Imogen Heap has no excuse for being self-deprecating. After all, this British import started improvising classical airs at an age when most of us were still figuring out how to tie shoes, and today, on the cusp of her 29th birthday, she's a gifted singer-songwriter who's as comfortable making music on computers as she is playing the slew of traditional instruments she's mastered over the years. Yet when she's addressing her accomplishments, her instinct is to shrink them down until they fit within the normal range or make them seem comically nerdy, as she does with her memories of performing in a student orchestra at age twelve.
"I wanted to learn as much as possible," Heap recalls, "so I learned cello, I learned clarinet, and I tried to learn trumpet, because I fancied a trumpeter. But he didn't fancy me, and the trumpet didn't fancy me, either. The good thing about the cello is you instantly look fantastic, even if you can't really play. But if you're trying to blow into a trumpet, it's just not the same."
In the end, Heap concedes, "the trumpet defeated me" -- but this loss was clearly an exception. On Speak for Yourself, her latest CD, she's credited with writing, producing "and everything in between," and that's no exaggeration. The disc includes contributions by a small handful of sidemen, including guitarist Jeff Beck, who riffs on "Goodnight and Go," and Arve Henriksen, who tootles that damn trumpet on a couple of tracks. But Heap is responsible for every other sound on the notably lush, ornate and ambitious disc, not to mention the imagistic lyrics that her cult of fans pore over as if they were previously undiscovered Shakespearean sonnets. Moreover, Heap designed the artwork and packaging for the set and issued it on Megaphonic, a firm she created and oversees.
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The results were so impressive that two of the planet's largest record companies, RCA and Sony, licensed the album for distribution in the U.S. and Europe, respectively. Not that executives there can tell her what to do. "Nobody has a say about the music," she points out. "Actually, the contract says they're not really allowed in the studio."
Such willfulness has been part of Heap's character for as long as she can remember. "I didn't really choose to listen to any music, because I just wanted to play music," she says of her girlhood in Essex, England. "I didn't want to go out and play in the garden. I didn't want to go horse riding. I didn't want to hang out in the street or the local town. I just wanted to play the piano, and I didn't want anyone to bug me." However, she had no interest in simply reproducing other people's work: "I'd need to practice Bach or Beethoven or whatever, and I hated to do that. So what I learned to do was start off a piece, like a Bach prelude, and then start to play in the style of Bach, so my parents thought I was still practicing.
"I assumed I was doing it really, really well and that I actually sounded like Bach, even though I probably sounded rubbish," she goes on. "But the thing about it was, my family just let me do whatever I wanted to do as far as music goes. Like at one point, I got a double tape-deck machine and started recording a piano line, and then I'd sing something over that, and then I'd do some really terrible beatbox over the top of that to try and get some rhythm, and by the end of it, I'd have this really hissy tape. So for Christmas one year, they got me a keyboard so I could put down beats and really record."
How old was she when this happened? "Oh, very young," she says. "Probably six or seven."
Within a few years, Heap had graduated to penning holiday carols for her school's choir "and doing some really awful conducting for my poor peers. I was about ten and playing the piano and wearing tailcoats and thinking I was a real composer, and I enjoyed that very much, bossing my friends around." But after enrolling at Croynden's BRIT Performing Arts & Technology School, she gradually pushed her classical ambitions into the background to focus on poppier stuff with a synthetic edge. Mickey Modern, who managed Nik Kershaw during his '80s heyday, heard Heap delivering this more accessible material at a talent showcase and promptly added her to his roster; she was seventeen. A deal with the Almo Sound imprint followed, as did the opportunity to perform at the 1996 Prince's Trust Concert in Hyde Park, where she shared the stage with the Who and Eric Clapton.
Despite this prime gig, Heap didn't immediately rocket to stardom. Instead, her career bumped along, never quite reaching the heights her abilities seemed to dictate. Her 1998 solo debut, i Megaphone (the title is an anagram of "Imogen Heap"), earned kind notices but didn't shift many units, and before she could put out a followup, Almo Sound was shut down after being acquired by Universal. She filled the next several years making guest appearances on recordings by other performers, including Beck and Kershaw, before joining with producer Guy Sigsworth, who'd worked with her on Megaphone, to form a duo dubbed Frou Frou. Unfortunately, Details, the tandem's 2002 debut for Island Records, generated the same mix of positive notices and underwhelming sales as Heap's first disc, prompting Island to drop the group prior to its biggest scores: Frou Frou numbers landed on the soundtracks of 2003's Shrek 2 and the 2004 Zach Braff flick Garden State.
By then, Heap was thoroughly fed up with major labels and decided to go it alone -- a move to which Speak's title alludes. "I just wanted to know what I could do -- the maximum amount I could do," she explains. "And recording, writing, arranging and producing sounds like a lot, but it's actually pretty much the same thing. When you're writing a song, you're constantly producing it, constantly arranging it, constantly adding in sounds that fit the other sounds you've done, and you're mixing it as you're going along. It's not as daunting as it seems, because it doesn't feel like I'm doing seven roles. It just feels like I'm starting something and then finishing it."
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Upon completing songs such as "Hide and Seek," an atmospheric, Vocoder-laced ditty that's been featured prominently on The O.C. , Heap devoted herself to the business of marketing them. She admits that coordinating the distribution deals wasn't much fun ("Yeah, that got on my nerves"), but she enjoyed most other aspects of the process. "I liked getting the team together at my record company," she maintains, "and the artwork was very important to me." Among other things, she insisted on a four-fold Digipak in the U.K., "and I figured out that it's not really that much money to do it. Now they can't go, 'It's too expensive,' because I can say, 'No, I know how much that costs, because I did it.'"
In the end, Heap's one-woman-band approach wound up saving money, which helps explain why she's become such a favorite of movie and TV studios. Her songs have turned up in theatrical offerings such as Just Like Heaven and The Chronicles of Narnia, and she's currently at work creating her first complete soundtrack for an ambitious documentary about flamingos. The tale will be told almost entirely through visuals and music, and while she'll be singing on assorted tracks, her voice will be used as one instrument among many. "There aren't going to be any lyrics, which is great for me," she says, "because I find lyrics to be a pain in the ass."
And then she laughs self-deprecatingly, despite having no good reason to do so.