's water in a pan when they are washing up. And it kind of goes - and I put it just before the chorus, and so when you hear the chorus - I always, when I'm washing up and I hear that sound - I always think "Lifeline" - the chorus coming after.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFELINE")

HEAP: (Singing) Lifeline before and after in an instance of great white gravity - gravity.

SIMON: How would you describe your relationship with your fans?

HEAP: I love my fans. I've got the best fans in the world. And what's actually really nice about being, you know, on Twitter and being in YouTube and sharing the creative process is - I don't, like, share much about my daily food intake or whatever people share on Twitter, but I do like to share the creative process because I like to demystify it a bit. And I just like to just, also, share it because it's fun to share. Yeah, I like the connection between me and the listener.

SIMON: Imogen Heap - her new CD is called "Spark." She joins us from the studios of the BBC in London. Thanks so much.

HEAP: Thank you. It's been a really enjoyable chat.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMOGEN HEAP SONG)

SIMON: "Sparks" comes out on Tuesday, but until then, you can stream the entire album for free - no catch - on our website at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.